Way back in the 1960’s an aerial photographer flew through our rural area taking pictures of homesteads, then went door to door selling the black and whites to the farmers who owned them. My mother didn’t like that our photo included the “bone pile”, a collection of broken panels, rotted posts, pieces of farm equipment and other miscellanea kept for no better reason than the habit of thriftiness, not throwing things away because you never knew when you might need them. As a patch, as firewood for the branding iron fire, as a splice for a weld—who knows when you might need that doohinky?
The photographer-salesman said, as you might expect him to, that a farm without such a collection wasn’t worth photographing, that the bone pile was integral to any farm as a resource for unforeseen moments of need.
My parents bought the photo.
It’s true that any farm or business needs to stock parts and items to fix, rescue and maintain itself. We couldn’t operate without duct tape, rebar, and baling wire, not to mention random wood blocks, zip ties, T-posts and tape. There’s a pile of 2 x 2’s we used for a temporary project but didn’t have the heart to throw away, and we have a 3-point mount seeder, some cultivation equipment, and a couple other implements that seemed like good ideas when we bought them but which we haven’t used in ten years. It’s hard to dispose of perfectly good items. After all, you just might need them someday. But saving can become hoarding, thriftiness can become miserliness, and modern day equipment turns obsolete so fast that the old fix-it-yourself mentality may not be virtue but vice. A home, a farm, a business—even a natural ecosystem—leans toward clutter even from normal use, and “holding on” can worsen things where “letting go” might better them.
The 3R system—reuse-recycle-reduce (I would add a fourth R, refrain from buying)--is a good start to assessing how you treat discards, remnants, extras, and scrap. Can you re-use it? More importantly, WILL you re-use it? If not, get rid of it—either sell it, give it away, pass it on, or throw it away. Can it be recycled? More importantly, SHOULD it be recycled? If it wastes more energy in the recycling process than throwing it away, just throw it away. Recyclers have to make a living, too, so wadded up paper, dirty plastic, bits of things difficult to handle, make their job harder and their business unprofitable. Don’t just assume recycling is always “good”. Most flower farms will have leftover plastic from landscape or row cover, from greenhouse coverings, from netting. There will be ends of drip tape rolls, irrigation parts perfectly usable but abandoned for better alternatives, all seemingly too good to throw away to those of us who detest waste. But you’ll eventually be inundated by clutter if you adhere rigidly to keeping everything, so get rid of habits that defeat the purpose of your intent. Think of the outcome, not just the method, of your act.
Does your bone pile take up space you need for other things? Do those saved tools and parts fill your shop shelves to the extent maneuverability becomes difficult? Does keeping something require maintenance, storage, attention that takes time or resources? If you rigidly hold to the idea that discarding is “bad”, you may miss the reality that holding on to things is worse. All physical objects deteriorate, what is useful today may not be tomorrow, particularly given the rapidity of change that occurs with modern day appliances and systems. Unused fittings and tools collect dust. Weeds grow in the bone pile, their seed spreading into the field every windstorm, every time an animal moved through. And then there are the psychological costs rarely assessed—the farm is an extension of the farmer’s mind just as the blind man’s cane is an extension of his, just as your curling iron is an extension of yours, with clutter on the acreage affecting the farmer’s mental and spiritual operations just as it affects the farm’s appearance and doings. The effects are there, however great you think your ability is to ignore them, and they infiltrate your actions and decision in sometimes infinitesimal ways that when added up are the difference between success and failure.
The first Ford tractors came with two wrenches that fit every bolt—they were made to be easily fixed by anyone—but business enterprises have become very savvy about differentiating their products from others’ to make them “special” and to cultivate dependence, so make parts of slightly different sizes so they’re not interchangeable with other manufacturers’, create repair situations managed only by specialists, and change models frequently. Why? Because they want their products to be like flowers: perishable, so you have to buy more. If they sell you one really good thing, they don’t make as much money as if they sell you two fairly good things. They also want you to become dependent on their brand, on their parts and maintenance system. These business tactics take the benefit away from keeping old goods—the same habit considered wise when all manufacturers used universal parts and sizes now becomes as useless Don Quixote’s efforts.
Electronics lose their viability, machines get upgraded so quickly that parts for old ones no longer get made, so your broken items might be better off sent to the thrift store or given away rather than keeping them around because you might someday need them. someone might be able to use them now, whereas if you wait even just a couple years they just become garbage.
Add another change in the way goods are manufactured and the results: it’s often cheaper to buy something new than to fix something old. We recently had to buy a new washer, despite just a single part being bad, because the part itself cost more than a new model and the labor cost would be added to that. Those of us who hate to throw something away because of our virtue of not being wasteful cringe, and those of us who believe in recycling to preserve our planet’s resource recoil, but ultimately you can’t change the flow of reality—choose your battles where you can win, capitulate where you can’t.
That old habit of holding on to tools and machines that might be needed in the future becomes less and less clever with the changes now occurring, with the bone pile getting bigger as it becomes less useful. We’ve taken to passing on to the thrift store worn out items we’ve no time to fix—wheelbarrows, sprayers, fans—but which others might. And when we purchase something that doesn’t fit our farm, we don’t hold on to it but find someone who can use it—better someone benefit from our mistake than to have it sit around and no one get to use it.
There’s a cost to keeping stuff around. The urge to keep, to hold on to, to hoard, is contrary to the virtue of generosity—it’s easy to develop a siege mentality, a feeling of getting the dirty end of the stick, if you feel like you need to justify every discard. Part with those “keepsakes”—they might not be the security blanket you thought they were, but a weighty and stealthy covering secretly smothering you.