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Digging Tunnels

I’m writing from the bench at the bend in the trail. When we moved to the Warren these woods were a claustrophobic tangle of thorn, privet, and bush honeysuckle (don’t be fooled by the name–bush honeysuckle is a bane). Jamie and the kids and I crouched our way under the brushy eaves, lopping branches here and there, looking for good trees, marveling at huge slabs of limestone and granite peeking out of the soil, wondering how all those old beer bottles ended up under the humus so far from the house. Eventually we cut a series of trails, the path guided by the shape of the land and the fattest trees we could find–mostly cedar and hackberry, but along the way we happily discovered a couple of young sugar maples, a beast of a shumard oak, as well as the Goliath of our woods–a massive tree that neither of the two experts I’ve brought out here could identify. “It looks like a white walnut,” one of them said, “but if it is, that’s the biggest one in Tennessee.”

At the center of our little stand of trees is the bowl of a dried up pond, now a marshy wetland thick with waist-high grass and a few willows. When we get a lot of rain there’s a trickle that runs through the center and disappears into the foot of the old earthen dam someone piled up a generation or two ago. The former owner, who grew up here, said that he remembered ice-skating on the pond as a boy. The pond (or, the non-pond, rather) is a feature of our property I can’t stop thinking about. From our first day here seven years ago, I’ve voiced my desire to repair the dam and clear out the brush so that we can have a little fishing hole, something not just for the grandchildren but as a food source in case the Cubans invade like they did in Red Dawn. I’m only half-kidding. Something about having a few acres wakes up the survivalist in a man, which is part of why I so enjoy gardening nowadays. The less I depend on the machine the more connected I feel to the remnants of Eden shimmering at the edges of the natural world. Before you think me too hippie, I should remind you that I’m writing this on a computer, and I enjoy my Netflix account.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, except to say that I’ve always had a thing for big projects. For example, the boys and I chainsawed and hacked and lopped the swath of trees between our house and the pond this spring, clearing a section of the slope about twenty yards wide and thirty yards deep—an enormous amount of work that rewarded us with a clear view of the non-pond from the kitchen window. The morning after the clearing was complete I looked down the hill to discover a family of deer drinking from the trickle. Of course, I thought, they’ve probably been drinking down there all these years but we never knew it till now. The fact that the trees are gone hasn’t frightened them off, either, so almost every day I see those beauties graze their way through the bowl.

Here’s a strange memory: when I was a kid in Illinois I discovered a pile of shoveled sidewalk snow in someone’s front yard. At some point I decided that that snowpile needed a boy-sized tunnel dug right through the center, so on the way home from kindergarten I stopped every day for about a week and worked, though I had no idea whose house it was. After fifteen minutes or so I’d head home so my mom wouldn’t be worried. All day at school my mind was occupied with that tunnel. It wasn’t as if I had never dug a tunnel in the snow before, and I’ve often wondered why I remember this one so vividly. But there was something simple and delightful to my little six-year-old self about working at this tunnel alone, in secret, a little at a time for a whole week. The day I finally broke through to the other side I brushed the snow off my pants and stood, mittened hands on my hips, and admired my work. Then I felt someone watching me. I turned around and saw a woman in the house at the window, peeking out at me with a kind face. She might have waved. I pretended not to see her. I was deeply embarrassed as I realized that she had probably been watching me for days.

Memories choose us. Of all the things that must have happened during my childhood—little adventures, moments of shame or joy or comfort—only a few images, like this one, rise to the surface. And they don’t just rise once. They come to me again and again as if there’s some mystery hidden in all the plainness, as if someday I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and understand why that snow-tunnel is stuck in my head.

The next week as I passed the house (on the other side of the street) I noticed that the pile was gone. I’ve always suspected that the woman and her husband never intended to leave it by their driveway, but they noticed a little boy stopping to dig every day and graced me with a week of peaceful, pointless work. I wonder if it gave her something to do, someone to watch for, something to talk about with her husband at dinner during a long, featureless winter.

Earlier today I was working on a new song, alone in the house, and it felt just like digging. I wonder if someone was watching from a high window?


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