Digging

I’ve been digging in our front garden this week and now understand the meaning of the phrase ‘farmer fit.’ It’s ridiculously hard work. By the time I finished my back ached, my hands were raw, and the sweat was dripping off my nose. I staggered back into the house, doubled over and struggling for breath. ‘You’re not used to real work,’ Fionnuala remarked drily. She had a point, though.

Hard physical labour and I are not on speaking terms. When I was digging, it triggered a memory of watching my grandfather and uncle digging potatoes when I was a young boy. They must have had backs of iron for they never faltered, never flinched from the rhythmic rise and fall as they methodically worked their way through the soil, rarely stopping for rest. These were real men, unafraid of proper graft.

My father was much the same. Broad shouldered and deceptively strong, he could toil in the garden all day, a workhorse who only downed tools when my mother called him in for lunch or dinner. These were tough, unassuming Northern Irish men. They didn’t have muscle vests or gym memberships, they didn’t need them. The land was their gym, the only workout they knew or needed.

All of this reminded me of the poem ‘Digging,’ by Seamus Heaney, which I studied at school. In it, he watches his father dig and compares it to his own art with the written word – ‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’ One of the few lines of verse I remember from my school days, powerful and evocative in equal measure. Writers are diggers, and the pen is our spade.

What are we digging for? Well, I can only speak for myself. I dig to unravel the past, decipher the present and prepare for the future. It is my therapy, my release, a purging, cleansing, bleaching of the spirit. As I write, the toxicity ebbs from my body. I don’t expect fame or fortune. Writing is no means to an end. It is part of me, now. As natural as breathing. I am a writer. I write. That is is the stark, bare truth.

I feel utterly inadequate as I compare my own puny efforts with the spade to the men from my past. There is no comparison between us and, try as I might, I will never match them when it comes to working the land. All I can do is pick up a pen and pay tribute to them. I turn the top soil over and unearth hidden gems, buried deep in the recesses of my memory. Memories, both good and bad, which need to see the light of day once more.

They dug for potatoes, yet I dig more more. I dig to maintain the status quo, an equilibrium and balance so sorely lacking for most of my adult life. I dig to keep on track, eyes fixed ahead, afraid of losing my step and sliding helplessly back down into the miry murk of the past. Dig, dig, deeper and truer with each passing day. Closer, ever closer to the essence of who I am, as opposed to what I became.

‘Between my finger and my thumb the squat pen rests. I’ll dig with it.’

27 thoughts on “Digging

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  1. I recommend The Potato Gatherers by Brian Friel. I am sure that it will mean as much to you as it did to me. I read in school 35 years ago and remember it vividly. I really felt fortuante not to have the lives of Philly and Joe. Being a Tyrone man, you will probably feel the same.

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  2. Digging
    BY SEAMUS HEANEY
    Between my finger and my thumb
    The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

    Under my window, a clean rasping sound
    When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
    My father, digging. I look down

    Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
    Bends low, comes up twenty years away
    Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
    Where he was digging.

    The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
    Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
    He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
    To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
    Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

    By God, the old man could handle a spade.
    Just like his old man.

    My grandfather cut more turf in a day
    Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
    Once I carried him milk in a bottle
    Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
    To drink it, then fell to right away
    Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
    Over his shoulder, going down and down
    For the good turf. Digging.

    The cold smell of potato mould, 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” from Death of a Naturalist. Copyright 1966 by Seamus Heaney.

    Liked by 1 person

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