Digging A Ditch And Meeting a Snake

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For most of my life I have heard the expression, “Sure beats digging ditches.” It is used to compare a task, or job, to the alternative – shovel in hand, slinging dirt. I have used this well-worn phrase many times myself; for instance, when things got hectic or tense in a newsroom, as a hairy deadline loomed, the phrase helped remind me, or others, that there are worse jobs out there.

I often joke that a shovel handle simply doesn’t fit my hand. Shoveling remains one of my least favorite tasks, something I should have considered when we bought this timber-and-snake farm last summer. I have done more shoveling in the past nine months than I have done in the past couple of decades – putting plants in the ground at my Beautiful Mystery Companion’s behest, spreading two truckloads of cedar mulch in the rose beds along three sides of the house, and then this: digging an actual ditch at the bottom of the driveway.

The front of our property is the culmination of a long modest incline of about a quarter mile. It slopes down from the west and eventually ends in a ditch that is parallel to the driveway, which is about 100 yards long. That ditch has long filled in with soil and Bahia grass, so water stands there most of the year. Our pond guy, though slowed by April showers, has dragged a series of ditches toward Glade Creek, which cuts through our property. This is helping to drain the land where the pond will eventually be built.

I decided to dig out the ditches on either side of the driveway to allow the water to flow through the two culverts beneath the driveway that send the water toward the ditches the pond guy pulled. His excavator is far too large for this task. It was me and a sharpshooter shovel, along with another shovel with jagged teeth. At least I could use the tractor’s bucket to shovel the mud into, then haul it off, which beats using a wheelbarrow. Wearing rubber boots, I waded into the muck.

The mud was remarkably thick. My rubber boots are steel-toed and heavy, but they nearly slipped off my feet as I clambered out of the ditch with another heavy shovelful of slimy, oozing mud. Each load weighed at least 20 pounds. This quickly rivaled any CrossFit workout I have done in the past six years. Soon my clothes were soaked with sweat and bedecked with mud. The only saving grace was a steady breeze that cooled the perspiration. Pancho the Donkey kept braying at me from across the way, as if to inquire why I was playing in the mud instead of bringing him a granola bar.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion backed out of the driveway on her way to the grocery store, shook her head in either sympathy or disbelief, perhaps both, and went on her merry way. I kept slogging away while listening to NPR on my phone, perched on the tractor’s fen der. I filled the tractor’s bucket with mud three times. Eventually, I succeeded in digging a ditch from the culvert beneath the driveway’s entrance to the other culvert, which leads to the pasture. The next step is repeating the same task on the other side of the driveway. That will have to wait for another time when the spirit has moved me to again take shovel in hand.


I stripped off the muddy clothing in the utility room, put on a fresh set, and got back on the tractor to start bushhogging along the fence lines in the woods. This was more to relax after shoveling mud for two hours than of necessity, since the grass will grow back before summer. I find the steady, loud hum of the tractor quite soothing. At one point, I stopped to pull a tree limb off the fence line. I had changed into my leather boots, jeans tucked inside. Something caught my eye as I walked toward the fallen limb. A water moccasin eyed me from the grass, about 3 feet away. In my haze of exhaustion after shoveling, I forgot to bring any type of snake-killing implements – not a gun, nor a shovel. I crouched down from about 10 feet away and took his photo with my phone, using its zoom feature, then hopped back on the tractor and tried to run the snake over, but he slithered away to freedom.

It wasn’t long after that I decided to call it a day, sit on the front porch with a cold beverage and once again dive into Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series. That was enough gentleman farming for one day.

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