The Kinky Green

They Let Me Wield a Pickax

For the second time this calendar year, I got up early on a sunny Saturday morning, drove to a part of D.C. I’d never before visited, and met with a group of strangers who would later give me free reign to swing a pickax.

Two things to report here.

This is not me wielding a pickax. I'm pretty sure I did not look this cool.

1. In addition to brute strength, swinging a pickax effectively takes a lot more finesse than I’d imagined.
2. People let me use a pickax. These fools must be crazy.

The events, of course, were volunteer opportunities I found through the awesomeness that is

The first was at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a heretofore hidden (from me) gem of National Park glory. I haven’t been back to explore the site more fully, but I have every intention. I talked to one of the rangers, and, unlike *some* of DC’s finest public outdoor attractions (which shall remain nameless), things like flying kites and playing Frisbee are completely cool there. (Picnic anyone?)

Anyhow, our task for the day was to create French drains on either side of one of their greenhouses. The thought was that all the water from, uh, watering can run out of the greenhouse and into the drain to be whisked away, instead of pooling up in nasty puddles all along the perimeter of the house. The area we were digging was only dirt, so we got right in there with shovels and made a trench, laid some tubing, and then filled wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow full of rocks and pebbles to cover the tubing. Viola! French drain!

We were so awesomely effective that the park rangers gave us the additional task of breaking up a grassy area to lay the last bit of drainage tube for the final runoff. This is where the first pickax came into play for me. I managed not to chop my own head off and actually made some progress, alternating with a guy who seemed to have swung one of these things a time or two before. But, with no instruction, I didn’t realize how inefficiently my swinging actually was.

Which brings me to last Saturday. Our group joined a boatload of other folks to help Casey Trees plant 60 new trees at Alice Deal Middle School. These folks were super organized, but I suppose when you’re planting hundreds of trees in a season and relying primarily on volunteers, you have to be. They started out by giving us a safety speech and tools demo.

This is a pickax. If you’re right handed, hold your left hand at the bottom and your right hand at the top. Pick a point in the ground, and aim for it. Move your hand down the handle as you swing. When it’s in the ground, lift it up to loosen the dirt, don’t pull it toward you. The wide end is good for grass. The pointy end is good for rocks.

It was at this point that I had my first small epiphany about my pickax work several weeks before. Rookie mistake: I made hard work even harder by not working with the tool’s strengths.

Later, when we were working diligently to plant our allotted three trees on a steeply sloped, grassy, rocky area, I watched as one of the Casey Trees employees made long, swift, smooth swings to break up the grassy, rocky slope before him. He made it look so effortless. There was a grace to his method. Never breaking rhythm. Always hitting his mark and making progress.

The next time someone said, “I think we need a pickax. Anyone want to try?” I volunteered for the task. The guy made it look so easy, and I was newly equipped with expert advice on how to hold, swing, follow through. By the end of the day, I thought, I’ll be swinging like that guy.

The worn-out One Brick group after planting with Casey Trees.

Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

It’s not that I didn’t make any progress. It’s just that it wasn’t pretty. As I huffed and puffed, I never found anything resembling a rhythm. Sometimes I’d set the swing up and let it down, only to have the tool bounce off the grass or rocky soil without making much of an impression. Sometimes, I’d miss my mark entirely, hitting the tarp above the hole. Sometimes I’d forget to use the leverage of the handle and waste effort digging at the soil with the wrong tool.

At the end of the day, we got our trees in the ground, and I felt like I’d done enough work on my biceps and triceps to justify a workout-less day. But I never did learn to swing a pickax gracefully.


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