Digging for Nothing

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Unrecognizable man digs a hole by shovel in garden.
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Muddy hands.

When, for a time in the 1980s, the medical drama St. Elsewhere was the most-watched series on television, few people had ever heard of the seventh-century St. Eligius for whom the fictional hospital was named. Fewer still would have known the profession for which Eligius was patron. I was one who did.

My youthful fascination with the calendar of the saints—a literal calendar started it, one given away free at the back of the church each new year—has studded my memory with loads of such largely useless information. St. Eligius, I happened to know, was the patron saint of excavators.

Maybe St. Eligius smiled on a warm day of April when my daughter Annie, who was seven at the time, asked if she could dig a hole. It seemed the most natural thing in the world to find the shovel, hand it to her, and say, “Sure.”I think I made the decision not with the mind but with the nose. Here in Minnesota, the smell of cold wet dirt is least as welcome as the proverbial robin. Children are anointed with the muds of April.

As I rummaged through the garden tools for Annie, I thought about my Grandmother Davitt’s house in the small town of Green Isle in Sibley County, where we visited almost every weekend. One Saturday when we pulled up in our Chevrolet station-wagon, I hopped out and ran to my waiting grandmother, asking, “Do you have a shovel?”

Grandma laughed. I suppose my greeting was indeed a non sequitur. It made sense to me. Having come from the confinement of a city lot, digging holes in the fields near her house seemed an ideal way to fill up a weekend.

Weekends needed filing up. Children were not particularly welcomed in Grandma Davitt’s home. She deliberately set mousetraps in the drawers so we wouldn’t go poking around, In fact, the whole town of Green Isle—about 350 people at the time—seemed quite self-contained and suspicious of outsiders. Like all small Irish communities, its residents raised tedium to an art form. We diverted ourselves by walking down to the railroad trestle, climbing on the International Harvester farm machinery parked in a field next to my grandma’s house, and by leaving pennies on the railroad tracks for the morning freight train to flatten. Otherwise, visiting Green Isle meant hanging around while the adults talked. The town was populated, it seemed, wholly by relatives of my mother’s: old ladies who took a scrupulous interest in the ritual of determining who looked like who.Having sorted that out, my grandmother and the other adults gave the impression that they would just as soon not be bothered by children.

Nevertheless, Grandma Davitt must have understood something about kids or at least about boredom, because she promptly found me a shovel.

I dug all day. Since then, I’ve learned that her home in Sibley County rests on what is arguably the richest farmland in the world.Agronomists marvel at the depth of the topsoil. That meant nothing to me: I saw only limitless black dirt, dirt that I could pinch and smell and even taste, filled with worms, millipedes, and tiny spiders of which I was completely unafraid. A blister formed on my palm or I would have continued digging until dark.

Thirty years later, as I watched my daughter grunt and toil to break through the grass, I remembered the pleasure of getting past the soil and down into the black soil.

MORE HOLES IN GREEN ISLE: this time the grown-ups weren’t indulgent. My cousins and I had looked into the cellar under Grandma’s house. We rarely entered there, in part because it was so difficult to lift the heavy sloping doors that covered the descending steps; I couldn’t have lifted it by myself. The cellar had an earth floor on which water pooled.Electrical wires were exposed down there, and I feared switching on the naked bulb that provided the only light. Brian, an older cousin from Wisconsin, was the first to enter the cellar, and he came back up with a post-hole digger.

A post-hole digger, if you’ve never seen one, consists of two spades with narrow blades hinged in such a way that they face each other.The two convex blades form opposite sides of a circle. You drive the blades into the ground, then spread the handle apart so that the blades pinch together. When you pull the two handles straight up, the dirt is caught between them and you are left with a clean hole in the ground.It may sound complicated, but it works with the elegance of a well-crafted tool.

My brother Mike, Brian and his brother Denny, and I leapt on the post-hole digger with the enthusiasm that kids bring to a new toy. We made a Swiss cheese out of the field, riddling it with beautifully symmetrical holes. Denny and I were not quite tall enough to drive it in straight, and our backs ached when we tried to raise the loaded blades.

We were gathered in Green Isle for a funeral, I’m sure—that was the only occasion that would have assembled all the cousins—and were wearing our best clothes. Denny was in the new suit his parents had purchased just for the funeral.

Our younger sisters toddled over too. Maureen squirmed and cried when Brian tried to lower her into one of the holes, but my sister Carol was ready for anything. She had on a frilly pink dress with white tights. I have a mental picture of just how she looked that day, smiling as she looked up from the deepest hole.

That happened to be the very moment when Uncle Elroy took a break from the coffee and rolls in the kitchen, and come out to check on the kids.

“What are you kids doing” he asked.

Denny lifted the post-hole digger. There were thirty mounds of dirt nearby.

“Where’s Carol?” he asked with mounting concern.

“I’m here,” she called from the hole.

Uncle Elroy made a quick survey of our diggings and began yelling. Brian, his oldest son, came in for particular lambasting for not having stopped us. “Are you trying to break someone’s leg?What’s the matter with you, Brian? Look at your clothes!”

We glumly set about filling in our work—the tool that was so good at making holes was hopeless as a shovel—and Elroy left shaking his head. “Where did you get that idea?”

The point is, no one gave us the idea. Our reason for digging holes was a variation on the reason explorers climb mountains: because if we did, there would be one there. The logic was too simple for grown-ups to understand; even when they did not stop us from digging, they were apt to make a smug joke about striking oil or looking for buried treasure. They just had to intrude a purpose on an activity that neither had nor needed a point.

LAST SUMMER I walked down the alley past my old house, where I had lived in until fifth grade. The house is in disrepair; I know for a fact that the garage has not been painted for more than thirty years.But the structure we called “the playhouse” was still standing, a gray shed (once a chicken coop) that survived for decades. My brother and sisters and neighbor kids took over the playhouse and sent most of our time inventing games there.

The Johnson family’s garage stood two feet away from our garage, and one of the most satisfying afternoons of my child was spent digging into the sliver of land between the two buildings. Several feet down, the world’s most negligible time capsule, which contains only a slip of paper giving the date, lies buried in an empty mustard jar. I put it there.

It was a sticky afternoon in the dog days of August, too stuffy to be in the playhouse; my siblings Carol and Mike and our neighbor Jackie were in their swimsuits, splashing in the large green plastic wading pool ribbed with heavy pipes.

My mother was in the house doing laundry and rearranging furniture. She saw me when she came out to hang clothes on the line.

“I don’t see why you want to dig a hole in the dark when you could be swimming,” she said. I thought it was an obvious choice, and to give my mother credit, she made no effort to stop me.

When I got below the foundation of the Johnson’s garage, I felt a sense of accomplishment, though the pebbled underside of the slab was probably only eighteen inches down. When I finished digging, I could stand in the hole and the foundation was at my shoulder as looked up at the sliver of sky. Then I planted my time capsule, refilled the hole, and let the other kids squirt me with the hose to clean off.

I would love to go back and dig up that mustard jar.

In 1965, my family moved from that house—which my grandfather had built, and in which my father grew up—and into a split-level ranch house on the frontier of suburbanization, on Babcock Trail (there was no one named Babcock) in the newly incorporated community of Inver Grove Heights (which were not heights). I was twelve and didn’t particularly want to move.My parents explained the many advantages of the new house.We gained a great deal of space, especially in the yard, though I still had to share a room with my brother. We gained privacy. We gained a rural ambience—in a few years, my sister even kept a horse—but I thought we lost more than we gained.

I missed the simple convenience of Sixth Avenue North—walking a block to school, my mom sending me to get milk or bread at the grocery two blocks away. My mother would thereafter spend hours driving us to and from our old friends in town. Although the new house had a room called a breezeway, the house wasn’t aligned to catch the breeze; I much preferred the old screened front porch, where I had slept in the summer. Though our new house had two fireplaces, I liked neither so much as the old one in the den. We had no neighbors, and when we eventually met kids from down the road they were kids who took a bus to public school, not the kids we saw at St Augustine’s. And I missed all the family associations:the license plates nailed to the wall of the garage, the buckeye tree my father had brought back from Kentucky.

Another small disappointment: the new house sat on filled land. The ground was sandy and full of rocks.Digging in such rubble was no fun. It was a frustrating chore that required a mining pick.

For all these small reasons, I disliked the new house, and ultimately, have never made my peace with newer homes. Most of my co-workers or friends with whom I went to school have embraced the suburbs without question. I don’t know many who will say they regret living in places like Apple Valley or Woodbury. But my wife and I have chosen a different route. We’ve deliberately elected to live in an urban neighborhood, to live in an old house where somebody lived before us, to go to a school that some people’s parents and grandparents attended.

The connection between generations doesn’t always feel profound or ceremonial.There are ordinary moments when I feel powerfully bound to the past. On that muddy April day when I watched Annie—wholly oblivious to St Eligius’ protection—wrestling with a shovel two feet taller than herself, I knew I was seeing something that my parents, and the parents of millions of other children, had also seen. Annie clouted the earth with great earnestness, putting all her backbone and heart into busting loose a clod of ground. Looking at the mound and black and brown dirt strewn in the yard, I thought, here’s another way to honor tradition—with a pointless hole in the ground, a pile of dirt left over, and with shovels unlocked from the tool shed.

James Silas Rogers has lived in Minnesota all his life and never wanted to be anything but a writer. He’s written poems for many publications, a book about cemeteries (Northern Orchards: Places Near the Dead, 2014), and essays, three of which have been named “notables” in Best American Essays. Reprinted from Ruminate (Spring 2016), a quarterly journal featuring stories, poetry, and art that teaches us to slow down, to listen, and to pay attention—awakening our hearts to our selves and one another.www.ruminatemagazine.com 

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