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Mucking: A Love Story

“Because of the plentitude and regularity of muck in my life, when the alarm rings, I know where I need to be every single morning, and I experience what is most important to me every single day.”

Photo by Mary Ann Johnstone.

By Mary Ann Johnstone 

The fog slowly rolled in from the shore, sifted through the trees, and spiraled down onto our pasture in great, white, pinwheels. Sophie ambled by. Her small, quiet hooves stirring up little puffs of dust. The cool breeze carried the fog and earth and scattered it into misty rays of sunlight falling all around us.

If I weren’t mucking, I would have missed it all.

I love mucking, and so does my husband, and everyone else we’ve talked into this lowly task. After a morning with a rake and bucket, the skeptics turn into converts. It’s so satisfying, this easy chore. So uncomplicated. Fresh air. Cleaning up. The herd wandering in and out to say hello. It’s meditation at its very best.

Today I was feeling deeply grateful because I had so much muck to muck. This meant the horses were healthy and eating well. My fillies are young and losing their baby teeth, so they’ve been a tad bit fussy lately. And we have an older horse at the barn too, so we’re always counting her little piles in the morning, relieved when there are at least three.

This particular morning I was also feeling very grateful for all the effort it took for the muck to become muck.

Grateful to the farmers who had the patience and fortitude to plant seeds. And to their families who supported this long and hard labor. To the sun, wind and rain that helped the seeds miraculously grow into tall nutritious orchard grass. Grateful to the folks who harvested, baled and transported the hay 300 miles south to our feed store. Thankful to the strong and cheerful delivery men who stack those 30 bales in my barn each month. Grateful to my partner who, after work each evening, loads the hay in the cart for me, carefully dividing and bagging up portions for the young and old horses and our two goats.

And today, as I raked up one of Sophie’s manure piles and let it drop into my blue muck bucket, I was so grateful for all the vibrant life this grass has given to my beautiful young horses. Their long manes, shiny coats, bright eyes, and strong hooves. Their amazing bodies, absorbing all the nutrients they need from the grass and leaving the rest for me to pick up. If any link in this precious chain were to break, these horses (and I) would not thrive as we are.

Because of the plentitude and regularity of muck in my life, when the alarm rings, I know where I need to be every single morning, and I experience what is most important to me every single day. Mucking calms my rattled nerves and makes me human again in this crazy world. And walking and scooping and lifting in the fresh air keeps me healthier too.

In the winter, when darkness comes early, we slip on our headlamps and work under the stars. We’ve witnessed many shooting stars just by being lucky enough to be there with our rakes and buckets.

Recently, when we lost a beloved family member to Alzheimer’s disease, my friend, who was helping us care for her in her last days, showed up at the barn.

She just showed up.

It had been an excruciating month, and we were all exhausted and so utterly sad. And still, there was mucking to be done.

That morning, I heard the gate open and saw my dear friend walk in. She didn’t ask me anything. She just looked around for a rake and a bucket. She just showed up to help a friend. She just figured out what needed to be done.

After a month of mornings of her showing up to help without being asked, we recalled a Zen koan about enlightenment. “What’s to be done before enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water, After enlightenment? Chop wood, carry water.” Or in our case, big heaping buckets of muck.

We often say to others going through a tough time, “Let me know if I can help.” But the truth is, when we’re grieving, we are just too tired and too sad to know how to respond to this.

I learned so much from my friend, who just showed up and didn’t ask me anything. She was love in action. This generous and straightforward act in those unbearably sad days brought me to my knees. She never stuck around long enough to be thanked; it wasn’t her way. She did what was needed and swiftly went back through the gate.

Her showing up this way was a gift I will always remember. Some would call it mucking. I would call it love.

Mary Ann Johnstone is a Grammy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, writer, Master Coach and Master Mucker. Mary Ann recently wanted a quarter horse again, so she drove to Montana and somehow ended up with three, plus two goats. Most of her time is happily spent at the barn with her husband, Eric, feeding, cleaning and playing with their animals. She has been published in Elephant Journal and Huffington Post.

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