Monday, August 19, 2002

it's a dirty job but someone's gotta do it

I love this time of year. When it's still summer outside, but a softened version of itself, with some of the edge taken off by falling temperatures and the regular breeze. I work outdoors, so I see it all firsthand. Already the leaves are changing, the sassafras and tulip poplar going yellow in dalmatian spots, the dogwood and blackgum reddening, and already the smell of the fallen on the ground, indescribably rich and wonderful. The change in my personality from the constant exposure is noticeable, like a man returned from a stay in a monastery. I believe my sweetheart's wee boarder may also be contributing to this effect; the contemplation of fatherhood is humbling, quieting. Seven more months 'til contact. Only seven months.

Man, things happen so fast. It was just the first of May, the beginning of this summer, that my sweetheart and I packed our belongings into boxes and drove them from Charleston, South Carolina to new digs here in Athens, Georgia. Athens is the aforementioned Lady Fair's birthplace, and myself having no one place I have ever truly considered home, I couldn't begin to question its draw on her. And seeing her here, I can understand why. She knows her way around, her family is nearby, she has patented suggestions for where to eat or what to do, all these kinds of familiarities that create a demeanor somewhat akin to Enlightenment, I think-- a similar ease, a deepened thoughtlessness of being. Perhaps I'm overstating the situation, but I know my subject matter. I thrive on her happiness like a true symbiote, and I've never seen her happier than she's been here. This, as they say, is all I need to know.

Another aspect of our reasoning with regard to migration was Charleston's unsuitable job market. I really had no evidence things were any better in Athens, but... follow this skewed logic for a moment: Athens is a college town, home to the formidable University of Georgia (please do not interpret any sports-related sentiment from my use of the word 'formidable'). Likewise, any city with such a large migrant population must have an effectual reflux of employment opportunity at the onset of seasonal displacement, yes? Meaning when the kids go home for the summer, they leave holes behind. Gaps in schedules to be filled. By dedicated joes like me. What I unfortunately failed to take into account was that when the kids go home, they take the business with them; what they leave behind is a vacuum.

However, I got lucky. Through my Baby's mama, I contacted a soil scientist about what I initially thought would be lab work, testing samples or watching clay swell or something in whitewashed, flourescent-lit cinderblock lab coat rooms with no windows and chintzy music piped in through speakers on the walls. Instead, what I did was dig holes. Hike around, through the woods, digging holes. We used a slender metal hand auger, like a big drill bit with a ratchet handle at the top of the stem. Teams usually consist of two, with one soil scientist (being a chap what got dirt-degreed) to classify the soil as it comes up and then map the varying landscapes of horizon and surface topography, and then there's the other guy. The hole-digger. The scientists dig, too. And much better than you, of course. You're kind of like a pack mule, along for company and a bit of extra muscle. I don't mean to say that you're treated that way; in fact, I quite enjoyed its simplicity, its physicality, its vividity. It is certainly unlike any other position I've held previously. Sure, I stay covered in insect bites and all manner of parasites. Down here in the South we have these microscopic mites called chiggers (their proper name, not a nickname, honestly) that attach themselves like ticks to the ankles and shins and feet and then eat their fill of your tender manflesh, as well as infect and inflame the surrounding area with enzymes from their evil arachnid saliva. One of several new banes of my existence.

The real challenge, however, has not been parrying nervous breakdown as I teem with vermin. A month or so ago, I stopped digging holes and started flagging. Now I go out to new tracts and, using what I've learned about the information the mappers need to gather, pertinently mark an area up for evaluation. I wear a yellow backpack with a satellite antenna sticking out of it, up about a foot over my head (an equally yellow rod with a fat white bulb at the top that greatly enjoys snagging in vines and branches and generally being a monkey back there) and is connected to a handheld computer unit hanging in a pouch from the side of the pack. I look like a commando all suited up (provided you can imagine a yellow commando), its straps festooned with pouches, cell phones, a walkie-talkie, my canteen, bandoliers of pens... Navigating with a map and compass, I hike through a wide variety of environs and tie flags of pink ribbon wherever I determine a hole should be dug.

For someone who knows how to read a topographic map, use a compass, gauge slope and distance, visually identify and interpret geographic features on a landscape, and is in generally good physical condition, this job is easy. For someone who has barely even considered such concepts before, much less attempted not only to learn and then successfully perform all these tasks, but also in unison as a working whole, it is a somewhat more stressful enterprise. That first week out on my own was a long and frustrating sentence on a chainless chain gang of one. It's nice to be out in the middle of nowhere so you can scream and curse at the top of your lungs and have it echo back at you as if the world understands.

Now I've mostly perfected my style (so I think), although there are still times when the satellite reception is lousy (reception is a neccesary aspect of inputting each and every point, and sadly dependent upon many constantly fluctuating factors, including the satellite's position in space, the cloud cover, the heat, the haze, the index of the leaf canopy, and my position topographically, among others) and I'm standing in a spiderweb the size of a trampoline for forty-five minutes, coursing with sweat, waiting for the sky to smile, and I wonder if the wage is worth the wringer. But of course it is. Plus I'm painting a pessimistic picture, anyway. It's wonderful to spend so much time outdoors, a pleasure that will double with the onset of Autumn. I'm in the best physical shape of my life. I've learned useful new skills. I think I may even be developing a tolerance to venom. Oh, and my farmer's tan looks like mahogany.

The punchline is that all this time and effort and money is only functioning to determine whether land is suitable to hold a conventional septic tank. An entire graduate field of study is dedicated to soil classification and wetland delineation, decades of ecological research and development, just so we've got a reliable place to dump our excrement.

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