There’s a story (seemingly fabricated) that, during the Great Depression in the US, the government hired people to dig holes. One group of workers was supposedly hired to dig all day, and the next day they had off. On that off day, another group of workers came in, hired to fill in vast holes. According to the story, this was a way to give a struggling populace a sense of purpose to help them get through the tough time. I’ve also heard that digging a deep hole and then filling it up is a zen practice. The digging is so full of intent that the mind is free to relax and seek inner peace.
As a family that strives for self-reliance, we have certainly dug some holes and inevitably filled them back up. Granted, each had a purpose. Posts needed to be set, dead creatures needed to be buried, garden beds had to be prepared (hugelkultur, for example!), dirt needed to be collected to improve the grading around the foundation.
So we know that digging by hand is hard work, which is why the idea of doing it for no practical purpose is so intriguing. And though I’ve never dug a hole to seek zen or to give myself a sense of purpose in times of financial pain, I think I understand why these ideas are out there.
Recently I did some very purposeful digging to upgrade our well. It was easily the most digging of my life, with the work spanning 4 days.
Our well is about 35 years old I think, and across so many years, even mighty concrete is weak in the face of the relentless trickling of simple water. During a casual inspection of the well, I noticed some issues that could eventually allow rainwater into our drinking water. It hasn’t been a serious problem yet, but I’m not interested in backtracking after our water gets infected in the future or our well becomes seriously compromised, so we needed to bring the darn thing up to code. A plan was formulated (thanks to my brother who knows about water management), part of which required digging a large area around the well down to depths up to 4 feet so we could install a sort of curtain to redirect rainwater away from the well and keep the groundwater clean and clear no matter what is going on at the surface. So I got my long handled shovel and battered work gloves and over the course of many hours, removed an estimated 12 tons of earth to prepare the area.
Or to look at it differently: my shovel and I dug about enough for 2 graves.
The digging started fast on a Friday evening, the impending sunset a great motivator. My 3 year old daughter brought her small shovel down to help, and a half dozen or so of our hens puttered around discovering grubs and worms as we worked. Constant conversations with my daughter and regularly shooing hens away surely made zen impossible.
(No chickens were harmed in the digging of this hole.)
But there is no question that I was constantly engaged in the work. I’m very into the idea of engaging with the things I do (and eat, as discussed in this blog post) because it brings purpose, success, joy, satisfaction, and really, truth. And what else is there to do but engage with the act of digging when there was nothing to do BUT dig. After ten minutes of digging, all there was to do was to dig more. Hours later, still had to dig. I did it because I had to, no arguments.
I was also engulfed by the simple joys of hens pecking around me. There is not much like the presence of chickens around you, not interested in you at all but near you just the same. They aren’t there to love me, they want worms. It is a simple, undistracted life they are able to live that is probably very zen. While I did not engage with the chickens themselves, I did engage with this idea of their zen. The digging freed me to think about them in this way.
My daughter is at an age where she thrives on purpose. She needs to learn how to participate in our society, and the best way to do this is by participating in any and all activities before her. Sometimes, you have to sit and eat a meal, other times you have to walk the dog, and sometimes you have to dig holes. In this way I was able to just talk with her, indirectly developing her language skills, giving her space to work out her muscles as she chased chickens, and showed her that sometimes, work needs to be done and we don’t complain about it.
I took pride in knowing my work might be, in some small way, good for her.
After digging out the area as needed, I laid in the corrections per the plan my brother drew up. Then it was time to fill in the hole.
I didn’t expect it to be so much work to fill it back in. But it was a lot of work. Almost the same amount of work. This could be very annoying to the unsuspecting worker. And I won’t deny it, I was annoyed. Why were these shovelfuls of dirt the same weight as the ones I had removed in the first place?
But as I continued, and the chickens and my daughter lingered and lived content and curious lives, I stopped thinking about how the work was hard and how I wanted to stop, just as I had done while digging down in the first place. The mounds of earth were so large that I couldn’t estimate how much more time it would take. So I had no choice, I thought about nothing but digging the dirt. And I shoveled some more, and more still.
I’m not trying to say I achieved a state of zen, I think that would be a ways off for a novice like myself. But I did approach something. I entered a different state of mind in varied intervals of dedication to the work.
And when the work was nearly done, I saw our barred rock hen eat a giant earthworm and marveled at this feat with my daughter.