cowhorns stuffed with manure

To See the Universe in a Pile of a Shit

A slightly messy attempt to capture interstellar energies and understand biodynamics

It’s late fall; the air is cool but the sun is warm and the vines, having been relieved of the burden of bearing fruit are just beginning to shrug their leaves. Each vine, like most trees and plants across the northern hemisphere is pulling its energy downwards, back into its roots. After months of drawing resources from the soil —water; nutrients — in order to make leaves that will respire oxygen and moisture and sweet grapes that give energy to other living things, the vine becomes introspective in its dormancy — a season of restoration of reinvigoration awaits.

As a viticultural intern after harvest, I was looking forward to doing something similar — something that maybe involved a trip south and a drink in a coconut. But instead, I am standing outside a slaughterhouse in Petaluma arguing with a man in blood-spattered coveralls over whether or not he is going to remove the eyeballs from two cow skulls I purchased (I strongly suggested — pleaded really — that he should).

Working for a biodynamically farmed winery has its benefits: munching on fresh fruits and vegetables all summer; feeding adorable baby pygmy goats grasses and grape leaves; dancing naked in the moonlight in accordance with the guiding principals of a set of obscure pantheistic gods (just kidding). But any romantic notions I once had about biodynamic farming broke down like so many piles of compost the moment Stan heaved two bloody, grinning, googley-eyed cow skulls into the back of my truck (I lost the eyeball battle, probably because Stan seemed to sense from my queasiness that besides being one of those asshole new-age farmers I was also a former vegetarian.)

skullsBesides the two skulls rattling around the back of white Ford Ranger, a case of cow intestines also sloshed around as I made my back to the winery’s estate vineyard where we would be making biodynamic preparations 502-507, the autumn compost series. The thinking, and one that I fully embraced, in theory, pre-slaughterhouse, is that these six preparations, a combination of plant and animal matter, organize the energies and forces of the compost heap in the same way the planets organise the energy and forces of our solar system. The biodynamic compost heap is more than just a pile of decomposing shit: it’s the universe on a smaller scale. (See also The Fractal Geometry of Nature and The Fibonacci Series.)

By the time I got back, blood had begun to coagulate in the lining of the truck bed and was attracting flies. The gardener (let’s call him “Joe” because that’s his name) came over to help me unload my haul. He frowned. “Typically, the skulls are boiled before we pick them up,” he said in his patient gardener voice. In other words, there was very little we could do with these bloody skulls covered in bits of flesh and swarming with flies besides either boil them ourselves or bury them and use them next year. (Primarily because it’s just gross to work with bloody cow skulls). The cows grinned; despite their rough day, the joke was clearly on us. We called Chef Michel and confirmed what we had suspected: The frenchman had no stock pot large enough to fit two adult-sized cow heads. So instead, we dug a deep hole.

My scavenger list also included:

One pound of oak tree bark
A bucket full of chamomile flowers (half dried, half fresh)
50 cow horns (not from a bull)
A wheelbarrow full of fresh, lactating-cow manure

The rest of the list was gathered without incident (to the surprise of one marketing executive who witnessed me marching into the oak grove with a machete) and Joe was able to find two skulls that had a little less, shall we say, “life force” still in them.


Winter is a time for hibernation, for long nights of deep thinking and red-wine drinking. We eat root vegetables and the fruiting bodies of mycelium. It’s a time of decay, of decomposition; it’s a time perfectly suited for stuffing cow intestines with chamomile flowers. Which is just what we did next.

Cow intestines smell awful. They smell like death. Five yards of cow intestines is exactly what death smells like. If you had to teach a class on death to blind children, you would surely bring a box of cow intestines and they would understand and fear death the way all children should. Chamomile flowers, on the other hand, smell great. They smell like youth and love and innocence. They smell like how a mother’s hug felt (when you still loved your mother). They smell like a perfect summer day. As a tea, chamomile is comforting and has traditionally been used as a digestive aid, which is why it made some kind of sense, peripherally, at least, that we would be forcing them into a cow’s digestive organ.

More so than pouring bark dust into the cow skulls (Preparation 505) or filling cow horns with fresh manure (preparation 500) it was preparation 503 (chamomile flowers in animal casing) which, when dried, buried and incorporated into the compost heap in the spring brings nitrogen, calcium and stimulates the activity of soil-dwelling bacteria, helped me understand biodynamics in a real way.

It’s the cycle of the day, of flowers opening in the morning and closing at night; of the seasons, of plants pushing buds in the spring and shutting down at winter; and finally the cycle of life death, of consuming energy in the form of plants and air and water and of giving back after the life cycle is complete. These cycles, like the planetary motions, can be explained by science, by scientists, by formulas and equations and figures. But they can also be explained by poetry, by imagination, by somewhere deep within our souls that just sort of understands it intuitively. Biodynamics is somewhere in between, in that place where science and poetry understand each other.