Digging and delving

In those days I was not very tall, and the red-shanked spade, with its square-edged blade and short oak handle, was the only shovel I could manage. My father had others in the shed - long-handled and pointed like the prows of ships , or flat and broad for scooping up grain and snow. We even had a post-hole digger, a massive nutcracker that pinched fingers and strained elbows as it dug its little round holes.

But the spade was best. You planted it firmly in the turf and leaped on it with both sneakered feet. In it went, shearing a clean thin line. Three more like it in a square, and you could lift out a clod of turf by its hair. And there beneath was the rich New England earth, calling us to dig as far as we dared. Even, we thought, to China.

In those days, the field across the street grew grass in waves, cresting and breaking under the summer wind. It was there that our plans to reach China took shape - not with a clipper ship around the earth's fat girth, but with a shaft straight through its center. We even punched a few test holes here and there - until the day our third-grade teacher got to talking about volcanoes and magma and the red-hot center of the world. After that our plans changed. We never admitted that we had given up the China venture; but we settled for digging forts and caves instead.

The field never seemed to mind. Long before we got there it had been purchased by the electric company, which burned it over each year and kept it as a right of way for its high-tension lines. Years before that, it must have been an orchard: Under one of the pylons stood three aging and ramshackle apple trees , which, despite their blossoming promise each spring, produced but a scanty crop of gnarled and sour fruit in the fall.

Then, during the war, the field had been laid out into victory gardens. I can still remember, as a tot, hearing the chink of hoes and the soft babble of voices as neighboring families tended their vegetables in the still summer evenings. Some years later, when the war was gone and the grass had again taken victory over the gardens, I dug up a freshly grown carrot - part of a stock still seeding itself, no doubt, from those family plots. It too was hard and gnarled, and warm from the sun. I wiped it clean (as boys will) on my sleeve, and bit into it. It was, and remains to this day, the sweetest carrot I have ever tasted.

But it was up in the corner where the Central Vermont railroad tracks crossed Whitney Street that we did our serious digging. It was here that we built our fort against the enemies - who, in the form of several fourth-graders living across the field, were sure to be plotting deep and mischievous intrigue against our defenses.

First we dug a shoulder-deep pit the size of a child's bed. Then we overlaid our hole with stout beams, smaller sticks, and a layer of cut grasses. We left a small hole in one corner where the ladder went down. And so we crouched in its coziness, fancying ourselves protected from our foes by the skillful camouflage of our thatch. In fact, they probably never bothered to look for us - although one day some weeks later, after we had wearied of hiding there waiting for Something Sudden to happen, we returned to find the beams staved in and the thatch scattered.

Not that it mattered. By then we had discovered that the hill in the woods behind our house, though dirt on the surface, was actually sand - pure orange-white sand, without rocks or roots, and packed so hard that the spade could carve it into straight-sided, tough-ceilinged tunnels and caves. In the months that followed it became a regular rabbit warren of holes and channels - while the spade, to my father's occasional annoyance, spent weeks away from its home in the shed.

But the fall rains came, and school set in, and the next year, as I recall, we got into hammers and nails and building lumber huts. The holes crumbled and the tunnels collapsed; and it wasn't long before there was no sign left of a boy's unreasoned fascination with digging in the earth.

What were we after, anyway? I've asked myself that many times since, when some householder's task again puts me behind a shovel to plant a shrub or set a fence post. Why, in those days, did the simple act of digging produce such unreasoned delight, such a sense of purpose and passion and power?

Part of it, I suppose, has to do with the hunger to construct, to make out of the randomness of soil or sand a structured whole - as a toddler, faced with a pile of blocks, begins at once to stack and order them around him. Part of it, too, must have to do with the drive to use tools. For in nothing do grown-ups seem to have more power and authority than in their capacity to wield tools deftly - driving nails straight, slicing carrots into even disks, and doing so simply the thousand things which to a child seem hopelessly difficult. Maybe a shovel, as a most straightforward tool, promises quickest victory over the landscape of a child's life.

Yet beneath that, I think, lies an even greater longing. It is the simple, central thirst for depth. We adults - we tool-users, skilled in the arts of cutting and shaping and polishing - know how much depth matters. We know we cannot live without it. For we are a wordy bunch. We are probers and delvers, slicing the fine spade of language through the red-hot centers of experience and into the rich chinoiserie of the world's far shore. And our depths, contrary to cliche, are luminous. Unlike the child's cave, they grow brighter and lighter the farther we dig.

Or is it, after all, so unlike? I remember well the feeling of the thatched fort and sand cave - the coziness, the strength of the walls, the sense of containment and protection. There was nothing dark or murky about them. They were, in their own ways, illuminations - victories of structure, triumphs of tool-using. But mostly, sweeter than field-grown carrots, they were masteries of depth - small prefigurings of those days when the spade would hang again in the shed, and the pen, in its place, would steer through ever-brightening depths to other Chinas.

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