My recent move from Northern England to the Silver Coast of Portugal has been a radical change on so many levels. Not only am I coming to grips with a different climate and culture and immersed in learning a very challenging new language, I have embraced a completely different lifestyle.
For the first time ever, I can keep my beloved Welsh mare and matriarch, Ms. Boo, at home, along with her companion, the dashing Zinco, a very handsome but sometimes aloof Lusitano gelding. My pet name for him is Mr. Darcy.
I could have taken the easy route and put Boo on a livery yard that did all the care for me, but I wanted to give Boo a lifestyle with daily year round turn out in a big field and none of my local livery yards offered this, though I talked to some very kind and helpful people at these establishments. It’s just a different approach to horse care in Portugal, which prioritizes stabling horses and using their energy for training exercises and riding.
My life now literally revolves around horse care and feeding. As soon as it’s daylight, I’m out bringing them their morning feed before I even have my human breakfast or coffee. I bring them their evening feed some time before sunset. So my writing, intensive Portuguese classes, or whatever else I’m doing is necessarily book-ended by horse care. My “productivity” can suffer as a result. If you have animals or children or other care-taking duties, the care-taking always has to come first. My change in lifestyle prompted me to question precisely why our culture privileges such a narrow view of productivity in terms of working for and selling ourselves to the corporate world rather than caring for the land and beings all around us.
I addition, I poo-pick the field twice daily, a very time-consuming task. I was in a bit of a quandary whether all this meticulous poo-picking was actually necessary. Many UK-based sites insists it is an obligatory part of horse welfare to control both flies and the spreading of parasites. However, my Portuguese farmer neighbor and my farrier both hinted that I could just leave the stuff on the ground and it might actually be better for the soil if I did.
I actually don’t mind poo-picking. It’s good exercise and very meditative, especially in early morning when the sun is rising above the mist and the dew is sparkling on each blade of grass. The other morning I saw a magnificent full moon setting majestically over the Atlantic Ocean on the far Western horizon. It’s so serene and peaceful, just listening to the birds and the horses munching their hay. I feel like I’m entering a slower, more authentic world where time is measured not by smart phones bleeping at you but by the deep cycles of nature, the sun and the moon, and the distant chiming of village church bells.
I think if certain world leaders got up early to poo pick, they would spend far less time spreading verbal horse sh*t on Twitter.
In many ways this feels like a homecoming, a return to my roots. On both sides of my family, my grandparents were farmers and many of my first cousins and their children are still farmers. Although I’m not an actual farmer, keeping horses at home has made me an accidental small holder.
Alas, the consequence of my poo-picking habit is an ever-growing mountain of a muck heap. What to do with all this manure is a perplexing problem if you don’t have a manure spreader and other fields to spread it on. I offered it to the farmer next door, only to receive a lecture on his view that chicken poo, sheep poo, goat poo, and cow poo are all superior to horse manure! A hierarchy of poo! (It was this gentleman who hinted that I was better off just leaving the stuff where the horses dumped it.)
Nonetheless I have a most imposing muck heap that will only get bigger unless some action is taken. I posted that I had free horse manure to collect on some local gardening sites. So far two people have taken me up on it. Both people took as much manure as they could possibly squeeze into their cars–it hardly made a dent on my manure pile! But from them I learned some valuable tips on composting and have been inspired to dig out the mature stuff at the bottom of the pile to put on my roses and hydrangeas. Hint: if you ever have insomnia, spending a day carting wheelbarrows full of horse manure all around your garden will insure you sleep like a rock.
It’s something sad if horse manure is just viewed as an unwanted waste product instead of being recognized as part of the deep ecology of animal-keeping and gardening. Manure is compost in the making.
In the meantime, my “manure friends” who have collected the stuff for their gardens have gifted me with organic produce and homemade fig jam. I still have a lot to learn but this new life is teaching me so much. Living in harmony with nature isn’t just posting pictures of pretty flowers on Instagram. It’s getting actual dirt under your fingernails.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her acclaimed novel Illuminations, drawn from the dramatic life of Hildegard von Bingen, is published by Mariner. Her new novel Revelations, about the globe-trotting mystic and rabble-rouser, Margery Kempe, will be published in April 2021. Visit her website.