Our brand new anthology of uncivilised writing and art is now available through our online shop for £15.99 – or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been sharing a little of what you’ll find in its pages. Our last extract from Issue 9 is from Robert Leaver, whose project Hole Earth is a brilliant, discomforting exploration of the guiding theme of this book: what it means to be humble on (or in) this earth.
In the fall of 2013 I crawled up Broadway in New York on my hands and knees in a vintage pinstripe suit that once belonged to my father. Crawling Home began at the bottom of the island near Wall Street and ended at my apartment in Washington Heights near the top of the island. Roughly ten miles. The journey took approximately six months and was documented over the course of twenty crawls.
In the fall of 2014 I began the project I call Hole Earth. Wearing my same suit I dug a hole and got down inside, in the foetal position. I did this in Montana, NYC, Tuscany, Germany, Ireland, England, The Catskill Mountains and The Bronx. Sometimes I was alone and sometimes I had an audience.
HOLE #1 CATSKILL MOUNTAINS
I am reminded that I like to dig. I’ve had jobs that required digging, but not for a long time. I used to work landscaping around New York City, planting trees on the sidewalks or on roof gardens and in backyards. I could always shovel for a long time. I liked the smell of what was unearthed and the sound of the shovelling. When I worked as a stonemason’s assistant my job was mixing up batches of concrete with a shovel and that was painful work.
Here in the field the going is slow but steady and I start to sweat. My 20-pound five-foot-long iron spike is doing the needed damage, breaking away things that the shovel can’t handle. It is 55 degrees and sunny and the leaves are still turning colours. I take a break every five minutes or so and feel my heart beat and muscles start to sing and protest. My back is waking up and wondering what the deal is. As with the crawling there are phases of warming up, phases of the body asking questions and demanding answers and then finally submitting to the task at hand.
Digging with the knowledge that the hole is literally for me to get into gives the task another dimension. I am not burying treasure, or searching for something once buried in the ground. I am not digging a bunker or a trench or a grave or a place to plant a tree. I suppose I am planting me, but only for a little while. I will not be covered up and left to hopefully grow. I am not just some man seed in a suit.
The hole is almost ready for me. I imagine this can change me. I imagine that if I listen closely when I am in the hole I might be able to hear all the burials and all the births all at once. Is that what I want? Why am I so excited about getting into this hole?
After about 45 minutes I stand over a round hole that looks to be nearly deep enough. I step down in, sit inside, roll over onto my side and curl up into a foetal ball. My ten-year-old son informs me that my shoulder is sticking out above ground level. He gets up on a stepladder and takes a picture. I struggle to undo myself and get out of the hole. I dig some more, making the hole wider and deeper and then I get in again. My heart is pounding inside my chest inside the ground. The earth circle is holding me in position. I’m jammed in tight and when I close my eyes all I can hear is my heartbeat and my breathing and the wind blowing across the field.
HOLE #2 CAPE COD
After one good hole and some pictures we hike up to a high dune ridge to reconnoitre. In the distance, towards the ocean, we can barely make out dune shack rooftops, but visibility is fast decreasing as a snowstorm blows in. I spot a deep snowdrift nearby and I go there and attack it with my shovel. I need to find out more about geomancy. Why do some spots just call out and say: Here! Dig here!
This is a deep hole, dug all the way down to the dune grass. Down inside I am out of the wind. It is completely still. The snow around me says nothing. It smells like sky, maybe, but I don’t know. It contains no stories, not like earth does. Not stories that I can comprehend. It just falls and gathers and waits and melts and flows away. The sound of my voice in the hole is different too, as the acoustics of snow are a distant ethereal cousin to rock and dirt. The winter wind is howling across the dunescape and my friend is out there in it waiting for me to come out of my hole. I will come back here in the summer and dig again in the sand.
I leave this fine snow hole open and empty, like a white eye unblinking, waiting for more snow to fill it from above. We head back across the dunes and I feel primitive, like a half-lost hunter, or some exiled shaman, banished from his tribe, still bent on conjuring something with a hole. My friend drags the stepladder and we leave our mysterious tracks on the white face of the Earth.
A voice in my head pesters me as I walk in my suit with shovel and spike alongside the Washington Heights graveyard. He’s interrogating me: Holes? Really? Wasn’t crawling enough? Have you no shame? No pride? What does this mean? Why does it matter? Who do you think you are?
I know this voice. He is the coward who calls me a fool. I want to hit him on the head with my shovel. I should try to love him, listen to him, put him at ease. I remind him that I am the CAPTAIN of this ship and HOLE EARTH is happening. This voice, this fearful me, doesn’t really want to mutiny, he doesn’t really want to be in charge. He just wants to undermine me. I start to whistle and he goes silent. But he will be back.
My first urban NYC hole. This is a real spring morning, maybe the first so far after the long grinding winter. 60 degrees. Sparrows frantic. Even the helicopters sound happy. It feels good to carry my shovel and spike down Broadway. I’ve got my old ratty daypack on my back with kneepads and gloves inside. The same ones I crawled in. I don’t wish I were on my way to crawl. Now I am burning to dig.
I’m a little concerned about my lower spine. Digging in the dunes a month ago tweaked it somehow. I went to an acupuncturist woman who says my back would be better supported if I had an ass.
HOLE #6 GERMANY
Time to dig. The sky is low and Eastern Bloc grey. It might rain. People have gathered around, maybe twenty or thirty folks. A couple of children, some press with cameras and notebooks, some young women, some middle-aged couples, a stray weirdo. As I dig I keep my eyes mostly down. I hear cameras click and flash. Birds in the trees overhead sing. I whistle back at them, trying to match their calls as I dig. A back and forth takes place between me and the birds. My audience of humans laughs nervously and talks amongst themselves. They are speaking German. I wonder if anyone will heckle me. I would like to tangle lovingly with a heckler.
This place was bombed relentlessly in World War Two. In fact on this very day 72 years ago, 23rd May 1943, the city was devastated by a bombing raid. Bombs destroy and make fire and piles of rubble and holes in the ground. I think a bomb fell on this very spot where I am digging.
The ground is more or less cooperative. I work up a sweat and whistle ‘Amazing Grace’ for a while. These people also speak English, so I could make jokes, but I stay quiet. I struggle with an urge to entertain the audience. I could start up a conversation. I could take questions, I could rant and rave. But I force myself to stay quiet. My silence gives the dig a little bit of tension. I don’t want to be a clown right now.
I find new digging positions and I grunt and mutter to myself. ‘Almost there,’ I think I hear myself say, but that’s about it.
As I dig I wonder what, if anything, makes this hole German? I realise I have flown over a giant hole filled with salt water to be here at another spot on planet Earth. People named this place Germany. People named The Bronx. And Cape Cod. Everywhere on Earth, every town, every street, every object, has been given a name. A sea of names and language. Tools, like my shovel and my pick.
HOLE # 10 ITALY/HOME
I count to one hundred, then I count again, and again, down in the hole, hibernating, eyes shut, body letting go. The sun is setting over Tuscany. I hear the soft voices and laughter of people close by. This is a Renaissance garden, the Horti Leoni, in the picturesque little village of San Quirico, Italy. I am leaving this place, flying down into the planet, a spinning foetal ball bound for the core and beyond, to the other side! A child’s voice brings me back. I hear the voice ask if I am dead and another says they can see me breathing.
I am haunted by the holes. Yesterday back home from Europe, I am building a stone wall and wearing threadbare canvas slippers. I accidentally drop a 50-pound stone on my big toe. What a mess. Now I am limping around here in the Catskills with my son in the final weeks of August. It is just the two of us. I sense myself drifting off the road into an existential dog day ditch. The pond is low and blooming green with algae. The hard tomatoes in our ragged little garden are blemished with black spots. The lettuce is tough and bitter.
I keep hearing a sound, a pulsating hum in the distance, but I can’t find the source. I’ve looked in the basement and I’ve stood outside in the field and listened for it. And I hear it! I drove down the road and turned off the truck and listened for it. There it is again! I ask my son if he can hear it and he tries, but he says I am imagining it. I laugh it off. No need to spook him. Am I hearing the inside of my head? This could be a problem.
I lay in bed at dawn listening for songbirds again. Where are they? Dawn should not be silent. There are many theories about why the songbirds have been declining so drastically. I’ve recently had run-ins with friends about the state of the Earth. Climate change. We don’t agree on the facts. Since I began Hole Earth I am especially emotional when it comes to this subject. And not very articulate. Why do intelligent people resist and dilute the facts? When did the truth become subjective? What is this rash of denial? Is it because the reality of what we’ve created is so overwhelming?
The emotion I feel around the state of the Earth ties directly in to the impulse that brought me to Crawling Home and Hole Earth. This is my protest? This is my recycling? I’m not doing enough. Where are the birds? What is that hum?
Here in the mountains my son keeps asking me if I’m OK. I tell him I’m fine. Do I not seem OK? He keeps telling me he loves me. His voice is so kind. He looks up from his book as I walk by. ‘Love you, Dad.’
I step carefully from stone to stone watching him float face down. He is snorkeling down a slow moving, waist-deep river. He explores around boulders, pops up, looks for me, and shows me with his hands the size of the trout he just saw. He’ll be starting sixth grade in a couple weeks. He doesn’t really need me to take him to school this year. I’ve been with him every step of the way. Now it is time to step aside, at least a little bit. I don’t want to let go. I am watching him grow up, up and away. He is drifting downstream with the current, in another world, and I am here on the riverbank standing guard.
Maybe the only way to cure myself of all this, the only way to shed this melancholy dog day navel-gazing baggage, is to go and dig again. No camera, no audience, no talk. I need an anonymous place in the wilderness where I can dig myself into oblivion, a place where I am the only witness. Maybe this wants to be a secret communion. Maybe that is all it was ever meant to be. There is another level of stillness waiting.
In the end this is just between the Earth and me.
Robert O. Leaver is a writer, musician and performance artist who splits his time between New York City and a piece of wild land on a dead end road in the Catskill Mountains. He wants to hear from you. All his endeavours and contact info can be found at robertoleaver.com
The film was recorded in Hackney Marshes, London, by Caroline Mary Williams
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.
Dark Mountain: Issue 9 is available through our online shop for £15.99, or cheaper if you support our work by subscribing to future issues