The sun was low on the western horizon as I walked out our basement back door with a bucket of kitchen scraps to take to the compost pile. With my shovel in hand, our neighbor’s horses saw me coming their way, and ambled over to the fence to see what was happening. As I approached the two big Belgian breeding mares with their spring born, young ones, they hung their heads way over the fence, hopping that I had brought them a treat as well.
Given their attention, I stopped by our apple tree and picked up the drops to share with the horses before putting the bucket of scraps on the compost pile. After a couple of shovel loads of dirt to cover the kitchen scraps, I headed back to the house. Pausing before going in, I watched the last rays of the setting sun tickle the tops of the tall trees east of our home, a reminder that another day was coming to a close on the prairie.
Once inside, I wiped the dirt off my favorite shovel and thought to myself, “It is just about time to wrap up this gardening season. Soon, I will need to thoroughly clean, sharpen and oil this shovel for winter storage.”
When I bought my first shovel and my first hand trowel, I thought very carefully about it. In particular, I wanted to have a shovel and a trowel that would last a life time. I wanted them to be the kind of tool that could even be passed on to my children or my children’s children.
For example, when my Iowa gardening mentor passed away, I went to her estate auction and purchased one of her shovels. It is a beauty with years of hard work that have resulted in a very smooth handle. Stamped into the metal on the shovel head are the dates when it was manufactured, April 27, 1886. I do not use it too often, mostly for splitting woody perennials like ornamental grasses in the spring. Yet every time I do, I marvel at the history in my hands.
During my many years of gardening, I have learned three key lessons, namely one needs to respect the tool, respect the body, and fully understand the job. Not all shovels can do all things. Different shovels are made for different jobs. My rounded point shovel is best for moving dirt and digging holes. My former gardening mentor’s shovel is a trenching shovel and best for splitting things and making sharp cuts for certain types of holes. My hand trowel is only good for small holes.
Doing routine shovel work with a clean and sharp tool is not the work of the digital economy. One can learn about shovel work in a YouTube video but knowing about it is not the same as doing it. Real shovel work and real work with a hand trowel such as the planting of the spring bulbs that I do every fall are whole body experiences, shoulders, backs, fore-arms and knees. Here, one works the whole body rather than simply being a spectator in front a computer screen.
In this era of of hyper connectivity, hyper speed, and hyper vigilance, the slow work of a shovel or a trowel my seem antique if not ancient. But for those of us who regularly and routinely do this kind of work, we have come to discover that it is the the kind of work that requires a commitment to a more centered life where breath and motion become one.
As the leaves turn from green to golden yellows and brilliant oranges and reds, I believe that we need to create time in our lives for slower, more analog space. Here, we unplug and unwind from living life at the speed of software and instead reconnect with who we are, what we believe in, and how we work. Being mindful of the value of analog work, we rediscover a feeling of being centered in an un-centered world.
Either this upcoming weekend or the next one, I will pull out my shovel, my hand trowel, my trusty knee pads and a bucket of spring bulbs. Carefully, and thoughtfully, I will move around our different flower beds, tucking in these spring miracles. Then once the bucket is empty and the freshly dug places have been re-mulched, I will carry my tools into the basement and begin the process of cleaning them up for next spring. While the bulbs settle into their new homes and make roots for next spring’s celebration, I too will slow down and celebrate the value and importance of physical labor. I will look forward to the reawakening of the earth in the spring.
In the long view, it is the seeds we plant today that will truly result in the harvest we experience in the future. Therefore, I encourage all of you to go out this new month and plant well and wisely. Be they spring bulbs, new experiences, or the building of new relationships, each seed has the potential to transform your life and your perspective.