Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On getting filthy and hunting whales


Addison and I have spent the last couple of weeks digging up the lawn of Lindsay's parents' rental property. I mean, not non-stop, but it's taken the place of at least three or four afternoon visits to the playground. I shouldn't even really call it a "lawn." That's what it will be. Right now, it's not too far from looking like the surface of Mars.

Here's the thing: the property has a root problem. Which is another way of saying that it used to have a tree problem (turns out it both used to and still does, as you'll see). Some of the roots get pretty near the surface, and so we've been taking them out as we make room for a sprinkler system.

It turns out that digging for roots is a lot like whaling. It's possible that I say this because Moby-Dick is one of my favorite books, and I've been known to go out of my way to find parallels. But picture this:
You get a strange feeling in your bones, of something beneath you, of the "subtleness of the [earth]," and "how its most dreaded creatures glide under [the ground], unapparent for the most part, and treacherously hidden beneath the loveliest tints of [umber]." -Herman Melville, with my own additions

It's exciting at first, to strike something firm beneath your shovel, to hit the hardened flesh of a creature that is many times your size. You learn that there are communities of roots beneath your feet, the dead and dying sharing space with the living. The old stump you thought you were following leads to the massive living appendage of a beast shooting up out of the ground fifty feet away, where it stands towering over the earth, a titan that grasps the ground beneath it with a gripping, many-fingered hand hundreds of feet in diameter. 

You uncover a monstrous tentacle, only to find that it dives! dives! down into the earth, evading your puny human efforts to unearth it. How deep could it possibly go, you wonder. Deep, you learn. Deep. Hours later, and still not finding the end of the massive tendril, you wipe your brow and succumb to a desperation that sends you hauling and straining at the muscled limb, only to fall to the ground gasping in defeat after an impossible arm wrestle. How can you help but shout at the sky, "To the last I grapple with thee; from hell's heart I stab at thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee!" It's a feeling that I think even Addison could relate to.

In the end, it's only a root, right? Not the incomprehensible demon of the unknown that silently grows its insidious fibrils and filaments, its fossilized veins beneath our feet. Addison had to remind me at one point, saying, "Calm down, daddy. Calm down. Just a root."

And yet the contest of wills between plant and animal, vegetable and daddy, was not lost on the kid. Consider this epic moment in which my daughter herself declares war on the creature she straddles, preparing a blow with all the strength in her little body:

By the power of Grayskull!
Today most of the roots are still there, recalcitrant over-sized woody fingers that only reluctantly release their grasp. As I write about it now, I'm thinking that this is a good experience for us both. Addison is enjoying digging in the mud at least as much as she enjoys pretending to be a princess

While we're over there digging, Addison gets to see me working hard, she gets to see me sweat and labor with my hands, and she's watching me struggle and maybe even fail a little bit (all ideas that I've written about before). She sees me get frustrated and she sees me take a step back and center myself before digging in again. And she gets to help! Even though her "help" mostly consists of standing right in the place I'm trying to dig, because once she sees me claim a spot, she figures it must be the best spot. As though there isn't enough dirt here for everyone. This is the best sort of classroom. Even though Lindsay's warned me in no uncertain terms not to get another pair of her shoes covered in mud. And even though the kid can't help sampling the abundant supply of tasty dirt.

There's nothing much better than getting really dirty with the people you love. 

Addison with her Grammy, digging stuff up with a screwdriver.
And to you, demonic root, we're coming back for you. "For how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the [grasping tentacle] is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it." Your days are numbered, root.

15 comments:

  1. Hopefully your battle ends better than Ahab's. Had to read Moby Dick in two weeks for my literature class and write an analysis on it just last month. A most cumbersome task. Especially for my first semester back to school in four years. Just reading this article makes my brain want to shut down.

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    1. Yeah, Ahab didn't fare well in the end. But really, could there have been any other conclusion to Ahab's journey? Interesting to think of fate and choice in terms of Ahab's doom. One thing Ahab didn't have on his side: A rambunctious toddler. For that reason, I think we may make it.

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  2. I keep picturing Ahab's death scene but instead of the rope it's the roots pulling you down.

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    1. Gotta watch out for those little suckers. Reminds me of Old Man Willow in the Fellowship of the Ring, too.

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  3. I've learned to triple the estimated amount of time that it will take me to perform any task now, because kids "helping" is always iffy.

    And roots -- yeah, I hate them. If I need to dig more than a foot or two down, I just chop it -- either it's going to come back, but that's, like, years away - or it's going to die and kill me by sucking me into a sinkhole when I'm mowing the lawn -- but that's years away, too.

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    1. It's true, it takes longer. But I decided that I may as well get a little digging done in the same time that we'd otherwise be at the playground. She still gets to run around and get dirty, so it's mostly a win-win.

      There's a scene in Jack Schaefer's "Shane" where Shane and Joe Starrett are working to get a stump out, and Mrs. Starrett just wants the two to give up on it and come in for dinner. They refuse, and it's partly a machismo thing, but I can relate to the idea of mostly enjoying the struggle and anticipating the triumph over it in the end.

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  4. Is it just me (and my husband) or is there something deeply satisfying about watching a child playing in the dirt? I just think it's such a healthy thing for kids to do, seriously. Read "Whey Dirt Is Good" by Mary Ruebush if you don't believe me (I'm pretty sure I'm preaching to the choir on this one.)

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    1. Yeah, I'm pretty down with dirt being good. Though every time we go over to dig Addison comes back with her mouth smeared and muddy. Clearly I need to bring more snacks.

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    2. I'm definitely on board with the playing in dirt -- I just wish Neal would put her in the SAME shoes each time (preferably not the ones we've designated as church shoes). Either designated dirt shoes or CLEANING the mud off afterward, that's all I ask!

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  5. Still, despite the dirty shoes, I should also say that this is one of my favorite posts ever. The fantastic pictures, the comic that got a legit chuckle out of my dad (first time ever!), and the interweaving of Moby-Dick, which so perfectly typifies my imaginative husband. Well done.

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    1. I'm sure part of this praise must be due to the fact that I cleaned out two trashcans of our daughter's vomit today. You're welcome.

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  6. crocs. the answer to dirt and shoes.

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    1. Well...she actually has a pair. Which we've tried. And they got muddy. The problem is that dirt leaks in the sides pretty easily, and then she takes them off to clear everything out.

      Of course, she always ends up barefoot one way or another. Most of the time we're digging, heck even while we're at the playground, she's either whining about wanting to take her shoes/socks off, or wanting me to put them back on her. Mostly she doesn't like her crocs that much though, I guess because they're so easy for her to kick off.

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  7. You would probably have a less sore back hunting a White Whale. Been there and it's a horrible task. Great post. Really.

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    1. There are days I plan to go back over there and dig, but then I'm like, I just need one more day to prepare, one more day to let my body not ache.

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