This Word Is Dig

by Harmony Button

As you drive west from Salt Lake (a city situated in the relatively lush Uinta basin, surrounded by steep mountains and foliage that is fed year-round by snowmelt), you’ll notice a transformation: the ground flattens, and the color scheme shifts; the landscape turns from desert scrub to an odd, chalky white. From the inside of a car, you’d swear you just drove into winter, a wasteland with a perfect dusting of ash, a frozen landscape of ice. But what you think is snow is really salt, and what you swear was ice is really the crystalline crust of an ancient dried up lakebed. What water still exists is perfectly clear — so clear, in fact, that you can see to the bottom as if looking through glass. The high salt content kills bacteria. Everything is pickled in a perfect, pristine brine. If there is water along the horizon, which depends on the season, it mirrors a perfect picture of the sky, except for at the edges, where the saline content causes the image to curl slightly, as if the landscape was a giant test tube and you, the scientist, were having trouble reading the true water level at the meniscus. The irony is not lost on me: the flattest place on earth looks as if it curves up at the edges.

The Bonneville Speedway, out on the salt flats, is renown as the place where all kinds of land speed records have been set. The race “track” is painted directly on the salt flat, which naturally compacts into one of the flattest, most consistent surfaces on the earth — flatter and faster than the track at Daytona, flatter than any blacktop or concrete that has ever been poured. The residual moisture in the salt has a way of cooling overheated tires, and the grit of the crust provides the perfect amount of traction to prevent slippage and skids. The fastest mile on record was completely by Gary Gabelich in 1970 in his rocket-powered vehicle, which clocked in at 622 mph — almost faster than the speed of sound, but not quite.  Gabelich went to the desert to dig a hole in the sound barrier, but there was just a little too much nothing in his way.

Other than the speedway, the highway, some really cool landscape art (the Spiral Jetty, the Sun Tunnels, the Tree of Life) and the Dugway proving grounds (where the US Army Chemical Warfare Service conducted regular tests of biological and nuclear weapons in the 1940s), there’s really not much out in the great salt desert. Which is to say, it is a fascinating place, full of oddity set against emptiness. There are small salt water pools. There are abandoned barracks layered with graffiti from movie sets. There’s the plane tower from Con Air. There’s the set from The Incredible Hulk. Walking the salt flats, far from the road, I once came across a potholder, an eye patch, and a child’s mitten. This is a place that defies narrative. It offers only questions and silences.

When I teach Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of a Jar,” I begin class with a discussion of holes. I ask my students to imagine the wide, barren plane of the salt flats to the west of our city. This is one of the weirder phenomena I’ve witnessed in the natural world: a landscape like the moon, devoid of even the most basic of natural features: plant life of any kind, topography beyond the flat, flat flatness.

When I ask my students to think of the salt flats, they think of emptiness and absence. I ask them what is out there. Nothing, they say. Absolutely nothing. And then I ask them to imagine a hole in the middle of this nothing. What would be out there, then? A hole, they say. And so we agree: a hole is a something that can be made out of nothing.

“I placed a jar in Tennessee / and round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / surround that hill.”

To set a point of distinction, even one of absence (an openness, a hole, a jar) is to set a landmark. There, on the white page, exists a word. There, in the barren emptiness of the salt flat, exists a hole. And the hole gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and it attracts men, and their machines. A road comes and goes from the hole. Men come, and men go. In Utah, we call the hole the Kennecott Mine, the largest open pit copper mine in the world, and it becomes visible from the moon.

I placed a Kennecott in the middle of the desert, / and round it was, upon a hill. / It made the slovenly wilderness / surround that hill. / The wilderness rose up to it, / and sprawled around, no longer wild.

What does it mean to be wild? Untamed? Unknown? Uncontrollable?  If so, then Wallace Steven’s hill in Tennessee is far from the only area of wilderness to lose its wildness.  Here in Utah, we call nature preserves like Arches National Park our “wilderness” areas, and they are mapped and maintained and criss-crossed by paved roads which visitors are expected to follow — and this is done in pursuit of experiencing the wild?  This is a safe kind of wilderness — a wilderness that behaves itself within a certain frame.  This is the the kind of wilderness that comes with scenic pullouts and lots of plastic signage.

In poetry, there’s no such thing as empty space. There are spaces on the page where there are words, and there are spaces on the page which are full to the brim with not-words. The openness abounds. It rings with silence; it echoes with its own existence. A blank page is sheet of paper, nothing more, but a page with a word set on it is, suddenly, a word surrounded by not-words: a jar on a hill. The silence looms, a presence heavy as ink. It takes dominion. It defines its edges. But look to the wilderness — the wilderness no longer wild, the wilderness tamed by the jar, the word which casts its glow into the w/hole of wilderness around it. Look into the wilderness, and listen to the hollow of such silence. It is this way that we read the illegible, and make sense of the silence.

It is in these moments, seeing words and not-words equally as opportunity for holes, that I feel in my mind a need to dig. Not to dig up, not to unearth, not to displace, but to dig in, to overturn, to bury and rootle and rut — to dig for the sake of the digging. It is in times like this that I feel, like Thoreau, that my “head is hands and feet.” My instinct tells me, also, that “my head is an organ for burrowing” — into the squelch of emptiness, into the thick of the earth.

* * *

Some of my earliest memories are of digging: in the sand box, under the porch, through deep, wet, tunnels of snow. The first time I held a post-holer, it was taller than I was. I had never heard of a speculum (let alone acquired the context to imagine for what purpose such a thing could possibly be used) but I knew there was something oddly powerful about the hinging mouth, the spreading handles, the open scooping blades. It was sexy and not sexy, utilitarian and profane. A post-holer is an anti-phallus: it is the devouring emptiness, a hole become whole. It is yours for $42 with a lifetime guarantee at Sears, which is a pretty good deal for people who tend to be rough on their tools, like me. I would like to be the kind of person who oils and conditions and maintains and always stores their tools in an organized fashion in a cool, dry place, but the truth is, I’m not. I leave things out in the rain. I use wobbly things until they get wobblier. I rust. I ruin. I run things into the ground.

When you wear out a post hole digger, the first thing to go are the bolts that hold the two handles together and create the scissoring motion. The blades start moving sideways, like a wonky wheel on a shopping cart. Tiny micro-fractures run horizontally along the handles, like shin splints. The blades dull and require more force to cut into the earth. A post hole digger in this state has seen a lot of holes.

A good post hole digger has sharp blades that can be used to scrape the side of the hole, to broaden the width beyond the diameter of the post-holer, itself. To use a post-hole digger, you squeeze the two handles together (opening the blades to their widest position). Thrust the open mouth of the tool into the earth, and then, pulling the two handles apart to squeeze the cupping blades together, air-lift out a small scoop of earth. Release the outward pressure on the handles, and the dirt you have raised will fall to the ground.

Depending on the condition of the earth and the depth of the hole, this process can be an exercise in gluttony, or a test of patience. In the spring, when the dirt is just damp enough to cling together, but just dry enough to avoid a clayey density, a good post-hole digger can cut a channel into the earth in no time, flat. You’ll pull great tube-ish mouthfuls of dirt vertically upward from ground with little to no effort. A simple thrust will press the blades deep enough to gain some purchase on the earth, scraping up each maw-ful with ease.

But it rarely goes like this. There are rocks that can’t be pried out because a post-hole digger only cuts from above, unlike a shovel, which scoops from the side. If the ground is too hard, you have to heft the entire unwieldy tool up in the air and slam it downward, loosening the earth and pre-cutting a ridge before you use a foot (or two) to leverage your bodyweight downward on the blades. When the hole is deeper than the length of the blades, you can’t step on it like a traditional shovel, and you have to rely on upper body strength to drive the twin blades deeper into the ground. The next day, your stomach is sore in ribbons through your core, as if you’ve been doing crunches for hours.

* * *

To ‘dig’ can mean to break up or turn, to hollow out, but it can also mean to unearth or recover. You dig a hole, creating an empty space, but you also dig up artifacts, uncovering a physical object from its obscurity beneath the earth. Digging is also an incredibly flexible figure of speech: you can dig in your heels and refuse to change your intellectual stance on an issue, or you can dig in to a new challenge, embracing what’s to come. You can dig your own grave. You can dig up the past. You can dig down deep and summon your own inner resources. You can dig it, fool — and get into the groove. To ‘bury the hatchet’ means to let go of past grievances, but you can also dig the hatchet up again — a euphemism which is less commonly used (but perhaps more frequently practiced) than burying it.

* * *

My brother is a real live archaeologist, which is an occupation that I’ve always imagined in the same category as other romantic-sounding Old World jobs such as Explorer, Inventor, and Lady Detective.

When people find out that he’s an archaeologist, their next move is almost always to ask him to describe the “best” things he’s ever found. Now, there are archaeologists out there who have made shocking discoveries — an underground burial chamber armed with poison-frog darts here, a petrified bog-man there — but asking an archaeologist what they’ve found is like asking a writer what they have written: unless you’re Stephen King or the guy who dug up King Tut, the kindly stranger sitting next to you on the airplane who is asking about your profession will probably be confused, then disappointed, which will make you both uncomfortable. You will spend the rest of the plane ride quietly seething with anger at the failure of the common man to appreciate the nuance of your profession, while simultaneously regretting having referenced your decade of doctoral work at such-and-such prestigious institution as if it should mean something to anyone outside of your field. But the truth is, you didn’t find a tomb, or write a dystopian romance novel. You haven’t optioned the movie rights to anything. You probably don’t even own a bullwhip.

But my brother — he’s the real deal. He’s catalogued artifacts in an office overrun with mummies in Egypt, fought off wild dogs in Croatia, woken early to lay dibs on the best trench buckets in Cyprus, and been evacuated from Egypt during the rise of the Arab Spring. He is very smart, and he does very good fieldwork. But good archaeology isn’t just about what you find — it’s about what you don’t find. Survey archeology — or, “no hole” archaeology, as my brother tried to translate for an irate Croatian farmer who was afraid the stupid Americans were about to dig up his fields — consists of mostly walking, counting, and occasionally poking things. Survey archaeology is a dig without a dig. There is as much to learn from no things as from some things, and if you’re digging with the mind, you don’t need the barbarity of a shovel.

While archaeologists say that there is no truth in surface, only in the dig, an excavation is only the most aggressive (and costly) way to dig.  Traversing a landscape, tracing patterns of where people did or did not go, is a way of crawling beneath the skin of the surface.  Time is flattened: all footprints are visible at once.  And while noticeable absences are rarely conclusive, but they appeal to the gut: this place is hostile; this place has water.  Each emptiness opens up the possibility of an alternative narrative: the deceptive slickness of surface gives way to potent uncertainties.  We walk the land to better know what we don’t know.   Or, as qualitative researcher and TED talk rock star Brene Brown suggests, “maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

* * *

When the dog gets his dig on, he puts his whole body into it. He builds up this little rhythm, rolling his beefy-pup shoulders side to side and bracing his back legs wide to counterbalance his body weight as he leans deeper and deeper into it. In these moments, he is lost to the world, intoxicated, obsessed with the need to dig. The dog rarely digs in search of something — if anything, he seems surprised when he comes across an odd smell or a long-forgotten toy. Mostly, he just digs for the joy of digging. He digs to dig.

This is what happened next: I wanted in. It had been over a year since I had dug anything up, and I was on a two week vacation from my teaching job. The dog was in the backyard, working on his hole, dirt shooting out from between his back legs, and there I stood, shovel in hand, with no hole to work on.

So I started my own hole. Because, why not? I’d owned the house for six months already, and hadn’t dug up anything as of yet. Dirt is for digging. It was high time to get down with the diggity dog.

When Jason came home from work, he looked at me, and he looked at the hole, and he looked at the dog, who was covered in dirt.

“So,” he asked. “What’s the plan here?”

What good is a plan to the earth that wants lifted, sifted, sorted, heaved? The dog and I, we knew only the purpose of moving — here to there, there now here. We felt the itch of the earth the way other people feel music and must move.

* * *

I recently discovered “Genius,” a site for not only providing but interpreting song lyrics, and I have been shocked and appalled to find translations of songs I’ve been singing along to for years.  It turns out, a good percentage of those groovy songs from my youth, the ones that I danced to at college parties or that I let bounce my butt while I drove my car — they’re about prostitutes. What’s up with that? What, can’t a pop song glorify a powerful woman without making her a prostitute? Never again will I sing along to Dr. Dre’s “Blackstreet” (a song I’ve always liked for it’s mantra “No diggity, no doubt” which translates to, basically, “for sure, for sure”) without remembering that it’s about a manipulative prostitute. “She’s got class and style” — I get that line. But “I got to bag it / bag it up?” I’m not sure what I thought that meant (perhaps something like, “that’s a wrap,” as in, “I got this in the bag,”) but popular condom lingo was just not on my radar. But then again, sometimes I assume the worst from a song, and find out that it is actually quite innocuous, such as the 1993 single “Whoomp (There It Is)” by Tag Team — another pop song with a good “dig” reference. See, I always thought they were saying, “whoomp that ass,” and I assumed that ‘whoomp’ was a verb, meaning either to shake, or… well, something else. But that’s not the lyric at all — instead, ‘whoomp’ is a far more mysterious kind of word.

In fact, behind the groovy call and response of “Whoomp” is a song that baffles even the lingo-savvy Genius translators. What is a “whoomp?” How does one “whoomp?” It seems to function as a noun and a verb. A whoomp is, according to the ever-credible Urban Dictionary, “the place where it is,” (antecedent not included). There is some speculation that “whoomp” originated as a reference to the dragon villain of the popular Super Mario Brothers game, Bowser: when Bowser breaths out his fire-balls of doom, he makes a “whoomping” sound, to crush his enemy. To “whoomp,” is, however, also an action: you can “whoomp” yourself off to a new place by leaving suddenly without anyone noticing, or you can whoomp an object away from someone by taking it (and usually through consumption or destruction) away from them. To title a song “Whoomp (There It Is)” is redundant, and contradictory: it’s like saying “I was here (but here I am).” It is, in other words, a hole: something which in its absence creates a new presence. And how can Tag Team be back again, if they’ve never left? Every moment is a leaving, and an arrival. Party on, party people, let me hear the noise — (but aren’t the ‘party people’ already the noise? Isn’t the noise of the crowd part of the song? Is it still an audience if the audience is part of the song? Oh, how the experimental musician and theoretician John Cage must have loved Tag Team).

In the end, I think that “Whoomp” is a song, like many of the songs I find insanely, irresistibly catchy, that is about song-making, song-playing, and song-digging. This, in the end, is what I remember of this song: the call and response, the catchy refrain. Can you dig it? We can dig it. Can y’all dig it? We can dig it. In the act of declaring the ability to dig, we find ourselves, indeed, already digging.

* * *

Sometimes, on the salt flats, it can be hard to discern the origins of objects: time is flattened; all narratives overlap.  This is an area that my brother the archaeologist has walked, marking sites of historic tin can scatter or shards from arrow points.  In the summer, when the heat beats down on a shadowless land from a cloudless sky, he sometimes carries an umbrella.  Overhead, fighter pilots on their test runs tip their wings and circle back to check out this odd form in the desert, this small circle of shade.

The air force base near Wendover has been site to so many layers of movies, artists’ residencies, and local graffiti that it has become an illegible surface, a palimpsest of history. It is beautiful, and unnerving. Even the name of the base — Dugway — is steeped in dirt and strife: a dugway is a level path carved into the side of a hill that allows for wagon travel. It is a linear track that cuts below the ground level, leveling the slope, plowing the way.

The salt flats have a way of flattening causality and obscuring inception. We cut ruts for our wagons, we throw layer on layer of paint on the speedway. Sometimes, people arrange rocks along the bottom of the salty pools along the side of the highway to pattern out out names, phrases or designs. Unlike sandcastles, tree forts or rock cairns, these marks on the landscape are rarely disturbed: they remain as vivid now as when they were first made. They hold cryptic, indelible messages: “S heart K.” “One World Love.” Once, I saw my own name echoed back to me in perfectly visible rocks at the bottom of a salty pool: “HARMONY.” It was an invocation, a calling without a message.  It was the beginning of a summons that went no further.  What was I to do, besides be and be, and bear witness to the silence?  The water looked crisp and clean — an impossible lake, with my name written in stone. Whoomp, there it is.

* * *

1990s pop songs aside, there is a long literary tradition of using the trope of the dig as a means of suggesting an intellectual kind of pursuit. If submersion in (and emersion from) water is almost always an allusion to a baptism or re-birth, then digging is a search for context, a desire to indulge in greater complexity. Characters who dig are hungry for the bittersweet nature of the search: you find, you don’t find — same difference. Characters who dig are unanchored; they crave ground and grounding. They are characters who believe in work, in doing work, in the redemptive process of process.  “A little soul searching,” as my beloved and terrifying high school English teacher used to say, “is good for the soul, if not for the search.”

In the poem “Digging,” Seamus Heaney describes the peat-diggers in his family. Heaney notes the rough masculinity of the digger — the “straining rump” and the “coarse boot” of his father in his garden; the way his grandfather “fell to… heaving sod” as he cut “down and down / for the good turf” — contrasting this decisive, manly action against his own grip on a pen that rests passively, “snug as a gun” in his hand. In the end, Heaney’s pen is as manly and dexterous as his father’s shovel: he writes that he’ll “dig with it” instead of a spade.

Beyond the political inferences of the argument that the pen as shovel is more manly than the pen as gun (which I love), there is a certain satisfaction in thinking of a pen as a tool of excavation. There is something particularly diggish about writing with a good, inky pen. The movement of the hand mimics the scratching of a small excavation tool; the pressure on the nib and the grip of the shaft are all reminders that the process of writing is one done via a tool — a pen, a piece of chalk, a nub of pencil lead. Even the act of typing at the keyboard — the type of digging I do most of all, these days — mimics the motion of scratching at the surface, clawing one’s way under the gauze of neutrality.

I had several early infatuations when it came to poetry, but Seamus Heaney was a real first love. It was his words that first got me — deep, squelchy, mucked up words like “lug” and “soggy” and “snug” and “thumb.” Reading Heaney, I felt the turf of my own gut start to rustle and root; I felt my own squat thoughts hunker into longer vowels, relishing the moisture of each heft and slap, each slop and pull of wordy sinkholes that bogged my fingers down and mudded up the voice in my own craw, and even in this delicious thickness, I fell, thick and brilliant, into the thick of it, dirt-covered, lush, a sudden poet because whoomp, there I was.

* * *

A hole is always a whole hole. The only way to really destroy a hole is to remove its boundaries — expanding it to the point where it is no longer a hole, but an expanse, an emptiness. If you fill in a hole, it is still a hole which has been filled. You can’t have half a hole. But a good dig is like an itch — the more you scratch, the more you want to scratch. To dig is to be satisfied and dissatisfied, all at once. The act completes, and makes hollow. A hole is born from absence: you remove the earthy something and a no-thing hole appears! Poets are drawn to holes, because we know that they are always full. Women also understand: our not-things are still somethings.

My eyes are eyes but my ears are my ear-holes. A mouth is a face-hole, as is a nose, which is the oddest facial orifice because it is both a protrusion and an absence: a cavern of openings, a dual-holed cartilage tube. In her long prose poem “My Life,” poet Lyn Hejinian wrote, “I cannot close my ears, I have no earlids.” I quote Hejinian constantly, for all my poetry needs, but this is a line that I can’t seem to get out of my mind. It returns to me in public places when I try to ignore annoying noises nearby. It comes to me at night, when I listen to the settling of the old and aging house. It was the line I wanted to quote to my neighbor with the barking dogs, after I had already shut all the windows of my house to block the noise, but he wasn’t exactly the poetry type, and communication was already a tenuous thing between us. I have no earlids: a hole is irrevocable. It cannot be undone, and what comes in is not always entirely under your control. To dig is an act of defiance, an embrace of alchemy and revolution.

* * *

When I applied for a fence permit this summer, the form asked me to describe the structure to be built. “Neighbor-proof fence,” I wrote. “Eight feet high. Wooden. To run along NS property line.” The building inspector laughed. I did not.

There are good reasons why I needed — I really, really needed — a neighbor-proof fence. The disputes and conflicts were numerous, trivial, and terrifying. After two years of such interactions, I felt unsafe. I felt bullied. I felt enraged, and I frequently fantasized alternative endings to previous encounters with the neighbor that let me say cutting, witty things that left him vanquished by my wordplay, chagrined into silence, punned into passivity. There was more than one time that I wished that I’d returned my neighbor’s threats with threats, his violence with violence. I imagined the swing of the shovel, the thick, wet resistance of it. This urge to dig it up and burn it down was distressing and uncharacteristic. This wasn’t me. I needed some space. I needed some external structure. I needed a really large fence.

At first, I wanted to hire a fencing company to come pop up a barrier over night, but that’s not the way we do things, in my house. We don’t pay other people to do things we can do ourselves. We mow our own grass. We paint our own walls. We fix our own plumbing, or else we let it drip into buckets while we make peace with the possibility that perhaps we don’t have the time or know-how to fix it, ourselves. We’ve installed windows in walls that used to be walls and not windows; we’ve sistered rafters and braced cantilevered center beams. Between the two of us, we’re remarkably capable homeowners — but capability and efficiency are not the same thing.

A fence is not a complicated structure, but not all fences are made equally. There is no building code governing the proper construction of a fence in Utah, so many fencing companies save on materials and labor by setting shallow posts and skimping on the concrete. We didn’t want a skimpy fence. We wanted a big, thick fence, with overlapping pickets and 6×6 posts, yet we did not want to pay an exorbitant price for such a fence. And so, we agreed to build it, ourselves.

When Jason began construction on the fence, the neighbor was irate. There was gesturing, and threatening, and revving of large diesel motors. There were motorcycles and grubby tattoos and a collection of men who all wore sleeveless white undershirts. I refused to show my face on that side of my house until after the fence had been built, but Jason — Jason is fearless. He will not be intimidated. He is ever hopeful. He does not ever believe another human being to be an unredeemable asshole, as I occasionally do; he is kind, and good, and generous. He smiles, and waves, and does not flinch.

This drives the neighbor insane. The neighbor hates Jason. But Jason is not the one the neighbor should hate. I’m the one who carries the shovel with me at all times. I’m the one with the itch and the blade and the grudge I like to polish when I can’t fall asleep.

* * *

A dig is a minor insult, a jab, an underhanded criticism. Unlike pushing someone’s buttons, which is a kind of goading in the hopes of getting a reaction, a dig is a kind of hit-and-run insult. You get in your dig and then you retreat. It’s also the kind of criticism that can’t really be called out — a good dig is always subtle enough to leave the recipient wondering at your intentions. A good dig is based on prior knowledge, or it makes reference to an unspoken context. A good dig seems innocent to an ordinary observer, but it cuts to the heart of the recipient. A dig is a cowardly kind of insult, but it sure is satisfying.

I am, in general, an affable, thoughtful, polite person. I’d like to credit my character to a broad kind of empathy and a respect for all humankind, but I recognize that much of my demeanor stems from a deep-seated fear of conflict. Whatever the reasons behind my temperament, the end result is that I am rarely one to tease, or dig, or otherwise insult another person. But there is something truly intoxicating about plotting the retroactive dig, the perfect one-liner, the respective should-have-said.

Perhaps digging is always an indulgence: in passion, in anger, in the intoxicating groove of the present moment. To dig is to not let something go. To dig is to pursue. To dig is to refuse the status quo. To dig is to get down, good Lord, hey-oh, shaka-laka, drop the beat, and on and on.

* * *

There’s something karmically balanced about needing to dig down before you can build up. Houses need foundations; seeds need to be sewn. Before you can expect a new structure to be sound, you need to prepare the earth on which it will stand. This rings true of most human encounters: education, business ventures, political alliances, marriages.

The proper way to set a fence post is to plan on putting one third of the length of the post underground, allowing two thirds to remain above ground. This means that an eight foot fence has to be build from posts that are at least eleven feet long, so that they can be set three feet deep into the earth. Posts do not come in eleven foot segments, so you have to buy a twelve-footer and then cut it down. A tip for those who would build level fences: don’t cut your posts ahead of time. Set each post, then draw a level across the span of all the posts. Cut the tops off once they have all been set in concrete, to guarantee a level span. A side note: do not wait too long to cut off the tops of these posts, or else a neighbor looking to interfere with your fence-building plans will call the city planning office, who will send out a building inspector to tell you that your posts are too tall. Luckily, a simple conversation with this inspector will allow them to see that you are, in fact, building the world’s best fence, and that your procedure is quite a sound one, even if it is taking you upward of a month to complete the construction because you had to carry 4,800lbs of concrete over to each post hole, stir it into a watery sludge by hand, and double check your square and level with the setting of each post.  By the time the fence was complete, I had lifted, carried, poured and set upwards of 26,000lbs of concrete, and gone through 15 gallons of cedar stain.  Every day, I dressed for more cement.

When digging the hole in which you will set the post, add an extra six inches in depth, to be filled with gravel, for drainage. This means that the hole you dig will be approximately forty inches deep, and sixteen inches wide. This is a large hole. A small child (or 4,800lbs of concrete) could fit inside this hole. Do not think of this hole as a grave. This is a hole of potential. A hole of hope.

* * *

A hole is a declaration: this is this and not that. A hole is always a pocket, just like a jar, or a word. What did Wallace Stevens put inside his jar, in Tennessee? “The jar was round upon the ground / and tall and of a port in air. / It took dominion everywhere.” An emptiness is full of opportunity: it sorts the wilderness, it draws the lines.

A word, like a hole, is an openness that fills with the groundwater of memory. My Tennessee is far different from yours. My pocket, my mouth, my shovel and tooth — all have the same edges, the same dimensions, the same breadth and depth, but not the same emptiness inside. Not the same air. Our words are holes we measure, we dig into the earth of our language-scapes to show that words are things, to insist on the existence of communion, of connection, of true maps to the human experience — but these are treasure maps that mark the spot, an X that says a hole, a hole, a hole was here. We forget to mention that the things we’ve made are made of openness, of emptiness, of air.  If a story is just data with a soul, then the soul lives in the open parts, the bits that resist definition, that welcome digging, that act as holes and wholes, there and not there.

Harmony Button is a contributing editor for Paper Tape. She has been nominated for Pushcart and Best of the Web awards, and was awarded the Larry Levis Prize (Academy ofAmerican Poets). She attended Middlebury College and University of Utah (MFA). You can find her work in Colorado Review, Southwestern American Lit, Ithaca Lit, BlazeVOX, and other publications. She is currently English Department Chair of the Waterford School in Utah. More of her work can be found at

Image Credit: “Children dig their holes for planting aquatic plants and grasses,” Walton LaVonda, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service