The Family Heirloom Shovel

By Cam Mather

When you live in a farmhouse that was built in 1888 you can get a real feeling for history and the passage of time. I spend a lot of time thinking about what it was like for the Sniders when they were working this land 70 or 100 years ago. We are fortunate that Ken and Madeline Snider stop in about once a year for a visit. Ken has hiked around the property with us and he showed us where they made maple syrup and where the old drive shed used to be. The last time I stood in the barn foundation with Ken he pointed out the rocky hill at the northeast corner. I’ve never liked that area because it gets really slippery when it’s wet and as Ken told me, the cows didn’t like it either.

We’ve been fortunate to have been given some family heirlooms which seem to suit the house really well. My Grandmother gave us a set of china called “Bridal Rose” that has been in the family for many generations. When my Mom passed away, I inherited her silver-plated cutlery collection. Each piece has an “M” engraved on it. It turns out that as she was growing up she often received a piece of cutlery for a gift on special occasions. Can you imagine the excitement she would have felt as a kid on Christmas morning opening another darn fork?! “Yippee, it’s that serving spoon I’d hoped for!” The cutlery was engraved with an “M” for Micklethwaite which was her maiden name. It’s a good thing she married my dad Bruce Mather (was this one of her criteria in searching for a husband?), so that the initials on her silverware were still appropriate after her wedding. Since my sister’s married name starts with a “C”, it just made more sense for me to get the silverware.

We have a big pine table and chairs which were made locally and seem to suit our dining room quite nicely, and the replica cook stove helps to make the room feel so warm. The cook stove runs on propane but we are considering replacing it with a wood/propane combined unit, or eventually just going for an all-wood-burning one. Sitting at a table in a room where families have eaten meals together for 110 years, with place settings and silverware that has been in the family for generations seems to reach down to a place deep in my soul for this feeling of tradition or continuity.

Michelle’s Dad passed along a family heirloom to me, or at least it is something that I mentally designated as an heirloom. It is a shovel. Lorne was a phenomenal gardener and I learned a great deal about growing vegetables from him. He set me out early on a path to work with nature and grow organically which I know has helped me greatly and will be even more beneficial as we reach the limitations of petroleum-based traditional agriculture. So this shovel means a lot to me.

Now the shovel isn’t perfect. Lorne actually gave it to me because he didn’t like it. It was too heavy. I can’t remember the story, whether he bought it without realizing it was heavy, or whether it was a gift from someone, but one way or another he didn’t use it and so he passed it along to me. I liked it, because even though I could barely lift the darn thing, it came in handy for prying things out of the ground when you didn’t want them anymore. Whether it was a root or a shrub or a bush, they were no match for this shovel. You could wedge the shovel under something and then use your whole body weight on it to leverage it out.

This year my youngest daughter Katie is working doing archeological digs in Ontario. The company that she works for gets hired by a develop to check out a site for historical significance before development can proceed. She has taken her theoretical university learning from her many anthropological courses and put it to practical use. It seems very cool and it was one of the proudest days of my life when we accompanied her to Mark’s Work Warehouse and bought her first pair of work boots. A small tear welled up as she picked out work gloves and a pair of reinforced work socks. What more could a father ask for?

My daughters have always been helpful around the place but outside work was never their first choice. So Katie hadn’t had a lot of practice using a shovel when she first started her job. I take full responsibility for this. We let our daughters direct their learning based on their interests, knowing that when they took an interest in something they’d learn it quickly.

One weekend when Katie was home just after starting her job, I spent some time coaching her on how to use an axe. Often while doing her job she hits roots at the site and has to chop them out. As she practiced her axe skills under my tutelage I asked her if her company ever sharpened their shovels. This is something that Lorne had taught me years ago. If you’re going to use a shovel it might as well be sharp. Katie told me that they use really heavy shovels, like the one Lorne has passed on to me. For my regular digging I much prefer a smaller, lighter shovel, and I recommended this to Katie. But their crew had decided on the heavy monsters. My attitude is that the soil/manure/compost I’m lifting with the shovel is generally heavy enough, why add to it with a big honkin’ shovel?

Then this fall I was transplanting asparagus plants to make some more room for raspberries and anyone who has moved mature asparagus plants knows that they can be pretty ornery. Then it happened! I was really prying with Lorne’s shovel and I broke the handle. Now it was fairly old and moisture had weakened the area around the metal, but I was still pretty sad. I really wanted to be able to pass that shovel on to Katie. It’s not like I can pass on my laptop computer or external hard drives. They’ll be obsolete, but a shovel never goes out of style.

I guess I’m going to have to be content with knowing that Lorne’s granddaughter is now following in his footsteps and sharing his love of working outdoors and using a shovel. These are good skills. These are sound skills we should all have. As we start down the backside of the peak oil curve, these are skills we’re all going to be using a lot more than we ever have before.

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3 Responses to “The Family Heirloom Shovel”

  • Cam Mather:

    Hi Dan

    Thanks for your comment. I see your point and I own a pick axe which is really heavy, and which I use alot. My attitude is to use the shovel when I can and hack away with the pick axe for the heavier going.

    But I fully respect your take on the shovels.

    And you need to change your attitude about shovel sharpening. All those breaks for food and water… they’re just a waste of time… time better spent sharpening!


  • Daniel:

    Hi Mr. Mather,
    I work with your daughter Katie. She spoke about this blog entry and figured I, as a representative of the company, should defend the heavy shovels (partly by Katie’s request). The weight is necessary to create enough momentum to get the shovel blade into the soil. We come across many different types of soil which can include soft sand and sun baked clay with large stones. A lighter shovel simply does not have the oomph to penetrate deeply. Not only do we dig vertically, but we do dig horizontally quite frequently which is greatly affected by the momentum generated by the heavier shovel. Roots and foliage is no match for the heavier shovels as well (most of the time). A well sharpened lighter shovel may do the job just as well but we simply do not have the time to maintain sharpness. We have tried before but within even a few shovels full, it is very apparent that our efforts were futile. Essentially the larger heavier monsters can handle a far larger range of situations with minimal maintenance therefore is the choice shovel of our crew. I love my “Grizzlies”. 🙂

  • Robin Bailey:

    Hi Cam and Michelle, I thought I was the only one to get attached to a shovel! My Dad was not well the last few years of his life and was unable to do any of the gardening he so loved. My Mom thought it was a waste for all his tools to go unused so she let my siblings and I take what we wanted. The first thing I chose was my Dad’s shovel. I gardened side by side with my Dad since I was a little girl so it had great meaning for me. I enjoy your blogs very much. Oh and your books too! Take care. Robin

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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