A new word for old ideas. I think that by now, many people have heard the old saying from out in New England, “Use it up, wear it out, fix it, make it work or do without.” I probably should not use quotes there, but it goes something like that. Re-purposing is the idea that some things are just no longer of any use and something needs to be done with them. My grandmother hated the idea of throwing away her cast iron bathtub. As a good consumer, when she upgraded to a shower surround, she got her boys to carry the old tub toward the alley, where the trash went out. She watched them long and hard as the sweated their way back along her flower beds. Near the back, just before they began to struggle with the gate, she had an epiphany. “Stop, hold it right there!” she said.
The area just West of the sidewalk was especially difficult to grow things in because there was just too little sun and too many cinders. The area was excessively dry and hostile to virtually all life save a few purslane shoots and a strange sort of bamboo like plant. My dad and uncle were set to the task of digging a bathtub sized hole there and the tub was officially sunk to the rim in the gravelly Earth. It just so happened that she needed a bit of fill as well for behind a retaining wall where she grew succulents in better sun. she had an instant pond that could easily drain or alternately plugged and filled at will. Within days she had secured some Arrowroot and a Pond Lilly, a pot of cattails and some goldfish. By the end of summer, she had an herb garden of mint, oregano and chives, which thrived on the mixture of overflow and fish waste. That pond, located as it was in what had been the harshest corner of grandma’s yard was my first glimpse of how easily the land can yield all manner of productivity if just given half a chance.
I remember making a few minor changes to that pond over the years. First, Grandma realized that she had to get a longer hose, but rather than waste money, she would fill buckets, lots of them, and carry them those last ten feet or so each time she filled the tub. To solve that problem, she had Grandpa cut the downspout from the garage and shunt water from the roof into the basin, collecting more than enough water to keep the ceramic monster full. before the term rain garden was coined, Alberta Eck had proven their worth to this young child. Once the basin was automatically filled, she used her watering can as a dipper from time to time to feed and water her plants simultaneously.
Over the years, many of my most useful discoveries have been from re-purposing things either headed for the trash, or discovered along the roadside on trash day. Our chicken coop, in a former incarnation was a rabbit hutch. Our garden beds are keeping shape with the help of a sidewalk that was poured poorly and needed to be removed. Our fence posts were from a cedar woods that was encroaching on an area that my sister-in-law needed to fight back to save her fence. I even have a track bicycle and a hand-made guitar that were saved from the curb. Sometimes, things have plenty of life left in them if you are willing to love them up a little bit. Sometimes, you need to turn it over in your mind a little bit to find what it will still work for. I found a stainless steel washing machine tub on the curb that has served me as a fire pit for nearly ten years. The former owner of our house put a deck along the garage, but where it was situated, water flowing off the roof of the garage threatened to return it to it’s constituent elements. We put posts in across the yard, high enough to walk out from inside the house and reoriented it to be more useful as well as extending it’s life considerably. Often little changes in how we look at the world open up immeasurable possibilities.
Remember the old projects that turned old milk cartons into bird feeders and toilet paper tubes into Christmas ornaments? Virtually anything can be remade into something functional even if it looks a little camp on occasion. One of my favorite re-purposing projects was taking the guts out of an old console television. The glass front was turned into a low, relatively flat compost tray while the beautiful woodwork was a perfect fit for a 30 gallon fish tank. Watching TV on that set was way more fun than the commercial type of television. Keeping things out of landfill can be quite fun. It not only saves fuel used to transport the waste, but when done with a bit of foresight and a few tools, there can be rewards from recycling the various metals, creating other objects out of non-recyclable stuff and/or segregating items (which then require a bit of organization) but can be used for other projects.
Granted, we are not always able to find new life for our cast offs, but if we can step back a bit, get a little creative, or change our perspective just a little, we often find blessings in disguise just that much more easily. As with many skills, the ease with which we can re-purpose objects depends on developing sound foundations in design and engineering, attention to detail and craftsmanship. Having some basic working knowledge of techniques used in woodworking, metal fabrication and plastics, as well as some experience and a few good tools helps as well. If you don’t know where to start, try a few smaller things and resign yourself to throwing them away if they don’t turn out. No pressure. If it looks like a train wreck, what’s the worst that can happen? You waste a little time and some glue, or whatever and it goes in the trash anyway. They say that Thomas Edison tried 100 ways to make a light bulb before he got it right. turning trash to treasure is the basis of many wildly successful businesses. Perhaps there are more ways to make money on waste that we have not yet considered. Good luck on your quest, may it reward you immeasurably.