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The Joy of a Wheelbarrow

August 1, 2011

My dad used to say, “About ninety percent of doing a good job is having the right tools.” For the backyard gardener a sturdy wheelbarrow is an essential tool.  My current model is about five years old.  Judging by the way my legs feel, it must have well over 100,000 miles on it. I had a tire repaired recently. The grey buggy is good for a long time to come.

In years past, one of the joys of owning a good wheelbarrow was riding our young children around the yard. Their squeals of glee rivaled those heard in Disney World.  Great fun can be had in a wheelbarrow!

I have hauled mulch and concrete in that grey bucket. I look forward to the pleasure of pushing the precious cargo of grandchildren around the yard in my wheelbarrow.

When I purchased my most recent heavy-duty grey plastic wheelbarrow, I couldn’t bear to part with my old one, a vintage steel model. Through the years I had repaired a broken handle, replaced an inner tube in the tire, and repainted the red bucket several times. When rust created holes in the bottom I knew it was time for a new model.

Two years ago, I read an article about container gardening. Along with the customary containers suggested for spring planting were discarded items like old wheelbarrows. A photograph accompanying the article featured a red wheelbarrow planted with cascading white petunias. That picture gave me inspiration.

At church the following Wednesday night, I mentioned that I would like to find an old wheelbarrow. By week’s end I had three. Clare feared I had acquired yet another strange obsession. I commented, “You can’t ever have enough wheelbarrows.” She assured me that I had enough.

Then a friend called to say he knew where I could find an old wheelbarrow. I arranged to meet him at Randy’s Small Engine Repair Shop just beyond Whitney. Sure enough, a rusty old wheelbarrow with the handles rotted off stood to the side. The owner of the shop seemed glad to part with it, though he was curious. My friend explained, “You can’t ever have too many old wheelbarrows.” Clare begs to differ.

If you buy a new wheelbarrow and find a sticker somewhere underneath printed with Made in China, consider that a historical fact. The earliest known description of a wheelbarrow comes from China in the first century B.C. The oldest surviving picture is a frieze relief from a tomb in Szechuan province, dating about 118 A.D. Wheelbarrows did not exist in Europe before the eleventh or twelfth century. The earliest known Western depiction appears on a window at Chartres Cathedral, dated 1220 A.D.

General Chuko Liang (181-234 A.D.) of China is credited with the invention of a two-wheeler cart, used to transport supplies and injured soldiers. The cumbersome mode of transportation required two men to propel and steer.

Like most people who have pushed a wheelbarrow uphill or struggled to control one going downhill, I have had my share of accidents. As useful as a wheelbarrow can be, it can also lead to disaster. My mother-in-law asked me to place several bluebird houses in her backyard. I attached the houses to galvanized pipe and set the steel posts in concrete. All was going well until, while rolling from one place to another, my wheelbarrow tire hit an exposed tree root. The load tipped sideways, dumping wet cement around one of her prized azaleas, not the mulch of choice for flowering shrubs.

I now have three retired wheelbarrows in use as planters, and three more for utilitarian rather than ornamental purposes. My old red model with a sturdy steel bucket is still reliable, though the handles and tires have been replaced several times. A newer model with a deep grey plastic bucket is just right for messy jobs because it cleans up so easily. An older, compact model has been completely overhauled.  Its small shallow bucket has been replaced by a platform made of treated lumber – just the tool for moving flats of flowers or heavy flower pots from one location to another.

In his poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” William Carlos Williams wrote, “So much depends upon a red wheelbarrow.” When you stop to think about it, a wheelbarrow is a nifty invention that brings much joy.

Every day on his way home, a factory worker passed a security guard at a checkpoint in the chain-link fence that encircled a manufacturing plant. One day he began rolling a red wheelbarrow, loaded with sawdust, through the gate past the guard. The curious guard inspected the wheelbarrow daily, often asking what he intended to do with the load.

The worker’s answers varied. Once he replied, “I’m putting it on the floor of my chicken coop.” Another time, “I mix it in my compost bin.”

When the worker continued passing him day after day, the guard became suspicious. He could not imagine anyone using that much sawdust. Finally he said, “You’re driving me crazy! You have to be stealing something! If you’ll tell me what you’re taking, I won’t turn you in.”

“I’m taking sawdust,” deadpanned the worker.

“Yes, I know that. The foreman told me you were welcome to take all the sawdust you wanted, but you’re stealing something else. Tell me!”

The man confessed. “I’m stealing wheelbarrows.”

Some folks have a real fondness for wheelbarrows.

Kirk H. Neely
© August 2011

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