Digging Tunnels

By

I’m writing from the bench at the bend in the trail. When we moved to the Warren these woods were a claustrophobic tangle of thorn, privet, and bush honeysuckle (don’t be fooled by the name–bush honeysuckle is a bane). Jamie and the kids and I crouched our way under the brushy eaves, lopping branches here and there, looking for good trees, marveling at huge slabs of limestone and granite peeking out of the soil, wondering how all those old beer bottles ended up under the humus so far from the house. Eventually we cut a series of trails, the path guided by the shape of the land and the fattest trees we could find–mostly cedar and hackberry, but along the way we happily discovered a couple of young sugar maples, a beast of a shumard oak, as well as the Goliath of our woods–a massive tree that neither of the two experts I’ve brought out here could identify. “It looks like a white walnut,” one of them said, “but if it is, that’s the biggest one in Tennessee.”

At the center of our little stand of trees is the bowl of a dried up pond, now a marshy wetland thick with waist-high grass and a few willows. When we get a lot of rain there’s a trickle that runs through the center and disappears into the foot of the old earthen dam someone piled up a generation or two ago. The former owner, who grew up here, said that he remembered ice-skating on the pond as a boy. The pond (or, the non-pond, rather) is a feature of our property I can’t stop thinking about. From our first day here seven years ago, I’ve voiced my desire to repair the dam and clear out the brush so that we can have a little fishing hole, something not just for the grandchildren but as a food source in case the Cubans invade like they did in Red Dawn. I’m only half-kidding. Something about having a few acres wakes up the survivalist in a man, which is part of why I so enjoy gardening nowadays. The less I depend on the machine the more connected I feel to the remnants of Eden shimmering at the edges of the natural world. Before you think me too hippie, I should remind you that I’m writing this on a computer, and I enjoy my Netflix account.

I’m not sure why I’m telling you all this, except to say that I’ve always had a thing for big projects. For example, the boys and I chainsawed and hacked and lopped the swath of trees between our house and the pond this spring, clearing a section of the slope about twenty yards wide and thirty yards deep—an enormous amount of work that rewarded us with a clear view of the non-pond from the kitchen window. The morning after the clearing was complete I looked down the hill to discover a family of deer drinking from the trickle. Of course, I thought, they’ve probably been drinking down there all these years but we never knew it till now. The fact that the trees are gone hasn’t frightened them off, either, so almost every day I see those beauties graze their way through the bowl.

Here’s a strange memory: when I was a kid in Illinois I discovered a pile of shoveled sidewalk snow in someone’s front yard. At some point I decided that that snowpile needed a boy-sized tunnel dug right through the center, so on the way home from kindergarten I stopped every day for about a week and worked, though I had no idea whose house it was. After fifteen minutes or so I’d head home so my mom wouldn’t be worried. All day at school my mind was occupied with that tunnel. It wasn’t as if I had never dug a tunnel in the snow before, and I’ve often wondered why I remember this one so vividly. But there was something simple and delightful to my little six-year-old self about working at this tunnel alone, in secret, a little at a time for a whole week. The day I finally broke through to the other side I brushed the snow off my pants and stood, mittened hands on my hips, and admired my work. Then I felt someone watching me. I turned around and saw a woman in the house at the window, peeking out at me with a kind face. She might have waved. I pretended not to see her. I was deeply embarrassed as I realized that she had probably been watching me for days.

Memories choose us. Of all the things that must have happened during my childhood—little adventures, moments of shame or joy or comfort—only a few images, like this one, rise to the surface. And they don’t just rise once. They come to me again and again as if there’s some mystery hidden in all the plainness, as if someday I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and understand why that snow-tunnel is stuck in my head.

The next week as I passed the house (on the other side of the street) I noticed that the pile was gone. I’ve always suspected that the woman and her husband never intended to leave it by their driveway, but they noticed a little boy stopping to dig every day and graced me with a week of peaceful, pointless work. I wonder if it gave her something to do, someone to watch for, something to talk about with her husband at dinner during a long, featureless winter.

Earlier today I was working on a new song, alone in the house, and it felt just like digging. I wonder if someone was watching from a high window?

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


14 Comments

  1. Glenn

    “When you write, you lay out a line of wards. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe. You wield it, and it, digs a path you, follow. Soon you find yourself deep in new territory: Is it a dead end, or have you located the real subject? You will know tomorrow, or this time next year.” – Annie Dillard.

    The act of being inside the tunnel, of discovering the song or the story, with its potential for being buried under a mountain of snow, is both thrilling and terrifying. For children, it’s mostly thrilling, but as we get older, it seems the terror becomes more acute. Why?

  2. April Pickle

    I’ve thought about this post all day. The image of the trail and the sweat that goes into making one, the deer and the giant tree that were revealed by the cutting through of things, the chipping away of snow by a child in the presence of the wise that made a frame and a shelter, a way through.
    Thank you, Andrew, for writing close to the earth. May your notebook remain open, and may the mosquitoes be vanquished.

  3. Matthew

    Reading this while stuck in an airport with a two hour delay after the first two hour delay has an odd assortment of affects. First off, it’s written so perfectly I’m zoning out, drawn into Andrew’s world. Second, I want to cry for some reason or another. Third, there are so many memories flooding my mind I don’t know what to do about them all.

    As a kid I always loved water sources. The little creeks that ran through the many neighborhoods I lived in as a military brat. Every one of those offered a glimpse of the wild out beyond, a secret garden. I always hold those memories in awe.

    Right now I’m watching a boy run up and down the horizontal escalators jumping over invisible hurdles. I want to join him but I’m wearing boots.

  4. Hannah Long

    Reminds me of the many, many days spent clearing out a deep mountain stream behind our house. And building shelters. Stockpiling half-ripe apples with my cousin. Wasn’t it the Russians in Red Dawn? Of course, at that age, it might as well have been the armies of Mordor – I didn’t care, I was ready. I’d made a spear.

  5. Loren Warnemuende

    I’m going to remember this as we chip away and dig into our new environment and see it start to be home. So thankful for our Father who has His hand on us! I wonder what memories my kids will hold of these first days as they create worlds with LEGOs and each other, with only Mom and Dad watching.

  6. Dave Bruno

    This reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s sketch “Storm Home” – has anyone ever heard it? So glad there is always someone watching from the window.

  7. Barry

    Thanks for inviting us in again, Andrew, to share in a memory. Your writing is a gift, and your message is clear. Isn’t it amazing that we can be so much smaller than we think (in the scheme of things), yet still be the apple of the Maker’s eye? Great imagery, honesty and perspective! Thank you!

  8. Marsha Panola

    I’m glad God gave you a piece of land and a whole huge pile of talents. He must have a great time watching you explore and delight in his gifts to you. I know if a little boy had come to tunnel in my snow pile, it would have been a highlight of my days to watch the progress of that little fellow’s work, and I would have been rejoicing when he succeeded, just as your watcher did. It would have warmed my heart like seeing the deer come drink at your pond warmed yours. Thanks for those pictures that remind me of of God enjoying us.

  9. Lisa

    Thank you Andrew, this is lovely. I’m struck by the question of why those certain memories are the ones that we remember from childhood, I had never thought of that question before. The delight of it all is that there is likely something to dig through there, as you say. There is always a mystery to invite us “higher up and deeper in.”

    That last paragraph was a warm fuzzy.

  10. joy C

    Amen, Andrew. I get refreshed by your writing. God bless you. And thank you so much for having the discipline and devotion to keep writing songs … God-filled songs. They are like a window into God’s presence or delight. 🙂 Btw, the prison work continues. Bless you

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