“To-day I think
Only with scents—scents dead leaves yield,
And bracken, and wild carrot’s seed,
And the square mustard field;
Odours that rise
When the spade wounds the root of tree,
Rose, currant, raspberry, or goutweed,
Rhubarb or celery;
The smoke’s smell, too,
Flowing from where a bonfire burns
The dead, the waste, the dangerous,
And all to sweetness turns.
It is enough
To smell, to crumble the dark earth,
While the robin sings over again
Sad songs of Autumn mirth.”
– A poem called DIGGING.”
― Edward Thomas, Collected Poems
Last year, I wrote a novel called Lost and Found. In doing research for the story, I discovered “dump digging,” and I decided to have one of my main characters do it as a hobby (which in later drafts became more of a metaphor for the novel as a whole). Dump digging is where people go to land sites known to have had some kind of dwelling on them about a hundred years ago or so. Armed with shovels and other excavation tools, people go to these sites and dig around, looking for relics from the past. Because a long time ago, back when we didn’t have trash collection, back when things were made of glass and pottery and wood not cardboard and plastic and paper, people used to bury their trash behind their homes. These were their dumps. Some dump diggers actually find some amazing stuff. Take a look at this dump digger’s haul:
I read as much as I could find on the subject, but it’s not a very common hobby, so my resources were a bit hobbled. And besides, although I needed some information about what old glass and things might look like and what kinds of things people might find, I also wanted to get at the more visceral experience of dump digging–what it feels like to dig and uncover something.
This is where serendipity comes in. In my neighborhood, there’s an area that suburbia hasn’t yet touched, where a barn and farmhouse used to be. The barn is still somewhat standing, but all that remains of the home are some cement blocks and bricks that outline the home’s foundation. If I had to guess, I’d say the home had been built in the 50s. So not a super old site, but hey, it fit my needs just fine.
It’s a bit hard to see, but this is the site where the home used to be. In the foreground, you can see what’s left of the walkway. Behind that, which you can’t see, are the remnants of the foundation and what looks like an old well. Set back in the trees, the site often has an eerie feel to it, kind of spooky even. In other words, perfect.
So, I packed up my shovel, leashed the dog, and off we went. It took a few tries before I found anything even remotely interesting, but I did manage to find a bit of treasure.
My favorite is the Bayer aspirin bottle. It’s glass with raised lettering, which could date it back to the 50s or 60s (although it could be as recent as the 70s too). I love the perfume bottle top and of course the key. There were a lot of buttons but no remnants of clothing.
I kept these things in a little basket on my desk so that when I sat down to write, they were there, reminding me of what it felt like to put my hands in the dirt, that sweet, earthy smell wafting up to my nose, the soil becoming darker and richer the deeper I went, the excitement that I felt when the barest outline of an object would appear in the ground.
Symbols of how what’s gone and buried sometimes still remains.
If we go looking.