The princess of poop

In her column, Shannon McKinnon talks about horse poop and other beneficial waste.

I have two old horses that I often refer to as pasture ornaments, but they’re much more than that. They’re a link to my horse-crazy past, treasured friends and a never-ending source of joy … and poop. Lots and lots of poop. A horse produces around 50 pounds of manure a day! With two horses I am practically a manure baroness.

To an average person this might not seem like anything to brag about. However, as an obsessed gardener, having access to all that brown gold makes me feel blessed beyond belief. Come garden season I trundle off with my trusty wheelbarrow on frequent manure expeditions. I was on one such mission the other evening when I looked up and locked eyes with my horses. I could just imagine what they were thinking.

Mindy: “What is Human up to now, Mage? Tell me she isn’t … no, she can’t be … .”

Mage: “What the … great grain buckets! Would you look at that? And check out how happy she looks about it!”

Something tells me I’ve lost their respect entirely.

With 10 acres of pasture to call their own you might think collecting manure would be a daunting task, but it isn’t. For some reason my horses have their favoured dumping grounds which makes collecting manure for the compost a breeze. This isn’t to say they never let loose as the mood strikes and let things drop willy-nilly, but more often than not they wander over to a designated spot. I’ve had Mage and Mindy for 20 years so I never thought much about it until a ferrier pointed out how unusual it was. I don’t know why they do it; I’m just glad they do.

And that’s not all, oh no, that’s not all! I also have a few sheep and a small flock of chickens to add to my poop portfolio. What wealth! Too bad I don’t have any sperm whales.

Sperm whales produce ambergris — a much sought after product used by the perfume industry for its ability to absorb scent and keep it clinging to the skin for hours. The best ambergris sells for $20,000 a kilogram. That’s a lot of money for whale feces. Or vomit. It can be either.

As I understand it, ambergris is a waxy substance produced in the whale’s stomach to protect its bowels from being pierced by sharp objects, such as giant squid beaks. Ambergris wraps itself around the object and then the whale expels it. If the whale eats a lot of giant squid beaks in one sitting the mass can become too large to pass, so the whale will simply up-chuck it instead. After it makes its dramatic exit there is more involved than simply scooping it up and running to the bank. To become what has been described as a “beautiful, earthy smelling, iridescent mass” it needs to first be seasoned by the sea. It can take months or even years for the feces (or vomit) to harden and become a beachcombing treasure.

There is some confusion as to whether mainstream perfume manufacturers still use it; most deny it. Whether that’s for legal reasons or because they don’t want to turn consumers off is hard to say. The sperm whale is an endangered species and as such any product it produces is off limits so technically dealing in ambergris is illegal. On the other hand, the hardened feces (or vomit) have been completely disconnected from the whale by the time humans exploit it, so it’s a bit of a grey area and authorities tend to look the other way.

On the flip side there are independent perfumers who concoct exclusive aromas that sell for thousands of dollars per ounce for private clients and fully disclose ambergris as a key ingredient. The wealthy even buy it to use in their tea for its supposed clarity-giving qualities. King Charles 11 was reputed to have sprinkled it on his scrambled eggs, while top chefs and foodies still add precious pinches to special dishes today.

I’m confused. I don’t know whether to be grossed out, fight to ban it, wear it, eat it or take up the lucrative life of an ambergris-seeking beachcomber. Maybe if I ate some I’d have more clarity in the matter. In the meantime, I have horse manure to collect.

Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from Northern BC. You can catch up on past columns or check out her garden blog by visiting www.shannonmckinnon.com.