Warning: Profanity and Theology Ahead
One of the great surprises of my walk on the Camino was the overwhelming smell of shit. The smell was everywhere as I trod through hamlets, towns, country roads, and forest paths. Pig shit, cow shit, horse shit, human shit, everywhere I turned my senses were assaulted with the smells of unadulterated nature. At one point I thought it might be interesting to market a “My Camino Scratch and Sniff Book” until I realized what I smelled like at the end of the day. I’d have to include myself in the book.
And, in one way, I suppose that’s the whole point. The Camino exists as a world within the world we live, move, and have our being. It is sacred space in the midst of all that is the world. On the Camino the immediacy of the natural world calls into question the way we have buffered ourselves from the world as it is, with the world that our technologies have created for us. At some point I found myself reflecting on how fragile we are, how we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to protect ourselves from loss. Walking daily among the pungent reminders of animal life offers an opportunity to consider just how wispy existence can be, appearing and disappearing in a moment, little of it in our control.
In this way the constant dodging of shit on the road was a continual lesson for me of just how far removed I’ve become from the full experience of life. All of us live in far more bubbles than we realize, moving from one cocoon to another, carried along by homes and vehicles that shut out the world. Contemplating how much shit is in the world made me think of Will Campbell, renegade Baptist and author of "Brother to a Dragonfly," a memoir of his growing up in the south. In another book he wrote, "The Glad River," he has a scene where three friends are discussing shit while cleaning up a sewage treatment area, and one of them remarks that shit is the thing that nobody really wants. Jesus gets invoked in the conversation and one of the friends says Jesus is like shit, no one wanted him, but the more you spread him around, the more things grow. It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten; it made me alert to the redemptive possibilities of shit.
It is hard in the carnival and burlesque that the world has become to sit still, tune out the world, and reconnect to the earth, inviting the dirt and soil, sun, sky, and rain to teach us the humility of our vulnerable bodies and fragile humanity. But on my pilgrimage I was reminded that the energies of life that surround us are amazing gifts, even if they do sometimes smell like shit.
PS, someone may have gotten a tattoo at the end.