Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Hands-on Horticulture

It looked like the health club version of the Ancient Greek story of Sisyphus - a slightly built, white-haired, seventy-something man toddling around my gym's indoor track while carrying a bright yellow kettlebell in each hand. He stared straight ahead as if he saw nothing, his shoulders slouched forward as he trudged onward, each lap the same.

"Kettlebells are [heavy metal] cannonballs with a handle and a flat surface at bottom. They're funny looking little things.
"Originally from Russia, the kettlebell was used by Russian athletes (or girevik's, as they're called in Russia) to create resistance and train with. What initially started off as a simple tool to increase a man's (or woman's) strength was found to be something more. Not only was strength increasing, so was endurance, agility and balance too. The effect of the kettlebells weight distribution combined with specialized kettlebell exercises yielded greater results than expected!" (http://www.kettlebellexercises.net/)

In the past couple of years kettlebells have caught on at fitness clubs in the U.S.A.

"A recent study found that a ten minute kettlebell workout burned more calories than forty five minutes spent on the treadmill. The large compound movements used in kettlebell exercises both increased muscle development and taxed the cardio-vascular system, leading to greatly increased athletic ability and fat loss." (Ibid)

I however, in spite of my fanaticism about daily exercise and my willingness to attempt almost any form of workout, have not tried them yet. I am, after all, a gardener and already knew that it is easier to carry two full watering cans, than one. And it is a lot more fun too.

Chinese plantsmen have also known this for centuries.

"Southern Chinese peasants have a lot of ways of watering their crops, but the most common way is a pair of watering cans on a carry-pole across the shoulders.
"Each bucket is equipped with a spout 2 1/2 feet in length, 2 1/2 inches across at the base and tapering to two inches in diameter at the end, supported by a wire to the top of the bucket.

"At the end of the spout instead of a rose there is a simple device which enables the water as it leaves the spout to spread out in the form of a flat spray. The end of the spout is closed; about one inch from the end is a V-shaped cut from the top sloping obliquely backwards and continuing nearly across the spout. A small piece of metal is soldered on to the distal end of the V-shaped cut thus sealing off the tip of the spout. This piece of metal is convex. When the liquid passes down the spout it impinges on the small convex surface and is thus forced out vertically and laterally as a flat spray.

"Across the top of each bucket is a wooden handle and one man carries a pair of buckets slung on a pole across his shoulders from which the buckets are suspended by rope. He walks swiftly along the stepping stones and with his hands depresses the two buckets simultaneously, swinging them forwards and backwards, and directs the two sprays of water where required." -- Geoffrey Herklots, "Vegetables in South-east Asia" (1972) (http://journeytoforever.org/at_can.html)

Each bucket holds about forty catties of water. One catty equals two-thirds of a kilogram, so the liquid in each container weighs about sixty pounds. More modern versions have substituted lighter-weight metal buckets, often fashioned out of used oil drums. The flat spray has been replaced with a more rose-like spout that has been modified to generate the same degree of spray. But even with the less heavy vessels, the mass of water being transported by one individual has to impress even the most casual girevik. Or the most avid watering can fan - like me.

For whatever reason I am a hands-on horticulture freak. I trim my shrubbery with manually operated shears, I mow my lawn with a non-self-propelled push mower, I cut up dead oak tree branches with a Japanese pruning saw, and - when I want a real workout - I hydrate my vegetation with watering cans.

I currently have three of them - a matching pair of green plastic ones from K-Mart, and a galvanized aluminum water carrier from Russia that I bought at a fancy-schmancy "bobo" (bourgeois bohemian) outlet that later tanked then recently reemerged "reinvented, remodeled, reborn". I usually keep the trio filled and ready for action in our backyard next to the rain barrel.

I have two different H2O distribution routines - cardio or strength - depending on what I feel like working on that day.

The cardio workout emphasizes speed, agility, eye-hand coordination, and aerobic capacity. It starts with a warm-up run-through wherein I carry one overflowing water carrier to some far-flung garden plot and empty its contents on some thirsty plant therein.

I bring the empty receptacle back to the rain barrel and begin to refill it.

As the first drop of incoming water strikes the bottom of the pail I quickly grab one of the two remaining full vessels and rush to provide liquid sustenance to another set of parched plants. The goal is to drench that dehydrated piece of greenery and return to the rain barrel at the precise moment that the recently empty watering can becomes full again. I quickly swap empty for full and dart off to service the next parched plant. Then just as rapidly I return to my source of water, instantly swap pails, and run off to my next stop. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

In the end, all the plants are quenched, my aerobic capacity is improved, and I stand proudly and watch the empty pail fill to the top and set it aside for the next time.

My watering can strength regimen is similar, but much slower. Again I begin with three full buckets. Selecting two of them I heft one into each hand, throw back my shoulders, and stride purposefully to the furthest dry garden spot in the yard. I can feel my arms lengthening under the weight of the water. At my destination I attempt to tilt both cans in unison and pour the water in synchrony. Usually my dominant (right) side takes the lead but by the time I have reached the bottom of both receptacles the balance is restored.

Then I return briskly to my water barrel and begin to refill one of the pails. While this is happening I occupy my time by doing some hand weeding in the nearby plots. When it is filled I place the other empty can under the spigot and march away with the two full ones - and so forth.

Like the Chinese water bearer I work until the job is done - rather than for a prescribed number of laps. When I am finished my arms feel harder and more stretched out, and the cuffs of my long sleeve work shirt no longer reach the tops of my hands. I feel the satisfaction of a task completed. And unlike the Sisyphean exerciser at my health club, who seemed to sink further into himself with every step, I can feel myself standing taller and straighter.

In a wrestling match between a girevik and a gardener, I'd bet on the gardener every time.

No comments: