By Heather Kouros, Volunteer Coordinator and Farm Associate
"You gotta embrace the mud, man,” I’m telling him. “Once you are cool with getting messy you will break through to the other side and be free!” Thomas is dubious and rolls his pant legs up, his small, exposed calves swallowed up in my work boots.
It’s my brother’s first day at the farm and we’re cleaning the night pen for the sheep and goats. I recently took on this chore, which is a bi-weekly occurrence. The task involves several steps; the first is to remove the soiled bedding from the night pen and move it to the manure pile outside the shed. The straightforward nature of this chore has been complicated by the alternating snow and rain we’ve been having all week. Our pasture has turned into a mud pit, and snow covers the tarp that protects the fresh bedding.
Thomas and I fill up the wheelbarrow with manure and try to carefully follow the swales Randall cut into the ground for drainage. It’s sloppy and challenging to navigate. Thomas stops, disturbed by the mud beginning to cover the bottom of his jeans. I can feel the familiar, painful sense of distress that is overcoming him.
Thomas doesn’t like mud. He doesn’t like things out of place or missing meals or missing his daily duties or wearing a shirt on the wrong day of the week or when people try to fold his clothes or rush him. His attachment to order keeps him connected to the day, to time, in ways that he can’t otherwise do.
“It’s okay buddy!” I say. “We can always wash your pants. Think about how much better it would feel to stop worrying about getting dirty and just get to have fun!” He is still unconvinced, but I’m able to ease his concern with the promise of tall muck boots tomorrow.
“It’s just for today, Thomas,” he says to himself, “it’s just for today.”
We lay down the fresh bedding in the pen and Thomas excuses himself for a private conversation. Thomas often processes externally and I feel lucky when I am privy to his thoughts.
“Thomas,” he says, “You love animals so much, why would you be complaining about taking care of them?” “You’re right, you’re right, I don’t need to complain,” he replies to himself and then returns to the task with a look of renewed vigor and happiness.
When we finish the chore Thomas lets the sheep and goats back into the pasture. He directs them like a crossing guard, and they run happily to eat the fresh hay we put out. Their sweetness and innocence are palpable. A goat eats hay greedily out of Thomas’s hand, and everything seems to make sense for him, his face permeated with a radiant glow. The labor of cleaning, the frustration, the slow change of perspective has purpose when he sees the sheer rush of their happiness.
It was beautiful to witness Thomas’s experience because it mirrors my own in so many ways. Having animals as part of our community is purposeful and special and tending to them requires consistent dedication and a certain kind of humble submission. Pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure uphill in the mud isn’t exactly a choice job, but it becomes a meaningful part of the process when it is aligned with the larger purpose. Though I’ve only been doing this chore for a few weeks, I’ve experienced a startling sense of connection with the goats and sheep as I care for them, week after week.