Monday, February 9, 2009

Consider the Shovel

Consider the humble shovel as an alternative to the  noisy, fuel guzzling, plant-killing, soil-ripping backhoe.  

Dig by hand?  Are you mad?  Actually, no.  For millenia, before the advent of fossil fuels and modern machinery, digging and excavation was done by hand.  Yes, it's slower, but yes, it got done.  It's time we all slowed down anyway;  stopped believing that  getting  things done requires us to rush.  Rushing stresses us out.  Many times, I've stood on a building site while backhoes and bulldozers careered across the landscape, noisily crushing everything under their huge wheels and metal tracks, feeling the panic of watching as hundreds of dollars an hour were sucked up and praying that the men behind the controls knew what they were doing.  

A machine needs room to move,  thus always an area 3 or 4 times the size of the machine ends up stripped bare of any plant or animal life.  When an earthmoving machine is on site, the noise blocks out everything else.  No one can think clearly.  Often mistaken decisions are taken, and these usually cost money.

Consider the humble shovel.   Digging is an art; digging is a science.  Digging can  be a  true pleasure.

 At the age of 20,  I learned to dig from a master.  I was living in Philadelphia and was between colleges (I'd been kicked out of one, was taking some time off before starting at another) and had gotten a job at a tree nursery on the  Main Line.  Most of the work involved planting trees - some of them full grown, with root balls up to 8' across, on  the estates of well-to-do locals.  Moore Nursery was an old, well-established business, and was known for its fine work and minimal impact on the landscape.  Thus all digging was done by hand.  Crews of Puerto Ricans worked in the nursery, digging up and wrapping the root balls of the trees.  The all-anglo crews that went out on the estates worked under one or another of the Moore brothers, all of them in their  sixties and seventies.  They were an Irish, hard-drinking bunch, who nevertheless knew their craft.  In addition to learning how to handle a shovel, I learned to drink shots of cheap rye followed by a short beer.  One of the Moore sisters had married a landscape architect, a  white-haired gentleman, who dressed in suits and wore a fine fedora.  It was he who really ran things and who sold the jobs to Moore Nursery's elegant clientele.

On-site crews were composed of two laborers and a boss, usually one of the Moore brothers.  On arrival, we would mark out the locations of the trees for planting and begin by laying burlap about 4' wide  around the perimeter of each hole.  This was where the dirt from our excavation was laid, so that when we were done, we lifted the burlap, sprinkling the final dirt near the base of the tree, and except for the temporary flattening of the grass, it looked as if we had never been there.

It was Earl Moore who first taught me how to handle a shovel and who bought me my first boilermaker at a saloon in Gladwyn, Pa.  I learned from Earl how to dig a straight-sided hole, how to work sequentially from one shovel-full to the next; how to let the weight of the pick work for, rather than  against you;  how to use your legs more than your back;  how to take your time: rest, reflect, tell a racy joke, play a prank, yet get the work done.  Earl was a tough man, a traditional boss, a bigot and a sexist. He was often mean in the morning, probably from being hung over, yet what he taught me about honest work has served me well all my working life.  

Since then, I've done a lot of digging: planting fruit trees on our property, water trenches for drainage, cleaning up after backhoes(the inevitable on any job done by machine) and more and more lately, digging and excavating for foundations or other earthwork:  Big digs.  In digging by hand, by the nature of it,  you go slowly, efficiently and considerately.  Earth is heavy: you plan just how much to dig and no more.  You observe the contents of each shovelful; learn the nature of the soil and the plants and creatures living on it and in it.  You work at your own pace.  Because it is tiring work, you stop frequently, look up, across the land, into the sky.  Smell the soil and the trees.  The birds stay close, not chased off by racing engines and diesel smoke.  You reflect, ideas come into your head.  You bend to the soil again.

Allow time for digging.  If you are in a hurry, ignore these words, or perhaps you should heed them.  Don't try to attack the work all at once.  Dig for a few hours a day, perhaps in one or two-hour sessions.  It's good exercise.  Food tastes better.  You sleep well.  Hire a helper or helpers.  A man with experience with a shovel(as most men I've known do, who come from the south of our border) can move a lot of soil in a day.  They'll move as much as a backhoe will in an hour and cost you the same amount, and at the end, you may have made a friend.

John Corcoran