Spring cleanup came early this year, thanks to an unseasonably warm spell that sent people and plants poking out their heads to test the air and take in the sun. Somehow, I was able last week to dodge baby bottles and diapers and get outside for an hour.
Raking leaves is but one of the odd bits of outdoor work I do. Given time and money, I might have hired help by now to transform the four acres of land surrounding our house into a woodland landscape. Lacking both, it looks now too much like what it is — a half-cleaned construction zone on a lot hacked out of four acres of mixed growth woods, bisected by a haphazard stream the Corps of Engineers has officially dubbed Wetlands. I’ve a plan to build a bridge over it someday, carving a small trail from the front lawn through the woods, up to the playhouse I’ll eventually build for the kids.
All these things, of course, are far off in the future. But that’s okay. I like the sense of possibility that comes with any unfinished project.
I don’t slave away too much at the land, though I will do serious work. I’ll rake, pick up sticks, continue the process of picking up the small rocks that seem to always find their way onto what passes for our lawn. Eventually I’ll do some plantings, run a hose or two. I might even go back to the fieldstone patio I started building two summers ago. I’m convinced I’ll eventually finish it.
Eventually, of course, the hammock will come out. And once that does, I’ll use it as my occasional refuge. Not for hours at a time, mind you. Just the occasional pause from the busy.
I suspect my father would appreciate the hammock. Like his son, he took his entertainment in small doses.
My father was a farmer. He worked until the final weeks of his life, when he died at 74, from a multitude of health problems brought on by cancer, age and a lifetime of, I suppose, work.
When I say my father worked, I should add that he neither drew a paycheck nor had official duties. He had officially retired several years earlier. But, when he built a home on several acres of marshland, intending to live out his days there, his office went up before the house did. And for the rest of his life, he went to that office every day. Came home for lunch, then left again.
Work, to my dad, what simply what you did.
I only knew him as someone who planned and supervised the work of others. But I heard stories about the early days of the farm. How he and my mother sat on the floor of their house, seeding plants by hand. Somehow, he managed to turn a few acres of muck into a highly profitable business.
It was work.
I only occasionally saw flashes of behavior that hinted at my father’s capacity for physical work. My favorite memory is when he and a bunch of his buddies had gathered together to do a spring clean-up at a shooting range. One of them had purchased a huge field trimmer for the purpose of clearing the brush that had grown up over the field. While they were screwing around with gas, instruction manuals and spare parts, my father pulled out a weed cutter he had brought with him and began clearing the brush by hand. By the time they had given up on the machine, he had cleared a third of the field by himself.
With stories like this, it’s hard not to think of Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging.” In the poem, the speaker (presumably Heaney) reflects on how he measures up to his father and his grandfather. As he watches his father digging in the flower beds around his house, the speaker is transported back to an image of his father as a young man, and his father before him, and their capacity for hard work:
The cold smell of potato mold, 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.
Unlike these men, who spent their lives digging in the dirt, Heaney determines he’ll use his pen to “dig.” And certainly he has.
I don’t wish to compare myself to either Heaney or my father. But the parallels give me pause.
And it’s oddly not when I’m digging through a stack of papers that I feel closest to my father. It’s when I’m outside, doing silly yard work. Moving a stone around. Making plans about where to put a walkway, or what a play house would look like on top of the top ridge.
Poems and parental relationships seldom resolve themselves into easily understood statements.