Here’s a joke…
Question: Who made money during the Gold Rush?
Answer: The ones who sold the shovels.
“You were asked to dig a hole? Do you understand how that sounds very strange?” When I told this to a friend, they seemed perplexed. And while I was initially confused by their response, it didn’t take me long to realise that digging a hole, especially a standalone hole, a hole to be left open for six months, for the purpose of observation, exploration, and general immersion, was soon to become a complex one for me.
And I have dug quite a few holes in my life, more than the average human bear. As someone who works on soils, digging holes is something I do regularly. Some have been very large, some medium sized, some small. They have been for a variety of purposes and yes, mostly in soil (but maybe that is implied in the digging). As a grower, I have dug holes to plant trees and shrubs for my various orchard and woodland projects, smaller ones for perennials and annuals, even smaller, perhaps more like divots, for nuts and seeds. As someone who does the work that others hire for, I have dug holes for fence posts and gates, a hole for a foundation for a small building, holes to bury cables or water piping. I have dug holes to bury my beloved deceased animal friends. And I’ve even dug a few holes for complete folly, left as open invitations to the land itself. But this time it was different because it was in western Texas. Or I was specifically requested to do so instead of feeling the practical need myself. Or maybe because I am different now.
Digging a hole in a gallery’s courtyard twangs on the strings of the land artists of the 1960s and ’70s who made a point to leave sanctioned white walled art spaces to encounter landscape directly. They translated their sketches on paper into large-scale gestures involving heavy machinery that they hired humans to operate and sometimes contracted airplanes to fly over and capture evidence of the deed. Or they splashed or plopped something of their own into place. Robert Smithson. Michael Heizer. These grandiose deeds stand alone, “heroic” monuments to the maker, the impact on the living context and the non-human inhabitants within completely without comment.
The landscape of western Texas is full of arroyos, canyons, hills, escarpments, ledges, embankments, ridgelines, rills, ledges, valleys, drums, old volcanoes, and fluvial deposits. Decidedly arid, it is largely within the body of the Chihuahuan Desert, the largest desert in the U.S., which stretches north through Montana and into Alberta and south into the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
In a sense I am bringing the experience of this landscape to the gallery. Raking clear several inches of clean white gravel to expose the compacted soil of a former auto body shop to then slowly open, exploring how in each layer its body breaks and cleaves or crumbles and resists my tools. Steel spade, hand-held crowbar, a longer and more javelin-like angelino bar, Japanese hori-hori, hand hoe… All aides to my burrowing deep to invite others to immerse themselves into the ground beneath our feet.
The environment is all extreme sun and dry air. On the cool side at an elevation of 4,800 feet. The hole will receive: dusts from other places, lucky plops of bird guano from the sky, organic debris from deciduous woody plants. Seeds will blow in and with the brief but considerable concentrations of rainfall of the summer monsoons, perhaps they will germinate. I expect surfaces to pit. Slumping erosion. Caving. It will get slippery, will become more fragrant with life. I imagine spiders, beetles, lizards, centipedes, and others to take refuge there and I will need to sweep them out when it is time to close it up. The exposed earth’s microbiology will shift from one specific dynamic group of countless beings to another. Exchanges. Chemical reactions. Life births anew under the white-walled courtyard.
And digging this hole also means a heap is created. With a hole, a heap. Hole and Heap. They go together. The contents of this hole, this soil is broken from its context and expanded with air as it is being dug from the ground. disruption. production. This hole was and is the goal, The heap, a byproduct – the opposite of mining, where the hole is the waste scar of the material being mined.
This hole, instead of being left open, will be filled back in. Heaps rejoining the hole. Imported gravel raked again over the site. An erasure. Displacement becomes placement becomes replacement all by my hand. This relationship is a difficult one.
It took me a while to connect to elders of this land. A friend in Austin directed me to a friend in San Francisco who then vetted my intent and character over several e-mail exchanges and a long phone conversation, and then sent me a ‘White Ally’ agreement to sign. It was only then that she gave me her friend’s phone number. When I reached Texas and called, I was asked immediately why, indeed, I did feel that digging a hole was a moral issue. “As a white person, I am glad you understand this,” the friend said. “Please come.”
I drove south through the Chihuahuan Desert, following the freshly sunken Trans-Pecos Pipeline, which looked like the longest runway, and spent a morning with Enrique and Ruby, Jumano elders who live a stone’s toss from Big Bend National Park and a two-stone skip form the Mexican border – as Enrique told me after he grilled me over the phone. I spent the morning listening, ears cracked wide, in their small, book-bedecked room, with nooks for two chairs as it is important for humans to be amongst their tools for living.
Why did Jumanos dig holes? For planting seeds. For ovens to roast sotol, for homes, called jacals, set into the earth.
When Cabeza de Vaca came through western Texas he saw people living in pit buildings, single-room structures made from four horcones or corner posts set into the ground, with a forked middle pole to create height and octotillo ribs lashed together with grasses, covered cottonwood, willow, or brush and then plastered in with mud. They were called “xacalli” in nahuatl which was adapted into “jacal” in Spanish, a word that became to be known as “hut”.
The people, Jumanos, were agriculturalists and worked with hoes made of buffalo scapula to cultivate corn, beans, squash, cotton for clothing, and gourds for vessels. They also foraged (amongst other things) sotol, a desert shrub, and used its fibers for weaving baskets, making sandals and rope. The heart or thick base of the plant were roasted in large pits (dug by buffalo scapula) filled with brush, wood, and stones and covered by earth for almost two days, then dug up and mashed and pounded into nutritional, sweet patties that could be dried and stored.
What do I bring to the digging? As an European-American, how could I not bring capitalism and dominance to this act of digging a hole?
But my entanglement with this ethnic and racialised identity is also complicated by the fact that I am female. Who mines and lays pipelines? Who excavates for construction? Who reroutes natural water courses? Drains water from lakes, rivers, swamps, and springs and creates retention ponds and dams? Who drills into the groundwater for irrigation and wells? Dredges canals of contaminated sediment only to pile it elsewhere where it oozes and leaches? Who tills and compacts the fields with machinery? Men.
Women direct the flow of traffic, hold the signs, answer the phones, shuffle the paperwork, and otherwise buffer the impact of men’s operations.
And it was true, that while we all sat together, as much as I tried to pull in Ruby, it was Enrique that did all the talking while she chased down books that he requested to read from.
When I drove to the nearest town with an equipment rental facility, I was surprised to find it being run by a Tejana. I explained my project. We talked equipment and specs. She laid out logistics. She asked where I was digging and admitted she had done some excavation a block or so away for family, and assured me that the soil was soft, desirous for a good vegetable garden. She wished she were so lucky to have the same in her backyard, but unfortunately she was not.
I’d like to think that perhaps my dilemma is a bit lessened. Nothing grows or is allowed to grow where I am digging. It is a domesticated, disturbed site. I raked away several inches of crushed granite and opened up the soil underneath. I dug superficially, into what would be the organic, living layer of the soil horizon. I collected two quarts of sample soil. One for local Rangeland Agriculture Testing (macro and micro nutrients, pH) and some for qualitative testing (shake test, smell, color, taste, ribboning, texture, aggregate size, biological life) and the last tablespoon to be gunned by an X-ray fluorescence gun. This shoots an X-ray to knock an electron out of orbit and reveal a signature of the presence and the degree of presence of heavy metals (elements) that you select for beforehand. By a fortuitous string of events, I happen to have one of these devices resting in its case under the dining room table amongst the litter of dust bunnies.
On my way back to Chicago with my collected soil samples, I was delayed at the El Paso airport. Upon passing through the detector, I was patted down, my luggage was thoroughly searched, and the security agents pulled the bags of soil samples and asked me to identify their contents.
“Soil,” I said. They proceeded to open the bags with nitrile gloves and sprinkle a few tablespoons in separate piles on quilted absorbent pads. Two different chemical agents were dropped onto each sample and were allowed to “bake” (their term) for several minutes to note any colour change.
“Can I ask you what chemicals you are using?” I said.
“Absolutely not, Ma’am.”
Nothing happened to the samples and after they switched out their gloves they continued going through my items and asking me to identify them as if they were from a different planet.
“Those are tortillas.”
“That’s Swiss chard and a lemon.”
And then boastfully: “I foraged those.”
They asked me so many questions, I barely made my flight.
The airport is across the street from Fort Bliss, eleven miles from Ciudad Juarez, and near the adjacent White Sands Missile Range (the largest and second largest military bases in the U.S.). Weeks later, I asked two friends who work with a community lab and they speculated that the security agents were likely testing for explosives.
And let me not forget to mention that when I arrived at Ruby and Enrique’s, Ruby entered the small room, sat on the couch, leaned in to face me, and stated:
“So you will be digging a hole.” A pause, after which she tersely paraphrased a statement by biologist E.O. Wilson: “when you dig a hole you destroy a universe”.
And I now would like to add – and you find yourself in the middle of another.
All images: Nance Klehm, Free Exposure: 3 holes, 5 heaps (2018) created for Hyperobjects (2018), an exhibition co-organised by Timothy Morton and Laura Copelin for Ballroom Marfa. Images courtesy of Ballroom Marfa.
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.