Digging In

F E B R U A R Y    2 0 1 4

In the sixties the poet Gary Snyder advised, “Find your place on the planet and dig in.” I took his advice seriously, digging out roots to clear gardens, digging holes to build fences, digging trenches for foundations, drainage pipes, and septic systems. The view from the handle of my shovel helped me love each place I made home, and the sound of my neighbors’ shovels working next to me did the same.

diggingBy learning to dig in—literally and figuratively—I became a neighbor: living under the same weather, walking on the same ground, sharing the patience needed to live in a place and care for it. But the borders of my home-place have not remained secure. The fences I’ve built get climbed over, the gates left open, and the world finds its way in. Faces stare out from the newspaper page and TV news—the taut faces of hungry people half a world away. Children on street corners in desert towns watching soldiers pass by. Faces and voices and stories unknown to me. Who are these people? Whose neighbors are they? What is important to them? Why is their land under seige?

These questions have made me put down my shovel more than once and go on the road, more like a pilgrim or wayfarer than a tourist. Some outer, credible purpose usually motivates my journey, but inside I’m looking for that moment when the ground shifts—when humor or sadness or a shared recognition makes the distance between “my” world and “the” world beyond my borders vanish, at least for a moment.

Once, in Bethlehem, I was invited for a mid-day meal at the home of a Palestinian family. Their flat, perched on top of a three-story hillside building, had been in the direct line of fire between Israeli forces and Palestinian fighters holed up in another building on the hilltop. Israeli bullets lodged in their walls.

My host told me their old refrigerator had been punctured by machine gun bullets, causing it to defrost and the meat in the freezer to thaw, leaking a red stain across the floor. Their three year-old son had pointed at it and said, “Look Daddy, they killed the fridge!”

We all laughed. Then we were silent, our eyes turned to the stain. I glimpsed the world with a three-year-old's eyes. Yes, I was just a stranger passing through, but I became their neighbor too in that moment. Digging in to a place as they had, and traveling through as a wayfarer as I was doing, are about the same desire: to bring the world close. But they do this in markedly different ways.

The indigenous villagers of the Pageiyaw tribe of northern Thailand—whom I visited and worked with for a decade—mark the span of their lives by literally digging in to the soil. They bury their dead among the trees they call “the ancestor forest,” and in an adjacent area known as “the umbilical cord forest” they place the placenta of newborns precariously on a tree branch. After some days, when the placenta falls to the ground and dissolves into the soil, it means the infant will survive and will henceforth belong to that land all its life.

In contrast, the wayfarer doesn’t bring the world close by anchoring to a home-place, but by listening to its stories as he or she moves through, and then telling those stories to other people in other places. Maybe it can help the ones who have dug in avoid becoming suspicious of people not of their place — a kind of peace-making — at least that’s my belief and my hope. In any case, the wayfarer isn’t a tourist: she doesn’t stand back but enters in, asks caring questions, listens, and shares. She weaves the world together, bringing diverse people close with her caring attention.

For a number of years I worked on a project called the Abraham Path—a meandering dirt path that follows the proverbial footsteps of Abraham from the ruins of Harran in southern Turkey, where he was “sent forth,” through Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, to the town of Hebron where Abraham and Sara have their resting place. Hospitality and kindness to strangers are hallmarks of walking this sacred ground. The path is now well established in many parts of the Middle East, and for a while it looked like the Syrian government would allow pilgrims to pass through. But then the peace-making power of such a path worried the Syrian government. They realized this kind of cross-border path would allow a free flow of wayfarers across the land; it would bring people walking like pilgrims do, vulnerable and open. They would meet each other face to face, and tell each other their stories. This seemed too risky to the Syrian power-holders. After nine trips to Syria, I was blacklisted and not allowed to enter again.

Over the past twenty-five years I’ve filled my passports with hundreds of stamps marking border crossings. My travels through the checkpoints between Israel and the West Bank are not marked in those pages, but those crossings are some of the most vivid in my memory. As a wayfaring American, I could pass where people dug in on one side of the line could not easily cross to the other. Though they lived only a few miles apart, they never met.

The bleeding refrigerator in Bethlehem had belonged to Palestinians. On that same trip I visited an isolated hilltop enclave of orthodox Jewish settlers established in the middle of the West Bank. I wanted to speak with the old rabbi who founded the settlement, a well-known teacher of mystical Jewish texts. By the time I arrived a cold wind blew intermittent rain over the dark hills. The place was dug in like a fortress, isolated from the land around it. My Palestinian driver left me at the gate, saying he did not feel he should be there. He told me to call a taxi when I was ready to leave.

The several young families who had come for teachings from the rabbi that evening were trying to quiet their fussing children, who were clearly ready for bed. The rabbi—with long white hair and beard, bushy black eyebrows arching over kind eyes—gave them blessings. It was a scene of intimate tenderness. One by one the young families left. The weary rabbi seemed genuinely disturbed that my Palestinian driver had not felt comfortable visiting, even though he was his neighbor. And then he told me of his deeper sadness. The Israeli Prime Minister had just slated his settlement for evacuation. Twenty-seven years of digging in would simply end. I thought of Gary Snyder and how all boundaries bend to time.

The rabbi walked me back to the guardhouse to meet my taxi. He asked the young soldier if I could wait in his little tin guardhouse out of the cold. The wind moaned through the cracks in the squalid hut. Hebrew graffiti were scrawled on the walls, and one in English read: “What am I doing here? What am I doing here?”  The Israeli soldier stood there silently, with his machine gun slung over his shoulder, looking down the hill for anything that might be approaching. I felt the neighbors there, so close yet un-meeting. I felt the little orthodox children drifting off to sleep nearby, and the child of my Palestinian friend dreaming of the murdered refrigerator. The graffiti echoed: “What am I doing here? Why am I not in my own peaceful home far from here?"

But I knew the answer. I was simply supposed to be there, feeling exactly this bittersweet recognition that I repeat now: the ground we dig into and walk upon is sacred. It is sacred because it makes us neighbors to each other, whether we like it or not. Tell this story.


This piece was written for the forthcoming anthology, Loving Dirt, edited by Barbara K. Richardson — a book that charts the ways we humans love and depend upon the soil beneath our feet.