We passed a muck farm in Pennsylvania the other day and it brought back a flood of memories. Muck farms are common in the area of west-central New York State where we once lived.
The first time I was introduced to the term muck I took it to mean something negative. It’s a word that just sounds icky, messy, sloppy, and smelly. It is a Middle English word introduced in the 13th century which did, indeed, mean cow dung. So I wasn’t far off. But I had no idea how wrong I was about its value.
Because it is earth that has been decomposing for centuries, it contains the decaying elements that give it a rich, highly productive character. Its greatest quality is that it is the epitome of organic soil. You don’t have to use fertilizers in order to make things grow in muck.
A muck farm is easily identifiable to the eye because the furrows are a rich, black soil. There is usually a quality of moisture identified with a muck farm because the soil is found most prominently in areas that are low and retain moisture really well. It gives life to a term which we hear occasionally: muck around. It means to slop around, and you might want to wear muckers when you do. They are knee-high rubber boots which allow you to move freely through sloppy soil. You can pick up a pair for just $159 at L.L. Bean. They are highly functional, and have lots of uses beyond slopping around on a muck farm. I recommend them for snow. They have a great, safe tread on them.
But, as you might have imagined, I also love the metaphor which has emerged from the word muck. It is that which is found when someone is said to have “mucked up” a project. No, it is not a variation on an overly-popular four letter word. It really means to have taken something that was orderly, clear, and understandable, and to have turned it into something that is really confusing. Some people just have a knack for making simple things more complex. They muck up projects all the time. Every company has people on staff that earn this recognition. Unless they are the nephew of the CEO they don’t last long in the company. They cost companies time and money.
Another variation on the theme is when you run across a comment that someone is just mucking around. It means that someone is just hanging out, loitering, wasting time. It is a water-cooler term.
You can see how these variant meanings have emerged from the original meaning of muck, but it is unfortunate that they produce such a negative sense for the word…the sense that I had when I first heard it so long ago. In reality, muck is a valuable, sought-after commodity. I am told that one of the newer uses of muck is that of organic fertilizer. The rich, black soil is stripped from the muck farm and transported to another farm, where it is spread, much like manure, as a non-toxic, chemical-free source of nutrition for crops. That’s not mucking around, and it certainly isn’t a way of mucking up the agriculture industry. To the contrary, in this age of organic thinking, it is a God-send.