Dúlra has to come clean and admit that he loves the smell of slurry in the morning. Granted, it’s an acquired scent. Years ago on family outings through the countryside the car would regularly and suddenly reek as we passed working fields.
Dúlra would gag and roll up the window like it was a poison gas attack and try to hold his breath until we had passed the stench. But his Da used to roll down his window with the words: “Fill your lungs with that good country air, son.”
Sense comes with age, they say.
And just as wine experts talk glowingly of the whiff of old socks and cat’s pee, so Dúlra has matured to appreciate the countryside’s most pungent scent.
There’s barely a city dweller who doesn’t retch at the stink of slurry. But we all happily eat the produce that thrives on a spreading of that very excrement.
This week Dúlra found himself dandering along a picturesque and remote lane between Ballyrobin and the Seven Mile Straight. Unemployment isn’t an issue here; farming is as reliable a livelihood as it was a hundred years ago.
Whatever myths we city dwellers hear about farmers and their big grants, the truth is quite different. It’s a tougher job than sitting in an office or driving a taxi.
On Saturday, at Ballysculty Road, the wheat had been harvested and the farmers were already preparing for next year by ensuring that the rich slurry was evenly spread on the exhausted fields.
Slurry is quite simply the dung collected from cattle while they’re indoors – wintering stock, cows being milked and so on. All the mess is hosed into tanks beneath the yard and left to ferment into an incredibly pungent but incredibly fertile sludge.
Then, come the first sign of autumn, the putrid gunge is poured into tanks which are fixed on to the tractor, it’s sprayed on the fields and the circle of life is complete.
It can be dangerous. The ripe slurry contains toxins like methane and ammonia, but the deadliest is hydrogen sulphide, which attacks the body like cyanide. The danger is greater in damp summers like the one we’ve just had, when the fields can’t be worked until later in the year, and the slurry gases are allowed to build up. Farmers who break the top layer of this slurry can be overcome with fumes and die in seconds.
Dúlra stood and watched while the tractor spread its cargo, restoring vital nutrients to the soil. It was a picture-postcard early autumn scene and for Dúlra now that smell is the smell of nature. The farmers here don’t often get an audience, especially not during slurry season, but there was real pleasure to be had in watching the methodical way in which the entire field is covered.
The heavy smell of slurry in the air was the most obvious sign that summer is bidding us farewell. But on close inspection it’s clear that the plants of the hedgerow have had their day and are beginning to wilt. Overhead the swallows on the power lines sat still, as if thinking of Africa, and the leaves of a magnificent horse chestnut were going brown at the edges.
Dúlra took one last deep breath, for old time’s sake, before heading back to the city – with the car windows wide open.