Muck Spreading Season

Val di Non summers are short and cool; the winters, longer and harsher than I was used to, coming from Seattle, WA (USA). That makes spring and fall these sort of brief, frenzied seasons that leave your head spinning. You’d think just four seasons would be enough to round out the year — but no. There’s a fifth season in Val di Non, one people don’t bring up, or fail to mention, or refuse to acknowledge at all.

Yet everyone knows it’s there.

So long as your olfactory senses are intact, you can hardly miss “muck spreading season”. You’ll be forced, in fact, to breathe it in and wonder about it every time it leaves you gagging, grasping for air. And as you ask, How long will it last, this time?

Cows grazing at a park
Cows grazing at a park – cows proliferate in Trentino, as transhumance is still practiced today

Over and over I’ve tried to deconstruct the time schedule for “muck spreading season”. It’s…every late spring. No, wait…mid-summer rolls around, and there it is again. That uncanny, perfumed air. A mix of rotting compost. And sh*t.

Cow sh*t, to be precise.

After two years living in Val di Non (and a few return visits), I’ve finally put it together: muck spreading season is any time, during any season, between crop cycles but only when the ground isn’t frozen.

Say the second crop of hay has just been bailed in late summer, and the land lies empty: it’s muck spreading season.

Or late spring, when the final snows are behind you, and the flowers start popping up like wanton wishes, winter in full retreat: muck spreading season.

A tractor in the act of "spreading muck"

A tractor in the act of "spreading muck"
A tractor in the act of “spreading muck”

Mid-winter when there’s an aberrant warm spell and the ground turns mushy and soft: there’s muck spreading season, again.

Fall time, just after the apple harvest, the cattle back in the barns, right before the first frost: muck spreading season.

What’s it for, though? All this spreading of muck? To fertilize the ground, of course. It’s the old way of doing things, back before commercial fertilizers were widespread. Local farmers would gather the cattle waste from the barns, put it in heaping piles to steep and stew and ferment, then trade or sell it off to crop farmers, who then spread it on their fields to nitrify soils.

Large pile of cow "muck" at a cattle barn (Val di Non)
Piles of cow “muck” at a cattle barn (Val di Non)

It’s actually a more sustainable, closed-loop system, and I’m a fan of it. Such a fan. Well…in theory.Surreptitiously, I detest the season, yet I cheer from the sidelines, “Keep these old traditions going!”

On countless occasions, after taking off on a mid-morning run along the bike path that winds through Cavareno‘s farm fields, there it would be. Lingering, just waiting for me.

That smell.

Before long, I wouldn’t be able to breathe through my nose. Gagging—literally bending over and heaving at the side of the trail, forced to breathe through only my mouth, which would then dry out all my saliva, making it hard to swallow. Ugh.

Old, fermented cow sht has got to be one of the worst smells on the planet. And it won’t do the term any justice by calling it “excrement” or “animal waste” or “poo”. It’s sht. It looks like sht. It most certainly smells like sht. And it gets spread around farm fields to fertilize crops as only sh*t can do.

Pile of cow "muck" with a crow flying past
Cow “muck” in the valley (Val di Non)

So be prepared. You can’ t really plan for “muck spreading season” (not as far as I can tell). And you can hardly avoid it. It’s decided on at a moments notice: when the weather’s right, when the farmer has time, when the fields are in the proper condition. And he revs his tractors and plods out to the prati (fields). Where he takes aim, and he opens fire.

The rest of us are just left to breathe in the remains. Seeking refuge. Finding cover…until the winds blow in and we aren’t able to forget for even a moment that the air is perfumed with sh*t.

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