An Ode to Shovels and Rakes

These two unassuming primitive implements no doubt helped propel humankind from hunter-gatherer to agrarian in some sticks-and-stones fashion long before the Iron Age. As I will describe, my very being is also “owed” to these simple tools, so I thought I’d write an “ode” to them.

A rake and a shovel
Will cause you no trouble,
They don’t have a moving part.
It may seem a bore,
But it will strengthen your core,
It’s even good for your heart.
With a dig and a pull,
It will get the job done,
With the right attitude,
It might even seem fun.
If the handle should break,
It’s easy to replace,
You just need a long wooden stick.
For a shovel and a rake,
Is all you need to do the trick.

“Shovels and Rakes” was the name of my very first landscaping venture over 35 years ago. I got the idea from Arlo Guthrie’s infamous song Alice’s Restaurant where he “loaded up the red VW microbus with shovels and rakes and implements of destruction”. In retrospect, it was also fitting – they were the only tools I could afford at the time. My only power tool was my parents’ lawnmower.

My wife calls me her “digger boy” because in some strange way I enjoy shovelling and raking. There’s a quiet, zen-like, methodical motion to it that I find comforting. And it’s good exercise.

In the construction field, the shovel and rake are unaffectionately known as a D1 and D2. The D8-9-10 are large bulldozers. Being a machine operator, I love big equipment, especially if it belongs to someone else. On a landscaping job site, time is money and it belongs to the client. Machinery is needed for efficiency and to be competitive. Conversely, on the farm time is… well, simply your time. I prefer to spend it quietly with good old fashioned hand tools if I can.

At one point, I had a fair amount of machinery. A tractor and hoe, rototillers, blowers, compactors etc. These things are expensive, require fuel, maintenance, repairs, storage and they don’t last forever. For the few times a year I needed them, it made sense to eventually do away with owning them and just lease the right tool for the right job. This type of overhead is justifiable for a landscaping business but is a killer for small scale farmers. A blown motor or transmission could exceed your profit margin for a season.

We are trying to have less of an environmental footprint. I would rather use my own human-powered energy, to become more sustainable, more connected to the earth and stay in shape while breathing fresh air as opposed to exhaust fumes.We are starting to practise “no till ” methods, we’re mulching more and instead of blowing leaves,we simply rake them onto a tarp. I rarely miss my machines.

If I was on one of those survivor type reality shows, and could only have a single tool it would be a flat spade. This versatile tool is not only a shovel – it can cut, level, edge and scrape. My favourite tool is the wide aluminum landscaping rake.You see, after over 25 years of snow grooming, I’m obsessed with having perfectly level and impeccably combed garden beds. With these tools I can buff out the soil, to a standard that a ski instructor would appreciate. It’s in my DNA. I just can’t help it.