Whenever my husband and I visit the western Iowa farmstead where two of my sisters live, we take a list of maintenance chores we intend to help them with.
But the past few times we never got to the list because of various crises that intervened, presenting more pressing tasks.
Most recently the crisis was the need for, and installation of, a new septic system and the ensuing mess this created. The whole backyard and side yard of the house had to be torn up for the burial of three big tanks and the creation of a leach field.
In terms of household importance, nothing tops the need for a functioning toilet (and sinks, shower and clothes washer, in that order), so the mess was warranted.
And much of the earthwork mess will be smoothed out in spring when we hire someone with power equipment to level the bumps. Meantime, though, about half of the slope immediately east of the house was missing, as was the slope next to, and under, the sidewalk on the north side. These spaces needed to be filled in.
Hence, one recent morning I found myself walking out to a large mound of dirt in the backyard, pushing a wheelbarrow with a shovel inside, and a blithe ignorance of what dirt work entails. I learned soon enough.
First you take a shovel and push it into the dirt, using your foot to push the blade in more deeply, an action that hurts the foot, knee and hip. Then you lift the shovel filled with dirt — the mix of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms upon which all life on earth depends — and sling it into the waiting wheelbarrow. This wakes up your carpel tunnel syndrome and shoulders.
If you're me, you do this 10 times, because a wheelbarrow with 10 shovels of dirt is all I can push.
Then you lift the handles, pivot the wheelbarrow on its wheel, and push it over the lumpy ground, lurching up the hill, and then dumping it over to the side in an attempt to rebuild the missing slope.
When you look at what you've dropped, you see what amounts to ... not much.
But, I wanted to help, so I kept at it, one series of repetitive actions after another.
There is value in work like this. As with my summer stints detassling corn, shoveling dirt creates an appreciation for the really hard, physical labor that people like my dad had to do before mechanization, and that many people around the world still have to do to. Only my doing it is a choice.
Shoveling also allows time for thought.
Like why some of the soil in this big pile is seemingly black as coal and some is tan and sandy.
Where, exactly, does this soil lie in relation to the Des Moines Lobe? The latter is the name geologists have given to a big, tongue-shaped swath of land that reaches down from Minnesota through the north-central part of Iowa, an area that was covered by the last glacier, which advanced into the state some 12,000 to 14,000 years ago.
A map of the lobe's boundaries shows a diagonal line through the county in which our farm is located. Our farm appears to be near, or exactly where, this sheet of ice stopped.
I thought, too, of the outhouse, replaced in 1953 by the original septic system. I pondered which was worse, having to use an outhouse in the summer when it was hot and smelly and full of flies, or winter when temperatures were zero or worse?
No wonder that my sisters, who grew up during the time when the outhouse was in daily use, wanted it removed as part of the general cleanup after my dad died.
But, oh no, I said. An outhouse was an important component of a 1900s farmstead. We need to keep it. The compromise was to move it where it isn't so noticeable, behind the barn, where it remains, although no longer functional.
Of course this raises the bigger question of why I want to maintain this museum farmstead in the first place. Why I want to put time, money and hard labor into painting and repairing buildings that are useless now and into the foreseeable future? Aha! That's it! We can't see the future! Keep painting!
As I dig, and the shovel hits an old chunk of drainage tile or a small glass bottle or the floppy sole of an old shoe, I wonder how these objects got here. Who dropped them? My parents? Some previous landowner? Who were these people and what were they doing?
I sweated through my T-shirt and little beads actually dropped from my forehead. The day was still, and flies were biting my shins. I stamped, like horses stamp, and told myself that after a certain number of loads I was quitting for the day and was not doing any more work. It was too hot, too sticky, too buggy and the work was just too hard.
Then one of my sisters came out of the house, noting that it looked like we were in for some weather.
Yes, I'd noticed the sky in the northwest had grown increasingly purple. As I scooped, the purple spread in my direction.
Then, barely noticeable at first but with increasing force, the breeze became a wind that circled around from the south to strong and cold from the north.
Suddenly, it wasn't so hot, so sticky, so buggy.
I kept on digging.