Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I Knew I Was Saving Those Bricks For Something...

I knew I was saving those bricks for something. Seven years ago, when we tore out an old brick patio, I painstakingly hauled each brick up the hill to the barn and stacked them carefully and artfully behind the barn. My husband shook his head. His plan had been to toss them in the back of the truck, haul them to the woods, and dump them there where they could rot for all eternity, if bricks rot. But I insisted they were useful and that maybe I would use them someday to lay a brick aisle way in the barn. He humored me but didn’t help haul the bricks to the barn. I did that myself, using a wheelbarrow.

Since then the bricks have found a few uses. They’ve held down plastic tarps covering machinery or hay. They’ve been experimented upon by two small boys wondering just how hard you have to throw the bricks at the barn wall to actually break one. And the chickens have made good use of them as a place to roost in the sun or get out of the wet or snow covered grass. I mostly forgot about them along with my fantasy of laying a brick aisle way in my constantly flooding barn.

But this weekend I found a purpose for them. I’m always on the lookout for new places to tuck in another garden. Last spring my daughter planted Jolly Jester marigolds all around one sunny corner of the barn. Those marigolds thrived. So much so that they spread themselves a good six feet out away from the barn in a perfect semi-circle. Last weekend when I finally cut down their dying stalks, the ground that was uncovered was barren – no grass left. What else can you do with such ground but plant a new garden?? No, I’m not a fan of grass seed.

The only complication was that the nice neat semi-circle is on a hill, like pretty much every piece of ground on our property. When I informed my husband of my plan he told me I’d need a wall to contain the garden or it would just wash away down the hill. I didn’t point out to him that the marigolds never washed away. In fact, they were pretty difficult to remove from their spot.

Saturday morning, I lugged several bags of newspapers up to the barn to lay the basis of my new garden. My plan was to lasagna garden the whole spot so that the soil would be rich and ready for my new salsa garden come spring time. I had visions of tomatillos, cilantro, and a gazillion new types peppers. But as I stared at the space, I had to concede that my husband might be right (don’t tell!). It is a pretty hilly spot. So I fed the horses and pondered what to do. I still didn’t know what to do, so I began the nasty chore of cleaning out the chicken pen. It’s really the only downside of chickens. Of course the manure collected from this nasty chore makes wonderful fertilizer. As I laid my broom against the huge stack of bricks next to the chicken coop, I had my eureka moment! The bricks! They’ve needed a purpose beyond stoking my guilt and supporting soggy chickens for 7 years! So I began hauling them once again.

I laid out a beautifully shaped garden using the bricks. I was not deterred by the absence of mortar or a mason. I once dry-stacked a beautiful stone wall that still contains our strawberries, lilacs, and mint, so I’m pretty confident in my ability to build a sturdy wall in to the hillside. My neighbor’s 150 year old farm house is built completely on a dry stack stone foundation.

For now my husband is going along with this, but he’s not yet convinced of my plan. For sure one of us will be thinking “I told you so,” by spring. My new brick wall is only two layers high so far, but as I fill in with dirt, manure, wood ash, leaves and whatever else I can find, I’ll build the wall up with more bricks.

There’s nothing wrong with holding on to useful things. Some people call it hoarding, but those people are simply not very creative. Sure, it’s a pain to store all this useful stuff, but in the end it’s worth the pain. And it saves you money. And it doesn’t load up the landfill. And it saves you time because you don’t have to go to the store. And it makes your neighbors and friends wonder if you’re nuts, which makes them keep their distance (and think of you when their daughter’s brownie troop needs 15 cream cheese containers!).

This past Sunday the pastor at our church was pondering Thanksgiving and he made note of the size of that day’s newspaper laden with store circulars. He pointed out that during this time of year we are naturally inclined to hunt and gather and fill our storehouses. It’s a natural instinct and a good marketing department preys on this fact. Instead of gathering lots more stuff, the pastor encouraged us to look around us at that moment and gather memories – a beautiful sunset, the sound of a baby, the smile of a loved one. Good thought, but most of us still want to shop right about now.

Shopping is a guilty pleasure. No, we don’t necessarily need what we are buying, but it feels good to have that power, to rub shoulders with all the other people picking out new stuff. Carrying our bags of stuff in to our houses and cutting off the tags feels very satisfying. I’ve been trying to let go of those feelings. Now, when the urge to shop hits me, I head to the Goodwill where my weakness won’t deplete my wallet.

When the urge to store all my nuts for winter hits, sometimes I spend time sorting out, rearranging, and repurposing – handling all my stuff. I have to say that repurposing is incredibly satisfying, much more so than buying which always leaves me feeling kind of sleazy. This weekend, I wasn’t the only one getting in on the repurposing. My whole family found something to repurpose. My husband repurposed the gravel left from where our old deck once stood. He removed that gravel to use under and around the flagstones at the base of the steps to our new deck (flagstones held on to after the same construction project that yielded the bricks!). It looks great, cost us nothing, and the spot the gravel used to occupy is perfect for –you guessed it – another garden!

My older son spied the shoe sorter my daughter was removing from her closet (the shoes were never actually sorted, most days they were piled on top of the little shelf with all the neat shoe cubbies). He laid claim to it. He’s repurposed it as a cabinet to hold all his game pieces for the complicated games he and his best friend invent.

My youngest son cleaned out his room and re-discovered his marshmallow shooter which isn’t really repurposing, unless you consider that its old purpose was to lie under his bed and collect dust.

My daughter, lacking a decent jewelry box (cheap parents!) decided to turn her lamp shade in to a jewelry box. She poked holes through the shade to hang earrings and secured a thumbtack (with an eraser on the other side) to hang her necklaces. Makes the lampshade very useful and actually, better looking.

None of these actions were necessarily intentional. They arose because of a need and our new found ability to look around us rather than run to the store. We ran to the store for plenty of years and now we are drowning in the stuff we’ve acquired. Before you go running off to the store for your solution – look around you. What have you got that would do the job?

Saving stuff is akin to a holy act in my book. You should always hesitate before you throw things out – are you absolutely certain there is no use left for this object? I used to play a little head game with myself as I walked toward the trash can. I would imagine I was a homeless person or a member of a tribe on a remote island – is there something I could do with this object? Crazy, maybe, but our society throws things out too easily. We do this because we don’t have to deal with our own trash. We pay our trash bill each month and the friendly guys in the bright yellow vests cart it away. But it goes somewhere, because just like the information on your computer – nothing disappears. Repurposing, re-using, and saving useful things are not only money-saving acts, but an exercise in creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness – great traits for any of us. And perhaps one key to preserving our planet for those who come after us.

So before you head to the store, or the trashcan, take a moment to consider your options. You have more than you realize.

Look how we repurposed this weekend!


  1. The latest hillside garden looks great! It has come a long ways since I saw it 10/24/09! I am looking forward to hearing about the marigold garden as the plot thickens! (ha ha) -Linda Wohleber

  2. Hey, I have a pile of stacked bricks in my backyard, too! Got them on FreeCycle. They were supposed to go under feral cat shelters. Now they are buried in leaves... maybe I will use them for garden borders!