Nailed in a barn to a worm holed board or nicely displayed with a description tag or occasionally, and worst of all – parked in an awkward corner out of the way to continue its crumbling journey to the point of collapse; you will have seen old garden tools for sure. But if you’ve taken a moment or two to study their form you might have tuned in to more than their weather worn handles and aged patina.
Old tools, like old gardeners often display their life journey for all to see. Hand-worn handles on a big old digging spade, its once crisp edges worn round; wear also the hands of the gardener. Each knuckle numbing spear of a spade into stony soil leaves a mark on the spade as it will the gardener, and straining to prise those heavier than expected sods from damp ground pains both the spade’s shaft and the gardener’s back; even if both are built for graft of one form or another.
Aside from the characterful wonder of an old tool however, there’s a whole other level of engagement on offer if you can look a little further, and that is the connection of an item with one or more users – in this case the gardener.
How I’ve hoped to develop a talent for ‘reading’ an old item – and to see into its past – If only to discover who might have placed a tool back in the shed that is broken, or still covered in mud! Moreover, I wish I could take a well used garden tool and read the mind of the gardener who cared for it, and who might have toiled away with many of the same hopes and dreams that I myself hold.
Who were they? What was their daily routine like and who did they work alongside? What was the climate like, how long did they hold this tool for, and when did they last use it in anger so to speak? So many questions could be asked of that, or any given old garden tool.
Without wanting to dream of all the possible answers, most of which would be far from truth, I usually just look upon each tool with admiration, wondering either at its original use or indeed whether it continues to hold any residual strength. I gaze upon its lines and curves, the gouges and indentations that show its tough love, and I look to appreciate its very own history.
As a practising gardener I know my tools, and I know that to possess a quality, hand crafted item is to own a thing of beauty. Appreciating too that many tools are now, and have for a long time been mass produced, I like to imagine the days when the local forge was not too far away. I like to link the sight of an unusual or adapted tool to a vague conversation between a gardener and a blacksmith, who might ultimately have gone on to create the unique and personal item that sits before me.
Whichever way we chose to look at old tools and gardening items, the one thing we can’t separate is their inextricable links with people; both the artisans who created them, and the gardeners who pressed them into use.
We might have to imagine, but we can’t forget how lovingly each item was created, or at least the pride that each item’s creator would have felt as they handed their product to the person who would hopefully treat it with the same degree of respect.
Next time you see an old garden roller outside a potting shed, or some pruners in a museum, remember for a moment that they might have been chosen and used by a caring soul once upon a time who cleaned and oiled and sharpened them regularly. Wonder whether they’ve been gripped by strong or tired hands, and whether, through skilled use they helped to grow food that nourished a family, to produce award winning flowers or a velvety lawn, or indeed whether they played a part in the historic Dig for Victory campaign.
Stop for a moment longer and treasure every item’s wonderful form, touch and attempt to read its time-telling marks and picture it in action. Pity its frail form if you have to, but appreciate its importance and real value that it held for someone, at some point in time.
Until next time…. enjoy your garden (& garden tools!) 🌿
Gary Webb. Dec 20