Raking Gravel by David Meeker

Editor Staff, Editor's Choice, April 7th, 2013

You might wonder what the difference is, but there is a difference.

Raking Gravel by David Meeker

Truthfully, I just like to rake gravel. I really don’t have any mind-bending lessons to impart to you, but then again maybe raking gravel is a lesson in itself—clearing the mind of thoughts and clutter.

Raking is both a simple and ritualistic task. At the nursery I managed in Austin where I worked for five years, we had a small team of gravel rakers that raked the gravel parking lot and nursery pathways every day. No exceptions. It was the first thing we did in the morning, as we strolled in from whatever previous nights we were engaged in. We punched in, went into the tool shed in the back of the nursery, grabbed a leaf rake and, often before saying even the briefest of hellos, we began raking. There was very little talking and most of us liked it this way. Raking is serious business.

Raking gravel, you should know, is essentially a three-step process. First, you rake up debris that has fallen into the gravel since the last time you’ve raked. Certain times of the year, at the nursery, this could be a great deal, even if you had raked 2 hours earlier. If it had been a windy evening, we would be raking most of the morning, but usually two or three people could rake the fallen leaves, twigs, and spent flower blossoms in a little over an hour. Raking is a nice way to spend the morning at work, actually, peaceful, and often we fought to secure the rights for this solemn duty, as customers tended to not bother you when you were doing it, as we were so concentrated on our efforts.

We had an enormous cottonwood, in the nursery, and a pecan tree, so much of the year we were busy cleaning up after them. The cottonwood still amazes me. It dropped something at least eight months of the year. It took forever to drop its large leaves, at least three months in fall, but it also dropped them in late spring after we started the summer drought. It dropped cotton, for which the tree is named. It dropped the shell the cotton was wrapped in, which was sticky. And it dropped the stringy pods that held the cotton. All this, mind you, at different times of the year onto everything—in every 4” pot, on the top of every pine tree and flat of annuals. It dropped limbs, large and small. On windless days in the fall, it literally looked as if it were snowing. Leaves would fall almost one per second during the day, and it seemed never-ending, like a tree you might read about in a fairytale. People loved to look up at it and commented on its size often, asking us what it was, how long it had been there. Truthfully, most of us who worked there were afraid to stand under it for very long in a high wind for fear of a large branch falling on us and crushing us to death. Every once in a while, we would hear a large whrang as a bigger branch fell randomly on the wood and metal tunnel-like structure that protected us beneath it.

Next, you rake the leaves into piles. And for most nurseries, this would have been sufficient. I’m still not sure, actually, whose idea it was to take the raking further than this. I think the obsession may have originated with the staff. We attracted an obsessive staff. The kind of people who wanted to make things look absolutely perfect, who took pride in arranging things in a way that was not just pleasing to the eye, but held a certain aesthetic of its own accord, as if we were constructing our own little garden each and every day.

After the piled leaves were cleaned up, we finally set to the serious task of raking the gravel, or grooming the gravel as we liked to call it. You started at one end and raked one way and one way only, or at least I did. This was part of the trick; I only raked one way. I had seen someone else doing it two ways, and I pointed it out but that didn’t go over well.

Raking one-way requires more walking, obviously, as you rake one way—across a parking lot, for example—and then you walk back to the spot where you started and raked another row right next to the one you just raked. You might wonder what the difference is, but there is a difference. I think it has something to do with shadows and the almost imperceptible lines the tines of the rake leave in the gravel. In any case, you get a lot of exercise going this route and it takes a bit longer to do, which is sort of the point of this sort of labor anyway. No one’s in a hurry here. The idea is to slow down, notice the small things.

For those of you out there who have had the pleasure of raking gravel on a daily basis, you know the joy it generates. How the air sort of waits at the edge of your lungs for you to breathe it in, how the small sounds in the distance—the screech of tires, birds, an ambulance—all seem to fit snugly into place. I think I will always remember arriving to work in the morning, walking through the back alley behind the nursery and, as I got closer to the gate, hear the steady scratching of the metal rake across the stones from my fellow rakers who had already begun the work. I’m serious now, but I’m grateful for that sound, to know—like the strange scents of one’s childhood—that it will always be there. That I know what it says in the language of its own saying.

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Header image by John Isaacson.

david meeker raking gravel nailed magazineDavid Meeker is a landscape designer and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in Poetry. He is currently working on a book of garden essays about his experiences in the noisy world of gardening. He lives in Portland, Oregon.



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