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.