It is spring, and I need to dig a hole in my backyard.
I want to plant a tree. I want to plant a tree that will grow full and tall and strong and outlive me for hundreds of years.
It must be that whole circle of life thing that I somehow need to honor. Where it ends with a hole in the ground, so it also begins.
This may sound very deep, but there are obvious pitfalls to digging a hole in the ground. Bad puns and trivial metaphors are at the top of the list. And, depending on how far I dig, gas lines, tribal remnants, subway tunnels, Jimmy Hoffa, and ultimately China appear near the bottom.
There is a rule of thumb which I always try to follow when I pull out my shovel: dig a $50 dollar hole for a $5 plant.
At first I didn’t understand this. I am removing dirt when I dig a hole, not adding to it. How do I make a hole worth more? And if I am preparing to plant a $100 tree, am I now supposed to scale up $1,000 for the pit it rests in? When contemplating the net worth of holes, the laws of subtraction don’t really add up.
But I learned through experience, mainly at the expense of dead roses, that the hole must be generously large relative to the root ball that will fill it. This allows for adequate expansion and nourishment of the root structure. Because even though they live on dirt, trees can be picky eaters.
When it comes to planting, I have another rule of thumb: make sure that thumb is green. Which in my case should mean hiring a gardner, because while I am good at digging holes, I am notorious for killing what goes in them. But at least when plants die, I don’t need to dig another hole for them. They just turn brown and I pretend it is winter.
You would think digging a hole is easy. And when other people do it, it generally is. But if you have to do it yourself, be prepared for Murphy's law of Impenetrable Objects, which roughly states given the chance that a large rock lies underneath the very spot you wish to dig, it does.
Once I built a fence. This required digging post holes in a straight line at fixed intervals. I laid out a string to align where the posts should go, and marked the spots with stakes. Then, using a post hole digger, I augured perfectly matched holes one by one along the line.
Mid stretch I struck a rock. I dug the hole a little wider in hopes of prying it loose.
It was a big rock. I dug wider. It was a really big rock. More like a glacial slab. Or maybe the continental shelf. I could have erected a 60 story building on it.
Undeterred, I expanded my hole digging repertoire to include granite.
When my wife asked what I was doing lying on the ground with a cold chisel and a hammer, I told her I was adding my face to Mount Rushmore. But I managed to create a fissure that could easily break up the rock with just the right encouragement.
Fortunately for me, my family, and my entire neighborhood, they don’t sell dynamite at the Home Depot.
But it was possible to hire a professional.
This is when I learned what it meant to dig a $1,000 hole for a $10 plant.
Digging holes is dirty, back breaking work. It is sweat and grime and raw skin showing painfully through popped blisters. And when you are done all you have to show for your labor is a hole and a pile of dirt.
Men climb mountains because they are there. Men dig holes because they are not there.
It is hard when rhythmically feeding a shovel and casting off the loose dirt, not to think of graves and the people who dig them. For ages, humans with scoops and shovels have hollowed out of the earth perfectly rectangular holes 6 ft deep and 8 ft wide and 3 ft across. The holes are unnaturally natural. They are perfect in a way that shouldn’t be perfect. They are expensive in a way that cannot be valued.
And they are always created to be filled.
On Hart Island in New York, the hole is immeasurably long and wide and hollowed by men operating bulldozers and backhoes and heavy machinery. The space feels immense and negative because it is. It is a void that should never be. As a hole in the ground, It is a soleless vacuum of pain and tears.
Only until the hole returns its emptiness back to the earth can we begin to fill with hope.
To heal is to toil and to toil is to dig.
I am thinking an Oak tree. It will need a big hole. And I need to dig.