The house I grew up in had a long dirt driveway. At the beginning of every summer my mom would have Waste Management deliver mountains of free mulch. The mulch mountains were so humongous we had to scramble on our hands and knees to reach the top. The huge mass was so thick it radiated heat and would steam at night. You could smell the mulch mountains three houses away.
As soon as my sisters and I saw the trucks coming we hid. We knew what was coming. Mom would head to the shed and retrieve the rakes. Three at first, but more later.
It was our start of the summer job to rake the mulch mountains and evenly cover our driveway. Usually the endeavor took about one whole week. South Florida in the summer averages high-nineties with oppressing humidity. The steaming mulch mountains were teeming with cockroaches and drenched with the smell of wet wood so thick I will never forget.
As we started on the daunting task a few of our neighborhood friends would ride by on their bikes. The reaction was always the same, and quite the opposite of our own. “Can we climb the mountains?!” our friends would yell, ditching their bikes by the roadside as they sprinted toward the rotting piles. We stood, sweating and clutching our rakes, and watched in amazement.
What really, really surprised us was that our friends would find our mom and ask to help. This always blew my mind, and yet I never complained. It’s like everyone in your neighborhood asking to help you move; it just doesn’t happen very often.
So for the next week the whole neighborhood of kids worked tirelessly on the great mulch mountains. Our friends would show up in the morning holding their rakes across their handlebars. Shoes were lost, runts (me) were buried, and muscles ached. At the end of the week our driveway had a fresh layer of mulch, and everyone would get busy with their summer schedules. There were forests to make trails in and hours to be spent playing in the pool.
Despite the countless choices inside, and technological distractions available, I think most kids would love the opportunity to do some real work. Raking out mulch mountains in the heat might not be ideal, but it gave my friends a chance to work at something that seemed impossibly hard. Together we chipped away each day at the piles taking breaks to play, drink lemonade, and talk. I have a sad feeling that children these days, due to a lack of true communities, natural play spaces, and a growing tide of irrational fears for safety, lack the opportunities to do big communal work projects. Luckily all it takes is a big pile of steaming mulch.
© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012
Photo © Haidor Truu and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012