Sunday, December 8, 2013

The View From a Trench

the author in his trench
I am completely underground
It's 21F and snowing. I have a runny nose, but aside from that, I'm not feeling the cold at all - I've stripped off my heavy jacket and am considering removing my fleece, I've only got a white tee shirt on underneath.

I'm standing in my trench. It's about 15 feet long and it's deep enough that I'm standing below ground level.

I say it's my trench because well, I've paid for it, in money, stress, and sweat. Earlier this fall, the city decided to replace the 1890s-era (lead) water main and sewage pipes in my neighbourhood. The problem is that the pipe that connects my house to the water main is also lead, and is also from the 1890s. Old lead pipes get brittle, and if not treated gently (by city workers laying new water mains, for example), they break, like mine has. And need to be replaced, just like mine.  This is going to be extremely expensive, but I don't want to pay my very expensive (but very good) plumbers to dig a hole in the ground.

Yesterday, I hired two day laborers to dig the trench where my plumber told me the pipe should be.

Hiring someone to dig for you is an interesting experience.  You're literally paying for someone's labor in a direct way.  I've never done that before.  And they did a decent job, but there were a few wrinkles. First: the pipe wasn't where we all thought it would be, wasting a lot of digging in the wrong spot. Second: the pipe wasn't straight - it wandered around, making it difficult to find and follow. Finally and worst of all: last night, the trench walls collapsed inward, expanding the hole by almost 50%.  That's a lot of dirt sitting inside my nice new trench this morning.

It's a cloudy, windy, cold Sunday morning and there's snow in the forecast, so I'm unable able to find anyone interested in digging for me, and this trench needs to be ready for the plumber on Monday.

So here I am.  Digging out a trench.

At first I was a bit repulsed by the idea of digging a trench.  I think of myself as a sophisticated urbanite.  Digging a hole seems like such an earthy thing to do.

Walking from her car into the house, my first floor tenant looks down at me in my muddy hole with pity, perhaps mixed with a little repulsion.  That's how most people seem to react to me while I'm down there.  Above ground I'm a normal person, but standing in my trench, I am transformed into a reminder that just below the pretty skin of the city is dirt, and lots of it.

The neighbourhood dog walkers studiously ignore me even as their dogs sniff my head curiously.  A woman coming to the door of my building ignores my polite hello, even after I repeat it louder - I'm not sure if she'd heard me - I can't be more than 10 feet away, maybe my voice doesn't carry well outside this hole?

After the initial thought of "woah, I'm digging a trench."  I, with an engineering degree am standing in a hole doing the lowest of low tech jobs.

But... I get into the rhythm of it. Spear the earth, plant the blade with your foot, heave and hit the wheel barrel to clear the spade of dirt and clay. Spear, plant, heave, hit. There's nothing to do but move dirt.  Slowly.  My wife takes the wheel barrel away and returns. I go back to the rhythm.

I count out 12 shovelfuls (all she can haul), and then she carries it away.

It's hard work, but it quickly becomes meditative.  Before, all I saw in my trench was dirt, but now I begin to see the layers. As I dig down, I can feel how each has a different texture and weight.  Topsoil's fluffiness, clay's weighty softness, the soft texture of sand, and the grit of pebbles and rocks.  I surprise worms as they make their way through what was recently the under ground.

My house is over 120 years old. I find a layer of leaves and mulch 3 feet below the ground.  This is the original ground level before modern plumbing and sanitary sewer came to the neighbourhood.

Clam shells embedded in topsoil
I find mollusc shells.  The neighbourhood used to be working class Irish when it was built - so this is not surprising, since working class people back then ate a lot of clams and oysters.

I find pottery too - roof tiles and a nice shard of broken plate - the rim is gilded there is part of a blue flower peeking through the mud caked on it.

I feel as though I'm travelling through time as I dig.

A woman kneels by my trench "hey, what are you doing?" After being so studiously ignored for the past hour, it takes me a moment before "uhh, well my water main is broken, so I'm digging a trench so my plumber can replace it."
"Oh, that sucks."
"Yeah, it does." but I brighten up and tell her about the history I'm travelling through, show her the oyster and clam shells and the gold-rimmed pottery shards.
"Do you think you'll have extra dirt, when you're done?" I'm taken aback, but yes, I think I will probably have extra dirt, but why?
"Oh, I'm starting a compost and I need a little clean fill, like maybe a bag full?" I look around at the literally tons of dirt around me. Yes, I probably won't miss a bag of dirt, just come by Tuesday evening or Wednesday, I'll have extra dirt then.