Crafting Gentleness

Sunday, July 22, 2007


The cold smell of potato mold, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I've no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I'll dig with it.

Seamus Heaney, "Digging", Death of a Naturalist (1966)

I used to think that Seamus Heaney's poem "Digging" provided something of a justification for me in my work as an academic, that somehow, perhaps, the craft of being a writer gave me a connection with my relatives and ancestors who have worked on farms, worked with the soil.

After a day of digging I realise that it was something of a romantic notion, the sort of notion that keeps me in mind of something Bertrand Russell said in his History of Western Philosophy, where he commented that there have been very few pragmatist philosophers in the canon of so-called Western philosophy because very few of them ever had to carry a spade. I'll see if I can dig up the exact reference (geddit?).

I did some digging yesterday. I was out helping Paul, the current owner, to lay a water pipe for the house that I am trying to buy.

Digging and writing are very different activities, and, to be honest, I'm not terribly good at digging. I have gone too long in my life without learning how to dig. My body wasn't used to it, or so it tells me a day later. The muscles in my hands are stiff and uncomfortable; there's a blister on my heel; my back is stiff and sore; my shoulder has been pulled. I'm wondering if the last time I dug a hole was with a bucket and spade on a beach as a child? If that's true, it would be a little scary.

While digging I got sweaty and muddy and covered in midge bites. I can't remember the last time that happened while writing.

The spade sounded true when I knocked it against the tree and let it ring out.

My technique improved as I went along, and I kept an eye on what Paul was doing. He knew what he was doing. I didn't. I felt almost embarrassed at my lack of connection to the soil, the inappropriateness of my years of training, my years of experience, for such a basic task as digging a hole in the ground. It is something to learn by doing it more, and there will be plenty more of it to do, I'm guessing.

As I sliced the metal through the turf I wished my grandfathers had been around to show me how to dig.

Seamus didn't have a spade, but it would have been easy enough for him to go out and get one.

In my shed
The sharp and sturdy spade rests.
I'll dig with it
when it makes sense to do so.


  • There's a John Berger essay called 'A Load of Shit', about the annual task of digging out the accumulated contents of the latrine at his smallholding. "The shit slides out of the barrow when it's upended with a slurping dead weight. And the foul sweet stench goads, nags teleologically..."

    In it, he makes a similar point to Russell, though pushed harder, about the unwillingness of "elite intellectuals" to get crap on their hands. "In the world of modern hygiene, purity has become a purely metaphysical or moralistic term. It has lost all sensuous reality."

    It's a good essay.

    It's good to have unromantic reminders of the reality of living closer to the earth. The more my current project sucks me in to the Great Wen, the more I'm conscious of a longer term desire to move in the other direction. But I am conscious too of the danger of this becoming a romantic projection - nine bean-rows, and a hive for the honey bee...

    As an antidote to this, and since I don't expect an invitation to shovel shit in the Haute Savoie in the near future, I'll happily volunteer my incompetent services to assist with your spadework some time soon.

    By Blogger Dougald Hine, at Tuesday, 24 July, 2007  

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