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 fetal 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 was invited to participate in this event by my friend the sculptor, Justin Peyser. He is a bold and generous man. His work is the main attraction. The theme is the pilgrim and his or her knapsack… Justin kindly thought I might fit in, maybe round the show out with something a bit… other and off to the side.
In a letter from 1582 this garden was described as a place along the road to Rome, “created…to comfort wayfarers and especially nobles.”
People stopped here to rest as they made their pilgrimage to the Holy City. It was a long way on foot from points north to Rome and many made a living will before leaving home.
There was a bit of concern from the organizers of this event that there would be nothing to look at after my hole was done and I was gone. A question was raised about leaving the hole open. Maybe I could leave something inside? Various discussions ensued about what that thing might be. People had ideas. A map? My jacket? A bible? A gun? A mirror? A flag? Money? Tears? For a while I thought maybe a rusty metal sphere with a map of earth scratched into it. I came to my senses and dropped that idea. Of course, nothing was the answer. In the end a video in the town hall seemed to do the trick.
Until the show closes in October you can see me up in a corner inside San Quirico’s elegant old town hall. There I am as you enter, up there on a large flat screen television. That’s me digging a hole, getting in, getting out, on a never-ending four-minute loop. I am on TV in Italy. One single television. The Hole Earth channel.
At the opening event Justin was introduced in the piazza by the garden entrance as this year’s featured artist and he spoke to an audience. I opted to skip that event and I hid in the garden. I did not want to be seen out of hole context until after my work was done. No hobnobbing. Had to be in character…whatever that is. The first time anyone sees me I should be digging. Show business? So I waited up at the top level of the garden in my chosen spot at the ruined base of an old stone tower.
I was here in May, after the Germany holes, checking out the garden with Justin, choosing a spot. Photos needed to be taken by a professional photographer, Carlo Vigni, for the show’s catalog. The return to the same spot gives me a strange feeling. A friend visiting from NYC teases me, saying he didn’t come all this way to see me dig the same hole twice. This threatens to get under my skin. But I find a way to make it new by digging a little deeper, beyond where I was the first time, into a place I’ve never been.
A few dozen people were standing watching, near silence when I finally stood up. They applauded with gusto and I bowed to them. Someone said that I looked very pale when I stood up, like a ghost. I think I stayed inside so long, in such a tight ball, that I cut off some of the blood flow to my head. Afterwards there was a good buzz in the air. Some people said the hole was some kind of genius, or at least a really good cocktail party conversation piece. A few people seemed genuinely moved, altered in some way. I was soaked with sweat and thoroughly disoriented. A grown man sought me out and got choked up when he described how seeing me in the hole made him think about the father he had recently lost. A champagne reception in the garden was followed by a glorious meal under a tent at a local restaurant. I believe I was present.
I am haunted by the holes. Yesterday while building a stonewall and wearing threadbare canvas slippers I accidentally dropped a fifty- 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 okay. I tell him I’m fine. Do I not seem okay? 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.