By Russ Miller
“Lucille, God gave me a gift. I shovel well. I shovel very well.”
~The Shoveler, “Mystery Men”
When Ms. Troglodyte turned to her mate and said, “Grog, if that pile of saber-tooth bat guano was just six feet to the left, I could watch the herd migration so much clearer from the cave entrance.” Mr. Grog, being a dutiful Neanderthal and wishing to keep peace in the cavern, attempted to move the daunting pile with his massive callused hands. This may well have been the moment his eye fell upon the mastodon scapula left over from the ceremonial cookout which inspired the critical prehistoric notion of the shovel.
He was also the ancestor of my father.
My dad knew his way around a shovel and, consequently, so do I. Alongside my father, I have shoveled truckloads of manure, sawdust, gravel, topsoil, rocks, sand, and mud so thick and deep it would suck the shoes off a horse. And I’m talking Percheron, here.
Since our ancient ancestor’s discovery, the purpose of a shovel hasn’t changed. We use this basic tool to move a pile of stuff from one location to another. Even if a shovel is being used to dig a hole, the principle remains the same. Setting posts, digging a footing, planting trees, cutting irrigation channels, or removing snow or ice from driveways: “in situ” material locations obviously vex us.
I have worn graceful Vs into the once sharply pointed spades of my youth — trophies to my many hours and blisters of monotonous use. I have snapped and replaced handles. I have peened pins back through the metal sleeves of favorite shovel-heads because the weight of the shovel was perfect. I have friction-polished grips into wooden oak handles fitted magnificently to my gloved hand. And, weirdly, it pleases me.
Shovel types include such dynamic style traits as: coal; short-handled; long-handled; snow; square end; spade tipped; round tip; scoops; trench tool; and the man-killer, the unique hinged salad-teasing design for digging holes. Basically, it’s two shovels in one. Meaning, it’s twice the work for one person. It can’t be shared. Brilliant.
Often times, shoveling requires hitting targets. My dad was a marksman when it came to shooting quail, hitting nails, or pitching debris with a spade. He could toss a yard of dirt 50 feet between moving cars and drop it gently into a measuring cup.
I learned early how to chuck aggregate uphill using a hip-check method, rotating the shovel around the trunk of the body like a fulcrum. I watched my dad do it gracefully. Walking loads shovelful by shovelful to a proscribed location teaches patience and process, but also punishes obscure muscles to the point where one realizes the value of practicing a technique. Pain. This is how we learn.
(As a side note: Wheelbarrows are like large shovels and require their own essay. I had earned my operator’s license for all models of wheelbarrow by the time I was 12.)
Using a shovel for leaning or resting was seldom tolerated. If one needed a break, one could slowly carry loads, one at a time, to the destination — so long as progress was consistently being made.
Weather and shoveling seldom aid one another. Whenever possible, use the wind to guide or carry your measured material to its destination. Troubling products to move in the wind include sand, forest litter, shavings, ash, or (grack!) chicken dust. Rain just compounds the weight, stickiness, and overall misery of the job … except perhaps when shoveling chicken dust. Snow is like rain, only colder and sometimes wetter. Still, a welcome catalyst when shoveling … say it with me …“chicken dust.”
Frustrating materials to move with a shovel, regardless of the weather, are gravel, riprap, mud, rock, cement, and snow (especially that nasty, heavy, wet dreck). The frustration comes with spillage, difficulty gaining blade purchase, and inconsistency in weight distribution.
The satisfaction in shoveling comes from witnessing heaping, symmetrically loaded spadefuls delivered one after the other in uniformly spooned packages. … Ahhh. … That, and, the completed project, when the gloves finally come off, and the brow is swabbed. … Ahhh, again.
So, in conclusion, since all this can be done with mechanized equipment, what has this monotonous, energy-sucking, painfully slow conveyance of raw materials taught me?
and, weirdly, Hope.
And dad did it all without speaking a word. That’s a teacher for you.
Russell Miller is an illustrator, cartoonist, writer, bagpiper, motorcycle enthusiast, and reference librarian. Currently, he illustrates books for Cody Lundin and Bart King.