Redneck Sustainability: How to Dig a Big Hole

digging a holeAs the rather disturbing saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Not sure which states actually allow cat skinning. But I’m sure you’re familiar with the expression, “It’s only an expression.” That said, I’d like to talk about digging holes.

These days there are lots of ways to go about digging a big hole: skid loaders, back hoes, trenchers, pneumatic diggers, etc. But one old-fashion means of digging remains. You might have heard of it–the shovel.

The art of shovel-wielding has been maintained by a small, elite group of blue-collar professionals and rednecks. It’s one of those skills you begrudging learn as a youth only to be grateful for later in life when confronted with the collapse of society.

Digging qualifies as one of those manual labor skills despised by most but better than a dozen dandified spinning or yoga classes for achieving a state of inner peace. Recently I had to dig out an 84 cubic foot hole for a window well. I chose to do so by hand in order to cleanse my soul while accomplishing said hole.

While I’m no professional shoveler, the skill is a bit like riding a bike. It doesn’t take long to dust off the old training and find a groove. Combined with my rudimentary knowledge of shoveling I also have a degree in education, and thus feel qualified to write an instructional post on…

How to dig a big hole by hand

Start by getting a shovel, a spade to be more specific. Shovels can either be for scooping or digging. A spade is the digging type. Find a pair of work gloves. (Blisters form quickly for folk not engaged in regular labor of this sort). Procure a wheel barrow for the transportation of excess soil. When digging a big ass hole, remember that compacted soil will expand once outside the hole.

Dress appropriately. Some sort of boot with a heel is preferred. A hat with a brim, or a handkerchief can keep the dirt off the back of your neck and help prevent skin cancer down the road. Have lots of ice tea on hand.

Finally, depending on soil conditions you may also need a mattock and/or rock bar.

Once you start digging:

  • Think about keeping top soil separate from the fill dirt. You may want to reuse these layers in separate applications, or put them back in your hole in reverse order.
  • Find a tempo that will work over the long haul and settle in. Rhythm is critical to manual labor.
  • Find a ritual movement that expends the least amount of energy and stress on your body. Imagine doing this same process for weeks on end. If you couldn’t maintain the movements that long, you are doing them wrong.
  • Ensure use of your entire body. Use your feet, legs, arms and back as all part of a single lever in order to reduce stress to a single muscle or set of muscles. Envision yourself as a human machine designed for this one function.
  • Daydreaming helps. Choose a topic you enjoy ruminating upon and space out. If you haven’t mastered this art, try news radio.
  • Switch back and forth between leading with your left and leading with your right. Use these switches as drink breaks.
  • Don’t stop to measure progress until you are certain you have done more than necessary. (Then after you discover you are barely half-way done, take a lunch break.)
  • If/when your muscles begin to get shaky, take a lunch break. Remaining fueled is critical. If you work into exhaustion, the physical and psychological set-backs will delay accomplishing your goal.
  • End strong. Once you conclude that you are almost done shift gears toward being proud of your hole. Push hard toward the finish line. Remove rough spots and strive for uniform depth. When you climb up out of that hole, you want people to think, “damn, that’s a mighty fine hole.”

Congratulations, you’ve dug yourself a hole. Grab yourself a beer. And may the sore muscles bring you a sense of inner satisfaction and mental discipline that transfers into all of life’s routines.

7 thoughts on “Redneck Sustainability: How to Dig a Big Hole”

  1. Thank you. The Zen aspect cannot be overstated, I have been hovering on renting a skid steer but I think some soul purification and that rosy sense of accomplishment is what is really needed.

  2. That’s a nice hole, you’re a professional hole digger indeed. Most people try to muscle through it, then run out of energy too soon. Extended, physically demanding work is like the tortoise and the hare, slow and steady wins the race.

    On another note, every great writer needs a great editor. Since I’m neither, I’ll just point out a little spelling error that I’m sure would niggle at you, if you were aware of it.

    “Think about keeping top soil separate from the fill dirt. You may want to reuse these layers in separate applications, or put them back in your WHOLE in reverse order.”

    Now, off to find an excuse to dig a large hole. I keep coming back to the idea of digging a garden pond, but don’t want to invite nuisance wildlife like rodents and skunks into my yard.

  3. Since we are on the subject of errors, pretty sure you meant psychological, not phychological. Which is of course the study of algea; not typically associated with the study of hole digging.

    That being said, I did really enjoy this write up. Your advice about being able to do the same movement for weeks on end really made me think before beginning such a project. Without reading this, I’m sure I would have just jumped in, hurt myself, given up, and just had a hole in my yard with no purpose.


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