Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

The Wheelbarrow

April 16, 2006

Come unto me, child, and incline thine ear to wisdom.

Consider the wheelbarrow. A humble machine, and yet one of elegance and of irreducible complexity. A simple configuration of a bin, a wheel, a tire, two handles, two feet, and a fulcrum. Many improvements have been attempted, with varying degrees of success: most notably, the addition of another wheel. Which makes it infinitely more stable and much less likely to dump its contents, but which also renders it unable to move deftly between delicate plants, or to carry something along the top of a wall, or to hop up or down a short set of steps, or to move its contents across a narrow plank. Adding another piece turns a nimble dancer into a coarse clodhopper, or worse.

Consider just one if it’s elegant and surprising uses. During a time of respite from hard labor, you might stand and address the barrow in its traditional configuration. If you will turn 180 degrees, place your posterior into the interior of the machine and lower yourself onto it whilst leaning forward, you will find that the whole machine tips back onto its handles, offering you a most comfortable seat (as well as cool shade from the hot sun, or a break from the cold wind, if you so desire). A wheelbarrow, you see, is a many-splendored thing.

When the wheelbarrow is first employed, one must accept the fact that it will not always stay upright. This is a true statement: pride goes before a fall. So you must humbly embrace your weaknesses at the outset. At some point, the forces of physics will be mismanaged, and the entire contents of the vessel will find themselves where they should not. This is most embarrassing, to be sure. Yet in such a case, we must accept this fact: a mistake is only a mistake. Most all can be corrected, if quickly and discreetly and hopefully out of sight of friends and supervisors. And some mistakes, such as ones made with a load of cement, ought to be corrected very quickly and with many gallons of water. But embracing this shame and addressing the mess will usually leave one in good stead.

There is a Zen about the operation of this equipment, if I may say that. For you will regularly find yourself at the bottom of a sloped plank, or moving along a narrow wall, or sneaking through a doorway, or pushing across some cobbled surface or past some precious artifact. In those moments, there are myriad things to consider: weight, balance, momentum, force, strength, fatigue, correction, error, and disaster. Many things to think about, and yet, you ought not think about any of them. Or, better put, you might think about all of them and none of them at the same time. You should apply yourself wholeheartedly and fearlessly to the task, placing yourself squarely in the middle of this symphony that is part brute force and part dance. For here you will see that some things can be pushed and some can be pulled, and some can be balanced and some can be planned, but nothing can be forced.

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5 Responses to “The Wheelbarrow”

  1. emmegab says:

    beautiful description, especially considering how many (20? 30?) bags of cement were wheeled down into our basement to make a new floor where dirt once was. it has to be one of our FAVorite things we own.

  2. dawnrw says:

    I love the tone of this post, Mike. Part objective observation, part advice to the inexperienced wheelbarreler. My favorite line: “You should apply yourself wholeheartedly and fearlessly to the task, placing yourself squarely in the middle of this symphony that is part brute force and part dance.” When in fact you find youself needing to master the art of wheelbarrow management, do not do so lightly.

  3. Maggie says:

    Dumping the contents mistakenly can be quite funny when the contents include a sister or brother or cousin.

  4. erin says:

    Good one! Do I sense a series in the making?

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