I used to hate it when my dad drove the car, because he would always drive past a dairy farm. He’d slow the car to a crawl, roll down the windows and take a deep breath through his nose.
“Don’t you love that smell? Aaaah, fresh manure.”
My brother and I would plug our noses and tell him that it was gross, complaining until the air was clean again.
I should have known what was coming.
When we moved to New Hampshire, my uncle started a garden in our backyard that my dad quickly usurped. It became his full-time job and the finance books that lined his shelf were replaced with Mother Nature magazines and books dedicated to the art of grafting trees together. The stamps and envelopes on his desk that I loved to play with were replaced with packets of seeds.
At first, he only asked for my help to weed the few garden beds in the backyard and to harvest the vegetables when they were ripe. I loved that part because it was all the reward and none of the work. But soon he had me planting tomatoes that would give me rashes and cucumber plants that would leave prickles all over my arms.
Soon we started to say we had a small farm. My dad had our land certified organic, and he got a gigantic roll of stickers to prove it. He planted clover to attract more bees and butterflies to our yard. The basement my parents originally hoped to finish became filled with plastic trays and grow lights for germinating seeds.
Then my dad started ordering manure from Bud (yes, that was his real name). Bud, whose horses provided the supply, would carefully maneuver his truck to the back yard and dump his delivery onto an already large existing pile of manure. My dad built a greenhouse, and instead of using electricity, he filled it with fresh manure. The interior reached 80 degrees in the middle of January, and my family called the structure “The Poop House.”
With all of this change, my family’s diet inevitably became more local. The farm where we got milk was a 30-minute drive away, and the cows lived in the room next to the large refrigerators that held the jars of milk.
My dad and I would drive together to go pick it up, talking about anything and everything on the way. He would check in with me and ask me how I was doing, because since middle school I struggled with depression. I would be honest, and tell him that it was tough, but it’ll work out someday. He said that he loved me, and was proud of me.
Then, we’d pull into the dirt lot next to the farm and get out. He would stretch and take a deep breath, looking at me.
“Don’t you love it?”
I’d shake my head and smile.
“It’s really just you that loves the smell, Dad.”
During the summer, my dad put my brother and me to work on the farm. My brother definitely worked harder than I did — part of it was that he was stronger, but most of it was that I did everything I could to weasel my way out of work. Not once did my dad ask me to do something on the farm without me giving him a look that clearly told him I didn’t want to.
After a few years, my dad perfected a soil mixture of manure, fresh mulch and raw minerals that I would mix together in a wheelbarrow and then deliver to a greenhouse. I mixed in the garage for hours and it filled with the thick, almost sweet smell of manure combined with fresh wood and pine pitch.
When I left for college, it didn’t take me very long to adjust to the city. I wanted to leave New Hampshire since I received my acceptance letter, and I busied myself immediately with writing for The Temple News. I was settling in, and I even bought myself a couple of plants from the grocery store to decorate my dorm room. When I brought them home for winter break, my dad was surprised. I told him that it was nice to have a little bit of green in my room. It made the air feel fresher. And every time I water them, I remember the conversations my dad and I used to have while we worked together.
A couple weeks ago, I was on my way to get a pizza when I smelled it.
Fresh mulch had been spread on a planter and I couldn’t help but stop and take a deep breath. My friend stopped too and asked me what the hell I was doing. Was I seriously smelling some dirt?
“You know, I’m kind of disappointed,” I said. “I wish it was manure. I like that smell better.”
Julie Christie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ChristieJules.