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  • I’m sure some people look at shovels and spades and see drudgery and hard work. Not me.

    The first hole I helped dig was back in first grade. Sam’s parents were either negligent or full of new parenting ideas. They let us dig a pit in the backyard. We cut a tunnel from the bottom and took turns wriggling in and passing the loose earth back. Since then, I’ve dug gardens, foundations, orchards, ponds, and wells. Each time I set out with my favorite spade to uncover new ground I am full of dreams of treasure and discovery.

    For me, a spade is for exploration.

    My place out on the island is at the top of the small hill. When the island was a fishing village and the trees were cleared for pasture and firewood, you could have stood in the dooryard and looked out at the sea all around. The island and others like it have stood watch over the tides of history.

    Just down the gravel road from my place are the square cut granite slabs of the old school house. Cellar holes, stone walls, rusting machines and the odd patent medicine bottle mark the lines of lives long gone.

    Further back the Portuguese used the islands to dry their catches of cod but they left little enduring traces. The cut copper pendant I found among the clam shells and stone flakes of the midden could have been cut and traded from one of their kettles.

    Viking coins found up the bay hint at other voyages.

    The thick washes of gravel and rounded cobbles show the path of the great melt when the glaciers let go their hold on the land. The Wabenaki and others before them walked the edge of new lands. They flaked their stone tools and worked with bone and shell and clay. They watched the rise and fall of tides and saw islands and grasslands vanish under the rising seas. They looked out at the end of one age and the start of another.

    Each time I dig I cut through layers and lives. In some places just a thin skin over the granite bedrock in other places stories are revealed.

    When I dug the foundation for the little house I found

    a silver 1901 Canadian dime with a hole punched through the top edge
    a greenish brass button from a US Navy coat
    the slim left foot of a china doll
    the head of a pottery cat missing one ear
    a scatter of square cut nails
    the head of a forged fish spear
    the wavery necks of bottles

    When I dug the holes for the orchard I found a thin line of black ash about two feet down just above a layer of clean washed gravel.

    Stories held by the earth. Revealing in fragments and traces the sagas of land and time.

    Yesterday I marked out a stretch of field for garden. I was peeling back the sod in the section closest to the road when Carl walked by.

    That’s hard work, he said.

    I agreed.

    When I put in my raspberries, he went on, that was bad enough. We’re too old for this kind of job. He looked up and saw the stakes topped with yellow flagging and got the full measure of my ambition.

    One man with a spade cutting the first line of sod and 150 feet to go.

    You’re not going to do that, he said. There has to be a machine. Maybe you can get some migrants out here.

    I am sure there is. The point isn’t about cost. It isn’t about effectiveness.

    I told Claire about Carl’s comments. She smiled. It’s keeping you young, she said.

    This morning early, with the wind fresh out of the northeast and the sun bright, I cut and stacked sod for an hour. I have the scrap of blue and white glazed pottery I found in front of me now. Another 10 days I’ll be ready to build the new beds.
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