Unearthing the Hoover Dam
Life On The Farm Delivers Another Surprise
The winter of 2008-9 in the world west of the Shannon was cold and exceptionally wet (global warming will do that, according to the believers--along with anything else that decides to happen or not happen), which meant that a lot of outside work had backed up, awaiting more favorable climes. An aspect of the local geology that revealed itself during that time was areas of intended lawn that were prone to becoming soggy and invaded by moss, indicating a need for the installation of ground drainage before the finer aesthetics could sensibly be attended to. This I resolutely resolved to tackle as soon as the first graces of spring should show themselves (a joke in itself in a country that can have four seasons a day throughout the year).
The work involves digging a system of branching trenches floored with gravel, upon which are laid perforated pipes packed to the sides and above with more gravel and topped off with a few inches of sandy topsoil. To the astonishment of the mailman and stalwarts of Stamfords pub down in the village, I announced that I would tackle it by hand with pick, mattock, and shovel, since letting machinery loose around the farm would have set everything back four years to the time we moved in, when the cowshed adjoining the cottage was demolished and the hillside at the rear cut back to leave us living in the middle of a scene vaguely resembling the Somme battlefield of World War 1. What, I asked them, has happened to the Irish spirit of honest, sweat-of-the-brow work and indefatigable perseverance that gave us the English canals and railways, New York's bridges and tunnels, Union Pacific transcontinental, and coal mines from Northumberland to Pennsylvania? Call in Joe Kelly with his "digger" (US, "backhoe")? Not a bit of it. A week at the most to do all that would be required on the two areas in question, above and below the house. A welcome, invigorating interval of fresh air and excercise after a winter of mostly sedentary cabin-bound working on the book.
The first thing I found I'd underestimated was the total length of trenching needed to do the job. Working the ground at closer quarters uncovered further patches of waterlogging that the system really needed to cover if the job was to be done properly, which meant further orders of pipe from the supplier and an extended program of digging--I'd put it conservatively at around a hundred miles. On top of which was the matter I'd come up against before but relegated to minor significance on my scale of remembering things (we live and we learn . . . and then, we forget), which was the blue-gray western Irish clay known as "dab". It's like trying to shovel glue when it's wet, while dried out it turns into concrete. Leitrim County is made of it. Hercules would have considered his other labors a rest-break from grappling with it. Maybe that was why the Irish navvies built all those canals and railroads somewhere else. It didn't help matters that I was also producing the filling for the drainage trenches as I went along, by pulverizing the construction debis left from the demolished cow shed that had originally adjoined the cottage with a 12lb sledge hammer. Why pay one man to haul it away and another to deliver loads of gravel when I could make my own?
And then there were the rocks. The contractors who cut back the hillside at the rear of the property had solved the problem of what to do with the landfill thereby created by spreading it out over the slope below and in front, producing the effect comparable to that of heavy siege artillery referred to above. This being an Irish mountainside, the earthmoving had included a lot of rocks, many of which began emerging as the ground settled, with bad implications for the future well-being of things like lawnmowers--notably the ride-around model that we had recently acquired. So the obvious thing to do was extend the operation to removing any rocks that I came across while I was at it. There turned out to be more of them than had been evident at first sight. The protruding parts showed a tendency that soon became almost predictable of turning out to be the tips of formidably large icebergs--in some cases too large to lift or lever out, even with a six-foot solid iron pry bar, which necessitated breaking them into smaller pieces with the sledge. The caverns left after extracting these monoliths had another tendency that also became predictable of uncovering a surrounding constellation of other rocks barely below the surface that it would be better to deal with now, while the tools were there and time had been allocated, rather than leaving them and having to repeat the whole business after more settling later. Okay, then,let's give it a couple of weeks, say.
The cow shed had included a concrete tank to collect runoff from the roof to provide water for the yard. I'd always assumed the pieces had been hauled away somewhere, since little was in evidence by the time I took up occupancy. (I had been living in the flat over the pizza parlor in Sligo while the work was going on.) The discovery of things being otherwise came when the trenches had finally all been filled in, and just two barely visible fragments of of masonry were left to get rid of, and then everything would be finished. Cutting some space around them with the mattock revealed their form as corners--no doubt of cinder blocks used in construction, many of which I had unearthed by this time, which would be nothing compared to some of the Gibraltaresque demolitions that had gone before. The easy straight before home, I told myself confidently.
Dream on. The corners turned out to mark not a couple of isolated cinder blocks, but the beginnings of what was left of the the missing water tank. Huge chunks of broken concrete, strung together by tangles of three-quarter-inch rebar reinforcement, scrunched and pounded together before being buried, in some places lying in slabs stacked three layers deep like geological strata. Small wonder that the ground above had remained obstinately boggy despite being on a slope. All drainage to the lower parts was blocked by what was, in effect, an underground dam formed from barriers of concrete welded together by impenetrable Leitrim dab. Add another week of digging, heavy sledging, and wheelbarrowing, plus the addition of hacksaw to the kit of tools to cut up the rebar. On the fortunate side, Sheryl was in the States while the last episode was playing out, and so never got to see the worst part of the lunaforming of her lawn. Anything green grows fast in Ireland, and nature had effected some impressive first steps toward recovery by the time she returned.
Also on the plus side, I found that I'd lost 50lb in the process and can do 45 pushups again. Not bad at all for 68, I'd say. Now I can take things easy by getting back to work for a while. The next major project will be to compact and consolidate a ramp formed from more cow shed debris that leads down from the yard before the cottage to the sloped lawn below, and extend it into a loop connecting around to the driveway. I think I'll talk to Joe Kelly about it when I next run into him in Stamfords.