I've done some digging in the past couple of months. It's hot work. It was better in the earliest days of spring when it was cold and smoke drifted in the trees. If you haven't done it for a long time you have dues to pay. It makes you aware of how many of our muscles go, day after day, utterly untested.
The spade, the shovel, are plebeian tools. That's a word out of time, but just right here. One feels lowly with it in hand. As a tool its possibilities are limited; it does not lend itself to virtuosity or finesse.
I use the spade, then the shovel to clear away the rubble made by the spade. These tools get as much out of me as I get from them. But they don't get tired.
In the evening when I am exhausted I regard the spade. It stands upright against a pine, as straight as it was in the morning when we began. I, of course, am not straight. Bent is what I am. The shape of its blade reminds me of a hard human heart; it is a glum gray. It remains there, waiting for me to come back to it.
When I was young my father would say to me, "You have to do well in school or you'll wind up digging ditches for the rest of your life."
The prospect scared me. I thought back then there was nothing, not even algebra, so hard as digging dirt. It gave pain; not like the pain from a punch on the bridge of the nose that spits fire into your eyes, but long-term pain, dull and deep, the kind you don't easily shake off.
It conjured images of weary, strained men with gray faces and mud on their knees, men who had no energy left at night to read books. I suppose that's why my father used that imagery.
Although I was willing to consider my father's advice, I have gained another appreciation of the spade. It can in certain circumstances, though not to people dependent on it, return a drop or two of satisfaction, which is at least kin to true pleasure.
Dependent is the key word here. If the spade is your life's partner you're fried. But if resort to it is only occasional, and not driven by economic need -- well, one might look upon it as a form of exercise.
With just the right marketing -- and flash I might persuade the smart set (we all know who they are) to integrate shoveling in their workout routines. It's especially good for the stomach. (We won't mention what it does to the back.) We could suborn a few professional trainers, those who induce sweat for a fee from the vain, overpaid and ambitious, to endorse it for the pectorals, abdominals or whatever is the fashionable anatomical part of the moment. We could incorporate, become The Shovel Group, franchise our routine. Athletic clubs would offer a special inclusion. Nautilus might devise a shoveling machine.
There have been stupider enthusiasms.
This is all dreamery. Shoveling is, if it is anything, mundane. Its purpose is more practical, its practice mildly incestuous in a poetic way. It is to make a hole in the ground, to penetrate the goddess earth.
I have been doing two things with my spade: planting fence posts and digging a small canal near a gum tree for water to drain through. This part occasionally encourages me to imagine myself one of those navvies who dug the great canals of the world. If I really unleash my imagination I can almost hear the Pogues' Shane McGowan singing "Navigator, navigator, rise up and be strong" from their seminal album, "Rum, Sodomy and the Lash."
A little fancy can make the digging easier. But mine is work of necessity. If the posts don't get put in, the fence doesn't go up. If the canal doesn't get dug, the ditch will breed the kinds of bugs that bite.
The soil I'm working in is dark and rich on the top. It is humus formed by years of pine-needle accumulation. But it is webby with root and vine and hard to cut through: the vines grab at the lade. Once through, things go easier. Just beneath the top soil is sand; a few feet further down and this gives way to the water table. The sand and water form a kind of quick-sand that pulls against the blade. It makes you suspect there's someone down there.
There is one more thing to remember about the spade: It engenders ignorance. If you stay with it too long, at the end of the day you will be too tired to read a book. Dig?
Richard O'Mara is a writer for The Baltimore Sun.