When I was nine, one of my duties along with my brother and sister on our small farm involved picking up the dung from our three horses.
We shuffled around the fields, shovelling dung into a wheelbarrow. We wheeled each full barrow load to the centre of one field, dumping it in a pile that just grew larger and larger.
During the winter my hands were often so frozen rigid inside my gloves that I couldn’t grip the shovel.
“Why can’t I be in my warm home reading my comics and building with my Lego?” I thought, while kicking loose some frozen horse dung.
One sunny but cold morning my brother, sister and I had the idea of burrowing into the mountain of dung and straw to make a den inside.
We built the lair as miners dig into a mountain. We first dug an entrance and then a small corridor, reinforcing it with a wooden frame to prevent collapsing. We then created a central cavity large enough for the three of us. We kicked out the dung and straw we didn’t need, like a fox digging its den. We reinforced the cavity with more wooden beams and lined the sides with black bin bags. It was a solid structure and surprisingly didn’t smell too bad inside.
It was a cosy space where we played games and read our comics. And when we wanted to hide from our friends, they’d never think to look for us inside a muck heap.
With each barrow load, our den got taller and wider.
Eventually, the mountain of dung and straw rose to over three metres high.
“We’re going to need to burn it now,” my mum said.
“No, no, no, please no. It’ll destroy our den!” we protested.
“But we can cook some potatoes in it while it burns,” she said, trying to ease our pain at losing our precious den.
“Ah, that’s gross,” is all I said.
“Is it any more disgusting than climbing inside a mountain of manure to read and play cards?” she replied.
She drenched the central cavity with some lawnmower fuel and threw a burning rag into the space. After an initial whoosh of flames, smoke slowly rose on the outside of the heap, slowly weaving its way around and through the straw and horse dung. We watched as the heap collapsed into our den.
“Ok, it’s time to cook the potatoes,” mum said.
Reluctantly, we wrapped several potatoes in foil and placed them deep inside the smouldering remains of our den, sticking a twig in the side so we could find them later.
Every hour, we returned to the burning muck heap to see if the potatoes were ready. Finally, after four hours, they were soft and smelling delicious. That evening, we tucked into our muck heap-baked potatoes, having already forgotten about the hideaway we’d built and lost.
My mother often told me that nothing is permanent, not people, not things, and certainly not secret dens made from horse muck. And although nothing lasts forever, the sadness when things change in ways we don’t like is usually temporary.
Mum also knew how to cushion the blow of change. Cooking the potatoes as we watched our den burn was a great way to distract us and help us move on. We also learned that I could bake a potato without a kitchen oven.
I believe mum’s wisdom prepared me for dealing with the death of our farm animals and pets, and ultimately, my dad’s death when I was 14 years old.
**We weren’t that crazy to build a den in a muck heap. Dung is an environmentally sustainable construction material that’s cheaper than concrete and has been used to build houses worldwide for thousands of years. Dung also repels mosquitos, makes a stable foundation against natural disasters, acts as a thermal insulator, and is a natural disinfectant.