Friday, May 2, 2008

What's In a Hole?

Gardeners spend a great deal of time digging holes. So much so that we might consider ourselves experts in small-scale excavation. Ask any gardener how to dig a hole and he will exuberantly share his knowledge, for you have inquired into a subject matter most people would find droll at best; perhaps unsavory at worst, as though hole-digging best be left for the uneducated or the amusement of children.

Setting about making a hole requires a proper shovel, an implement that many people, sadly enough, do not possess. It is not uncommon for gardeners to have an abysmal collection of tools, and if there is one tool that reveals a gardener to be a sham it is his shovel. I admit to snobbery - I do judge a gardener by the quality and the care of his tools.

To be fair, a lousy shovel can sometimes be used to dig a half-way decent hole, although the amount of energy expended is criminal when compared to digging a hole with a well-constructed shovel. Gardeners who insist on digging their holes with a lousy shovel and then boasting of their accomplishments are awfully boorish. I find myself declining offers to visit their gardens.

When a hole is dug discoveries are made. First, and perhaps most surprisingly, a hole is never is big as it seems, and should never be judged from a bird's eye perspective. At the first inkling of having succeeded a gardener must plunge his head into the earth and have a good look around. Only then will he have an appropriate sense of the hole's size and he can ably adjust his mind to the amount of digging that lies ahead. I once met a gardener who could calculate to the exact shovelful how much excavation was required, which he would call out, his head still underground.

A freshly dug hole possesses the satisfying odor of minerals; iron, copper, zinc, calcium, carbon, volatile sulfur if you're lucky; a hint of decay, a whiff of the beginning and the end of life on earth. By tilting the head sideways one can hear grains of soil tumbling to the bottom. Cool air tickles the skin.

Sculptors think not of holes but instead of
depressions and voids; a painter will name a hole as negative space; a builder excavates but a gardener does not refer to his digging efforts in euphemisms, because gardeners are not so much in the process of "creating" something as they are hoping to locate a nice home for a handsome tree to live out its life in comfort.

A hole in the ground may be an unkind expression for the dwellings of the unfortunate, but any good gardener will assure you that a well-dug hole is, in fact, excellent real estate.

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