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October 24, 2012

Pack Creek Ranch, San Juan County, Utah
The last week of October in 2012.

Note: What follows may be disgusting to some city people.
But I’m writing from the Wild West, and this is what we see and do and talk about out here, with comfort.
I would say that Parental Guidance is Advised, but kids won’t have any trouble with the essay – just some parents.
So be advised . . .

MEADOW MUFFINS

There is cow manure on my front porch.
To be more specific, it’s a coal bucket full of cow patties.
Cow shit . . . or meadow muffins . . . as you may prefer.
Collected outside my house this afternoon.

When I arrived home from a trip to Salt Lake, my driveway had a neat polka-dot string of cow chips across it, as if the road could be torn in half along that line. Tear here . . .
To be accurate, these were calf chips – the size of coffee cup saucers.
Left behind by the yearling offspring of mama cows, whose mature deposits are more the size of hubcaps.

Where did they come from?
Why did I collect them?
And what will I do with them?
Read on.

Every spring a local rancher drives his cattle from winter quarters in the Moab Valley, up through the Pack Creek Valley, to summer pasture on public land high in the La Sal Mountains.
In late fall, he drives the herd back down.
This has been going on as long as there have been ranchers and cows in this region – and it’s still a common event in this part of the Wild West.

Pack Creek Ranch is a section of private land in the middle of public land.
People from places like Chicago and New York and Seattle have built homes here – ranchettes – which are spread across the landscape.
Their property lies across the route of the cattle drive.

So. The migratory cattle must be herded around Pack Creek Ranch.
But sometimes . . . when a fence is down or when a gate is left open or when the rancher is feeling like pissing off the city dudes . . . the cattle drift through the ranch – across the yards and gardens and patios of the homeowners – mooing and grazing and distributing meadow muffins.

When that happens we have a combination rodeo, circus, and street carnival all rolled up into one.
Bawling cows, calves, bulls - cowboys on horseback – wild chases through the underbrush and across lawns - the San Juan County Sheriff - irate residents – passing deer hunters - ATV riders - and camera-toting tourists.
You can imagine . . .

I actually look forward to these events, and would be one to open a gate or two just to see the entertainment.
But I was away in Salt Lake this time and missed the show.
All that was left behind were the stories of the participants.
And the cow pies.
Which are considered unsightly, dirty, and disgusting by many residents.
One lady thinks the cowboys ought to obey city dog-poop rules and follow the cows around with plastic bags and pick up their meadow muffins.

On the other hand . . .
If one looks at cow pies with an open mind . . .

Having grown up in cattle country, cow pies provoke nostalgia in me.

Once I was the winner in a county fair cow pie bingo contest.
If you’ve never played, I’ll explain.
A fenced field is marked off in 100 numbered squares.
Tickets are sold – one for each square.
A cow is led into the field – to wander and eat grass.
When the cow lays down a pie in a square, a winner is declared.

It’s a somewhat slow sport – lots of waiting and watching.
People shout, “Shit, you sorry piece of meat.” and “Now! Now! Now!” and “Come On Baby!” as the cow crosses their square.
If a cow is unable or unwilling to perform its obligation in an hour’s time, she is led away, and another cow is brought.
It’s a fund-raising event – cheap western family fun for charity.
It’s also called Cow-A-Bunga Bingo and Bessie Bingo.
It’s just a little bit more rustic than a church pot-luck auction.

(Don’t believe me? Go to the web – punch up “cow pie bingo” . . . there are rules and photographs – and dozens of videos on YouTube.)

Once I took second place in a cow chip throwing contest.
This is like a Frisbee game using large, dry cow pies – the hub-cap size.
A rancher’s wife beat me by ten feet.
Last I heard the world record was over 183 feet.

(Don’t believe me? Go to the web – “cow chip throwing” - for rules and pictures, and, as always, lots of YouTube videos.)

In every difficult situation, opportunities exist.
I think the Pack Creek community is missing an opportunity – and some fun.
And next year . . . when the cows come drifting through . . .
Cow Pie Bingo!
And Cow Chip Throwing.
And Cute Cowboy Kissing – that’s a western sport, too.
Yes!

As with much of this life, much depends on what you are used to and how objectively you look at what’s around you.
Cow manure is simply the undigested residue of processed plant material.
A useful biomass – especially in Third World countries – in villages in India and Africa, for example.
When dried it makes an excellent fuel for heating and cooking.
Perfect, too, for firing pottery.
Applied in a wet slurry to walls it’s a good thermal insulator when it dries.
Mixed with clay and spread on a floor, it polishes to a hard sheen.

Properly composted and contained, it produces sufficient methane gas to provide a house with electricity and heat.
And, of course, when spread back on the land, cow manure is one of the best and cheapest fertilizers available – a source of nitrogen.
Even city people buy it to fertilize flowers and gardens and lawns.
Dried and bagged, cow shit can be accommodated without repulsion.
Just as cellophane-wrapped steaks in a supermarket are acceptable.
Just don’t think about where the manure or the meat came from and how it got to you and you’ll be fine.

There’s money in manure.
When I travel across the west I often see miles of composted manure collected from feedlots to be marketed and returned to the soil.
Manure is big business.
The North American Manure Exposition held in Wisconsin this last August is just one example of the serious place cow manure plays in agriculture.
I note on their website that Wisconsin alone produces thirteen billion gallons of livestock manure annually – enough to cover a professional football field to a depth of more than five miles – a Mount Everest of manure.

(I’m not making that up. Take a look at their website – the industrial manure spreaders are amazing. http://www.manureexpo.org/)

More . . .

American Indians once used buffalo chips for fires in the great open treeless plains, and taught its use to explorers and pioneers and homesteaders, who would not have survived without it.

A commonly used word by Indians today is nik-nik – meaning bullshit.
It’s used to refer to the White Man’s treaties and promises.

(In this political season we have no shortage of nik-nik.
And there’s big money in it, too.
But I digress - that’s a topic for another time.)

Simply said, the excretion from the stern of cows deserves respect.
Call it meadow muffins if you need a less offensive term.

And now, as I said in the beginning, I am the proud possessor of a bucket full of the smaller sizes.
Fourteen calf pies.
And what will I do with them, you ask?

Imagine that you are a tourist hiking around in Pack Creek Valley.
And you come across a single calf patty.
It’s bright shiny gold in color.
Maybe sprayed with gold paint . . . but maybe not.

Might change your mind about what comes out of cows.
Look, Martha, the cows around here shit gold!
And, in a way, they do.

Whoopee-ti-yi-oh, get along little doggies . . .