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“We must observe what parts of the land must be manured, how the manure is to be applied, and the best kind to use; for there are several varieties. Cassius states that the best manure is that of birds, except marsh- and sea-fowl; and that the dung of pigeons is the best of these, because it has the most heat and causes the ground to ferment. This should be broadcast like seed, and not placed in piles like cattle dung. My own opinion is that the best dung is from aviaries of thrushes and blackbirds…” Marcus Terentius Varro, On Agriculture, I

Clearly these ancients gave much consideration to their manures. Modern science actually backs up their findings, ranking bird manure—especially that of chickens—as having a higher nutrient density than other animal manures.

Every once in a while we need to step back and wonder. Manure has a remarkably balanced spectrum of the nutrients and other elements on which depend soil health, and plant health. And thus also our health.

We are talking here about excrement, feces, poop. But call it what you will, this typically smelly, often unpleasant stuff is vitally important for the life of plants of all kinds, and is an essential element of most sustainable forms of agriculture. It can be a very exciting and rewarding part of the home garden too.

But while it has many names, it really shouldn’t be called waste. Neither should it be unnecessarily wasted. On this score we might all re-examine our approach to manure—from large farms to the home lawn and garden.

Rather than genetically modifying pigs to reduce the phosphorus in their manure (this because of the dangerous over-concentration of pigs in factory farming), we might take our cue from the contents of the manure, using it once again to the advantage of all. On the home front we can be aware that suitable manure might be available from local farmers or homesteaders—manure that can used in numerous lawn and garden applications. Households might even look at raising their own small animals—such as rabbits or chickens, or other birds!—and thus enjoying the full complement of the natural cycle of life. What a difference it could make, on several levels, if each of us reduced or eliminated our use of petroleum based artificial fertilizers.

Will the circle be unbroken? Most of us won’t be in a position to determine, find, or use what in the abstract is the best manure. But in the concrete, the best manure is whatever natural soil amendment we can reasonably find, and use to feed the earth that feeds us in our own little corner of the world.

It might seem that E.B. White exaggerated when he wrote: “There is no doubt about it, the basic satisfaction in farming is manure.” But maybe he was thinking especially of the satisfaction of knowing, indeed enacting, that everything has its place, if we have the humility and patience to take our cue from the order of nature.

Marcus Terentius Varro (116-27 B.C.) was a Roman scholar, soldier and statesman. Educated in Rome and Athens, he wrote over seventy books. Res Rusticae, or On Agriculture, begun in his eightieth year, is a practical manual on husbandry.

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