I’m digging a hole today. Which, for a man who plants trees for a living, is not saying anything extraordinary. Digging holes is as basic to me as brushing my teeth. Putting a shovel in the ground is something I do as naturally as breathing.
I grew up with dirt between my toes. After Dad plowed the garden, he taught me to walk beside him with a cotton sack of corn seed. “Drop two in the furrow and cover it with your feet,” he said. I liked to do it barefooted. I could feel the warmth of the soil each time I stepped. If you know that scent, you can smell the sweet aroma of a freshly turned field. On a warm spring day, with the windows down, driving along, when I catch a whiff of a plow at work, it takes me back every time.
I lived in the dirt as a kid. If it was sunny, I was out in the back yard digging roads with my Tonka Trucks. Or, down in the creek packing clay and rocks together to build a small dam across the water. Even on wet days, the mudholes in the driveway called to me. I’d form a mound of mud over the top of my bare foot, slowly sliding my foot backwards, leaving behind a small red igloo. We called them frog houses because the point was to catch a frog and put him inside his mud hut.
Mama used to fuss at me about my clothes. “How on earth did you get all this dirt on your pants?” It was a playful question. At least I thought it was. She never told me to stay out of the dirt except on Sundays. She knew exactly what us boys would do as soon as church let out. I’d run for the back door, and she’d grab the back of my collar to slow me down. “Look here young man, those are your good pants. No grass stains. They better not be dirty when we get in the car.”
“Yes ma’am.” I tried to obey, but I was not always a good boy.
I don’t plow anymore. I don’t play in mudholes these days. But I still get dirt and grass stains on my britches. That happens when you dig a hole. “My Lord,” Beth would say. “Could you get any more dirt on those jeans? Just take ‘em off right here in the kitchen and put them in the laundry room. I don’t want those in the closet.”
“Yes ma’am.” I was a boy again.
I’ve dug holes helping my mama plant rose bushes. I’ve dug holes with my dad putting in fence posts. I’ve dug holes to bury more than a few good dogs. I’ve even dug holes for a few thoroughbred racehorses who collapsed on the steeplechase track at Callaway. You might say I’ve learned a thing or two about digging holes in my time.
We had a dugout well at our house east of Hampton. Most everybody did back in those days. We didn’t know anything about county water. If you had running water in your house, it came from a well.
Our well was about 5 to 6ft across and 20ft deep, maybe more. I never knew who dug that hole in the ground. Maybe my grandfather. But it was the biggest hole I’d ever seen. Slide the cover off the top and with a flashlight I could see the reflection of the water way down below the platform for the pump. To a kid, it was like looking into the abyss.
The lower wall caved in one year. Too much rain, I guess. The foot valve was buried in mud. It had to be dug out.
I was too young to be of much help, but I remember admiring the courage of the men who were lowered into that well on a rope. They took shovels and buckets down to the bottom. The buckets were filled, tied to a cord, and pulled to the surface. Braces were set in place, down in the bowels of the earth, and the well was put back in service.
I’d like to know how many holes I’ve dug over the years. Probably not as many as the number of ham & cheese sandwiches I’ve eaten, but a bunch.
Believe it or not, there’s an art to digging a good hole. Especially, when it comes to planting a tree. Some of you will think I’m nuts. How is it possible to dig a bad hole? It’s a hole in the ground, for crying out loud. Shovel. Dirt. Dig.
Marshall and I planted a tree at the cemetery back in January. It was one of the things I wanted to do for our plot of ground on this earth that would be there long after we’re both gone. Some hole diggers would dig out the bare minimum to get the root ball in the ground. Us tree diggers call them coffee can holes. Which is a bad hole.
To do it right, the hole needs to be wide at the top, curving slightly in toward the bottom, like a mixing bowl. The bigger the tree, the wider the hole. And not too deep. Some folks think you need to dig to China to plant a tree. But the perfect hole holds the top of the root ball at ground level.
I wish we had had the help of a machine that day. I hoped it would be soft digging, but it wasn’t. The first six inches we’re easy enough. From there it was like digging through concrete. Pick for a while. Scoop out two inches. Pick for a while. Scoop and blow for a few minutes. It took us two hours to dig one hole. Made me think maybe I’m getting too old to be digging holes anymore.
The result was worth the effort. Now there is a 14ft oak in that hole. Barring some catastrophic event, it will stand there until my grandchildren are old. It will shade the earth in the summer and drop its leaves to cover us in the fall.
A lot of holes have been dug in this cemetery in the last hundred years. There was a time when our people buried their own. The solemn work of shovel and sweat to prepare the final resting place. The feel of moist soil that holds together in your hand when you squeeze it. The scent of earth in your nostrils.
But we have distanced ourselves from this work these days. When we come to the cemetery, the hole is already dug by someone else. The bare earth covered with a fake grass carpet, so we don’t have to see the disturbance. The frame and casket hiding the hole that awaits its new tenet.
This hole today, I’m digging it myself, right next to that oak. I could have had someone else dig it. I would if it were for a casket, but this hole is for an urn. I’ll be dirty by the time I finish. But no one will fuss about the stains on my pants.
I think she’ll understand this time.