By Merisa Sherman
Leaning on my shovel, I take the bandanna from my Carhartts and wipe the sweat from my brow. It’s hot in Vermont and I can’t seem to stop the sweat from burning my eyes as I work on this garden reclamation project. A beautiful and productive garden until Irene came through, we finally admitted defeat. No matter how I tried, one cannot just turn clay and silt into fertile soil. And so I find myself out in the hot sun, singing my hole digging song as I dig the silt out of my garden.
As the first blade pierces the ground, you are at the beginning of something new and exciting. You hear that almost squishy sound as the blade breaks through the grass and lifts the roots up from below. Your mind wanders to the possibilities of your new project, whether it’s a simple garden bed or the groundbreaking on a new home. The breaking of ground with a shovel always brings hope and a sense of pride that comes with a well dug hole. Think of the excitement of a young child as she begins digging to China for the 15th time that summer. The physical progress is clearly visible, as the hole becomes deeper and the pile alongside grows.
To be perfectly honest, I love shoveling. There is something about getting lost in the repetitious movement. That simple rhythm as you step on the blade, driving it into the earth, followed by the lift and swing of the shaft as you throw the dirt through the air. It could be a mindless meditation, your mind wandering where it will. You could almost do it with your eyes closed. Except that here in Vermont, you are constantly and brutally reminded that you are digging a hole in the rocky soil of the Green Mountains. A sharp pain shoots up your spine as your shovel hits yet another rock and dings off sideways and you almost fall over into the hole.
Instead of mindlessness, you learn focus as you manipulate the blade of the shovel through the rocky ground. Wiggling the shovel around, approaching the dirt from different angles and at different speeds, you simply learn or quit. While the movement itself is pure repetition, from the arm swing to the leg press, the earth is never quite the same. You must learn her character, study the many rocks and living things within her and appreciate the changes in color and texture. As the dirt is different, every strike must be different. Just as you cannot magically make silt into soil, you cannot use brute strength to force the shovel through the rocky ground. The earth does not need to move. It just is. How you approach your task is up to you.
But the shovel can also bring sadness and nightmares. You hear the dirt drop onto the wooden casket, a scratchy, grainy noise that echoes across the open field and lives in your mind forever. Reluctantly, you step forward with shaking hands. The sound of metal scraping against the dirt penetrates your soul as you struggle to lift the shovel from the pile. The smallest bit of dirt on the tip of the blade seems to weigh more than the entire world. This is earth you never wanted to move and a hole that you never wanted to fill. The last gift you never wanted to give.
Following a long, cool drink of water, I put my hat back on and put my bandanna back in my pocket. I’ve still got a long way to go in reclaiming this garden and an excavator isn’t coming in to do the work for me.
This is my hole and my conversation with the earth. The shovel is merely a tool to connect us with the earth, to learn from the soil and to shape the future as we may. What will we discover when we pick up that shovel and dream? Will we find ourselves?