Digging at the Roots
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to the right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
- Digging, Seamus Heaney
In mid-April 1637, Walter Deane arrived in the newly formed Plymouth colony. This colony was the first permanent settlement of European settlers in what would later become the United States. It was established in 1620, only 17 years before Walter Deane would arrive.
Walter Deane would survive the harsh life of the settlement. He would marry and his family would take root. His descendants would move and help settle the colony of New Jersey. They would then move down to North Carolina before turning west and moving into Kentucky. From there, Deane’s descendants would be among the first white families to settle Missouri and fight in the War of 1812. They would stay in Missouri for over 100 years, raising children and farming, fighting in the Civil War and picking up the pieces. In the early 1920’s they would move to the Central Valley of California and establish themselves in the farming community there. It would be another 100 years before one of their descendants would decide to sit down in a small room in New York City to write these words to you.
To read between the lines, my ancestors were the quintessential white colonizers. Simply by looking at the route they took and what they helped to establish, we can see that they pushed boundaries, taking land from those Native Peoples who had lived on those lands for thousands of years. While in North Carolina they owned roughly 400 acres of land. I am not sure if they owned slaves, but the possibility is very real. And because of how long they lived in Missouri and were so attached to that area by being one of the families that help colonize that land, they most likely fought in the Civil War. Missouri was a divided state, so I am not sure if they fought for the Confederacy or not.
At the end of May 2020, George Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis Minnesota. That act sparked a global outcry against injustice and racism. In the days immediately after the shooting, witnessing the protests and trying to figure out what my response would be, the story of my family rolled around in my head like a giant lead marble. I was confronted with how I as a white privileged male whose family established, participated and benefited from a system that oppressed so many could stand alongside those who were oppressed. What could I say? What could I do? I saw a post on social media that week that exclaimed, ‘The system is not broken, It was built this way’. But what I read was that the system wasn’t broken, my family had built it this way.
It is true that we are each individuals. We each have a journey we are on to become the most authentic versions of ourselves that we can be. It is also true that we are influence by our families and carry around the legacies that they leave behind for us. It doesn’t matter how strongly we feel connected with our history or not, it is a part of us. It has a gravity that at times keeps us grounded and at other times feels crushing and inescapable. Either way, we can’t deny its presence. I am the culmination of all of my ancestors. Their survival, imagination, dreams, ambition and not least of all their DNA courses through the very fingers that type on this keyboard, despite how I feel about their actions. I can’t disown them because I disagree with their choices any more than I can disown my own physical body.
But we are individuals, with separate dreams and desires, ambition and imagination. It is a paradox living inside me. I am the sum of my ancestors and I am entirely unique. Part of our work is to figure out how we are a part of our family narratives without giving up our own stories.
I think this paradox is what Seamus Heaney is talking about in his poem Digging. He writes about witnessing how his father digs in the ground for potatoes. How he works the spade and strains his body. He then remembers his grandfather who did the same, working with his spade to cut turf and haul the pieces to where they need to go. He reflects on these strong working men who lived into the purposes that they had. And how his father lived into the legacy of what his father had left him. One dug sod. One dug for potatoes.
You can hear the struggle in Heaney’s voice as he shows how he isn’t like the generations that came before him. He states it from the very beginning, “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests; snug as a gun”. He acknowledges that he is different, and that it is threatening to those around him. Heaney holds a pen the same way his father and grandfather hold spades. They work for home and security, for food and comfort. All the while Heaney’s pen is seen like a weapon ready to undo everything. Heaney is seen as the cuckoo in the nest.
With his pen he weaves the story of the men in his family working the ground, digging for what is under the surface. And in the end Heaney makes a decision, and in that decision he reimagines what that pen in his hand means. He claims the part of the story that is his. “Between my finger and my thumb/ The squat pen rests. / I will dig with it.” He understands that the pen is in his hands, able to be used as he wants it to be used. And he declares that he will dig with it. And at least part of the result of that digging, I believe, is this poem. Heaney dug into the past to what was under the surface. To deal with the discomfort of knowing that his path did not match the path of the generations before him. That even though he was taught to see the pen as a weapon, he could use it to find what was at his root. All the men in Heaney’s life dug in the ground. The ground Heaney dug in to happened to be his heart. He did the hard work and found the paradox between the family narrative and his story.
I do not condone the actions of colonialism and oppression that my family helped to establish and continued to participate in. And I also know that these are some of the pieces that their legacy left for me. Like Heaney, I have the opportunity to choose a different path, to steer my family’s name in a different direction. This is my story too, passed down to me, the history that is in my blood and bone. And it is also my story to do with as I choose, to do the hard work, to take that legacy of exploration and establishment that is part of my family narrative and venture into the unknown territories of justice and welcome, of peace and respect and equality. Changing course is hardly a settling thing for those rooted in tradition. But I have the opportunity to write a new section of this American story that my family helped pen so long ago, to be part of the group that settles this new frontier of hope and justice for the generations to come. I have the chance to change the course of history.
My family were colonizers and potentially slave owners, but I am not. I choose to live a different life. Between my finger and my thumb, the squat pen sits. I will write my story with it. That story will be added to the story of my ancestors and it will sit like a giant plot twist, and I’m okay with that. We all have stories to wrestle with at different times. Part of that is because the stories of our lives are never really over. My story is one portion of the greater story of my family, which is only a tiny part of the grand story of the human experience which is only one plot line in the epic saga of the cosmos. By taking charge of our stories, by living into who we are called to be, we have the ability to direct the legacy we leave to those behind us, to write the plot twists. And within that act, we are helping to shift the narrative of humanity and with that the entire universe. By living a life focused on love and respect, of dismantling oppression and extending compassion to the suffering around us we write those words into the story of the human experience that can never be unwritten. And even in the darkest and most uncertain times, those words will glow on the page like tiny fires in the night. Perhaps they will act like beacons and encourage others to live their lives with love and the fire will spread across the page until the whole human story is written in brilliant light.