Seamus Heaney’s name is still the one I offer when asked whose writing I love most. Death of a Naturalist is the work I turn to first: a regular inhabitant of bags and glove compartments. But there was one poem in its pages that, for a time, troubled me. ‘Digging’ – his opening piece, in which the poet sits at his writing desk and looks out of the window, at his farming father at work – is one of his most well-known. Yet for years, it was difficult to understand. It seemed to talk of something I couldn’t feel, or grasp. Why digging? Why writing? How were they the same?

Two decades later, I found myself in a Northumbrian field. It was April — and yet the sleet was sideways, the standing water had frozen and my feet were numb. I held a muddied trowel. And Heaney’s ‘Digging’ came back to me. This was Vindolanda Roman Fort. It lies less than a mile to the south of Hadrian’s Wall — a place of tussock grass and skylarks and, crucially, of thousands of stones that show where there was, once, a wealth of Roman buildings: altars, barracks, strong rooms, bath houses, a tavern, shops and homes. Those stones are here because, once, Vindolanda was a thriving community. Between the early 70s CE and 400 CE it had been the site of nine vast settlements — of forts, but also of villages that grew to serve those forts. From here, the Wall was built. From here, the Wall was stationed and maintained. Even after the Roman Empire faded, this outpost continued to be used by local people — until, in the end, the wind, owls and rabbits took the site back for their own.

For centuries, it slept. But in the 1970s, its damp, black earth began to reveal its treasures — and it hasn’t stopped since. There have been finds such as coins, pottery, jewellery, weaponry, paw-prints in roof tiles and finely painted glass. But where the earth has been sealed off and airless, it has offered more delicate gifts: handwritten letters, bridles, purses, combs in their own leather cases, shoes, a wooden toilet seat. Its museum is a joy. Yet this is, we’re told, just the beginning. There is so much still left in its ground that The Vindolanda Trust asks for volunteers to help discover it. And so every year we leave our jobs and families for a fortnight, head north, tie back our hair, narrow our eyes against the wind — and dig. That wintery April was my first time there. I’d taken Death of a Naturalist with me and that evening, in the local pub, I read ‘Digging’ to myself. In it, Heaney writes of his father’s spadework: the ‘nicking and slicing’; ‘the squelch and slap/ Of soggy peat’. Of his pen he says, ‘I’ll dig with it.’

I sat by the fire, reading. These lines no longer felt strange. Both excavating and writing ask for the same attributes of patience, effort and resolve. No gem waits on the surface. Nor can the gem, on being found, always seem like gold: it needs to be cleaned, picked free of dirt — and edited, to a shine. Furthermore, you can’t simply tread on a spade’s edge and begin to dig any more than you can approach the writing of a novel without hopes or ideas: there are maps, intentions, thoughts on what to hope for and on what might be found. What might this ditch hold — animal bones or metalwork, jewellery or a kiln? I began to understand what the poem was saying; there was a sense of purpose, a mission to be achieved by dusk. I learned, too, that there was a clear routine to my excavating days: by chance, I’d arrive at my wheelbarrow at the same hour that, at home, I’d be opening my laptop. I’d break for cups of tea at the same times. I noted even smaller echoes: the scrape of a trowel had a pencil’s sound; the rain on my anorak had a typist’s tap-tap.

How else were excavating fields and writing books alike? One afternoon, I found a shard of pottery with no maker’s mark on it — and, momentarily, I felt downcast: other diggers seemed to be finding far more. But I’d had this same disheartened feeling in my writing life: a single paragraph could seem a dismal showing for a full day’s work. Self-doubt can find its way in. But I studied that shard of clay and understood that if I found enough of them, I could make a pot. Books are made of sentences — and so every word matters. Shrines that take the breath away are made up of little rocks.

I also found myself asking about purpose. Why excavate at all? Why was I choosing to kneel in mud and sift through worms? I asked this of my companions, as the kettle boiled. Their answers were, invariably, the same: we excavate to learn about other people. In doing so, we learn more about ourselves — and whilst two thousand years have passed between these Roman lives and our own, not much has changed. We still exchange betrothal rings, gnaw chicken bones, wear socks. We still send birthday invitations. We still use netting against the pesky northern midge. The phallus is still the graffiti symbol of choice.

In this way, it was as I excavated that I realised what I was drawn to, in my writing life. I was less excited at the discovery of an altar than I was about a rusty oyster fork, or a shoelace that was still tied. It was the ordinary I hoped for, as I dug — and I know I tend to write, too, of ordinary things. I love what is mundane – the housewife stirring a pot, the routine of days – because in truth I find such things far more interesting. One of my best moments came two summer’s later, when, kneeling by a ditch, I broke into black, anaerobic earth — and found a lady’s shoe. I had to sit down when I found this. It was two thousand years old and perfect. I could see the flattened leather where her heel and toes had been.

What also links these two tasks is, invariably, death. When excavating, it’s everywhere. It sits beside the digger: this brooch, this coin, this piece of pot were all touched by hands that are gone now. Their owners died — as we will die. Such musings felt hackneyed, at times — but it was impossible not to think of my own mortality when hauling my tired body up the hill to the car, at dusk. And whilst ‘Digging’ is about both turning the earth and the written word, I find death in it too. Heaney talks of heritage. He might not have chosen the family’s farming life — but he’ll still leave a legacy and it will be his own. For me, above all else, ‘Digging’ is a reminder to make the most of our short, earthly time.

On my last day at Vindolanda, I climbed to higher ground. The sleet was gone. It was early May and Northumberland looked greener, felt warmer. I settled into the grass and looked down. The forts were laid out — with their reconstructed towers and the carpark to the west. And with that, I felt two things: firstly, a sense of contentment at the fortnight’s efforts and finds; but I realised, too, that I wanted more. I wanted to keep going — for what else might be out there? What tiny, secret, human gifts were still lying in the earth? So it is with writing: I think of the words unwritten. I wonder if my best words are, in fact, still to be found. For both trowel and pen have, perhaps, the same purpose — which is to find what is true, frail and human and to pick it clean. To feel the pulse still in it. To lift it, very carefully, into the light.

Susan Fletcher is the author of five adult novels, including Witch Light and the Whitbread award-winning Eve Green. Her latest novel, Let Me Tell You About A Man I Knew, was published in 2016.

27-02-2017
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