That Haunting Photo

By Cam Mather

The other day I unloaded a large pile of horse manure. While many people who have attended one of my workshops might claim that I do this quite often, this was real horse manure. This was a trailer full of manure from my wonderful neighbor Alyce. The trailer was full and it was hot and steamy and stinky.

As I unloaded it on an area of the field near our old wind turbine I was looking at all the areas where I’ve been adding horse manure for years now. The grass and growth in these areas is lush and green. In the other zones, such as the one where I was spreading it, the grass is not so lush.

It made me think of a photo that haunts me. There have been a few photos that have made an impression on me over the years, like the one in the book “Micklethwaite’s Muskoka” which is of a ghost-like image in a mirror. My great great grandfather Frank William Micklethwaite took that photo (and all of the others in that book) 100 years ago at a hotel in the cottage country north of Toronto.

But the photo that I was thinking of as I spread manure was one that was shown to me briefly by a former owner of our property. Madeline lived here about 70 years ago and unfortunately she was reluctant to leave the photo with me because she has lost other photos after lending them out. The photo was taken from a fence line looking back a half mile towards the house. It shows a field that was very flat.

Today that field has a rolling topography with small hills and a scooped out pond. We have learned that at the time our road was improved this farm was uninhabited and the construction company contacted the owners and asked if they could take fill from the property. The owners agreed and apparently enough fill was removed to change the landscape.

Glaciers carved this area ten thousand years ago and the glaciers deposited sand as they left. Exposed rock covers much of this area and where there is a layer of soil it is not rich and fertile, although trees and hay will grow on it. So it appears that a lot of the poor topsoil that was here was scooped out and used to build a road. This absolutely breaks my heart. This is why the photo haunts me. I’m hoping I have the orientation in my mind wrong and that the rolling topography of this part of the property was always like this. But I don’t think it was. The topsoil layer is minimal. What’s left is sand.

So I’ve been busy the last 12 years building up my topsoil, or creating it from scratch. It can take up to 500 years to create an inch of topsoil naturally. Since I’m working with subsoil, which is sand, I’ve got my work cut out for me. The manure is a huge help. It helps the grasses grow higher and increases the biomass that dies each fall and decomposes to help form more soil.

The National Academy of Sciences in the U.S. has determined that cropland in the U.S. is losing topsoil 10 times faster than it is being replaced. Traditional plowing and tilling can do this. I certainly have an appreciation of how hard it is and how long it takes to build topsoil.

My regular applications of horse manure are a huge tonic for me. It helps me appease the gods of topsoil who got a little angry when the good stuff was scraped away and used for a road. It’s good for my soil, as much as Michelle complains about how bad I smell when I’m done. And as long as the wind blows the aroma in the other direction for a few days, I take minimal abuse.

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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