The Earth-shaking show some never outgrow


Who can resist an opportunity to watch a backhoe digging earth?

The very whiff of diesel and sight of the heavy, pneumatic machine rolling down the street heading for a dig pulls me along—I just gotta go watch that big arm opening up the ground, even if I have to keep my fingers in my ears to withstand the din. Anyone who has read ‘Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel’ or ‘A Hole is to Dig,’ seminal works of the excavation genre, understands the fascination of the experience I’m describing. Digging just draws a crowd.

‘Discovery’ is the soul of my attraction to the edge of the hole. Last year when a water pipe burst right in the intersection of Court Street and Main, it required the excavation of a massive patch of asphalt and dirt to expose the problem. Fred Motycka brought his backhoe into town and went to work. People of all ages flocked to the yawning chasm as Fred scooped Main Street into the dump truck and burrowed through gushing water, down through layers of sand, through gravel and dirt. With inches to go, Fred gingerly brushed the soil off of the offending pipe, like an umpire whisking off home plate. There was the breach—a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, shrouded in an enigma—exposed by the big, growling, tender machine.

Discovery. We all have a deep curiosity about what’s under ground. We all want to go deeper. And the people who can manipulate the backhoe hold the levers to satisfying that curiosity. Any pipe, rock, stump or strata of earth is a potentially satisfying discovery, a ‘eureka!’ experience. “So that’s what my yard looks like, ten feet down. . . before the last ice age. ” We are witnesses to prehistory when the backhoe goes to work.

After his basement flooded last year, our friend Jim saved the big rock, a glacial erratic, extracted from his yard when the new drainpipe went in. He keeps it as an artifact of the experience, embedded in flowers above the dig. This is not as exciting a discovery as the woolly mammoth that a gentleman in New York discovered recently, digging out his backyard pond. Clearly, his was the fabulous backhoe Ur moment, the archetype of astounding discovery. It is a woolly mammoth that any of us hopes to see poking its tusk out of the primordial sediment as a backhoe operator, like Fred, works his way down, deeper into the past.

Deconstruction, the backhoe’s other talent, also enthralls me. It was a great day when Oakley Hutchins & Son brought their backhoe to our house. The old barn out back was on its last legs and wasn’t worth saving, after long service as town livery stable and latter day lawnmower shed. Since I couldn’t attend the big event, my father photographed the operation from start to finish and mailed me the photos. It might seem a little strange, making a photographic record of such demolition, but he knew I would have wanted a front row seat. After all, the barn had been in place for over 100 years and removing it had archeological significance. But it was observing the backhoe in operation that had the real allure; as it turns out, a kind of sociological significance.

The photo series went something like this: The backhoe arrives and dismounts its trailer. The backhoe rolls up to the barn. The backhoe leans on the barn with its bucket, then gives the barn a nudge. The barn collapses. The backhoe scoops the splintered beams and clapboards into the dump truck. The barn is gone. The pit is back-filled with dirt. The backhoe departs.

The most telling photograph in the series, however, shows five grown men, their hands in their pockets, backs to the camera, intently watching the backhoe at work, like so many fascinated kids. The photo is not just about the work the backhoe is doing, but about the work of watching the backhoe. . . story within a story. The editorial intent of the photographer is obvious: these men cannot take their eyes off the big machine and its work. And these are men who have seen hundreds such demolitions and excavations in their lives, but who never quite tire of the exquisite dance of control levers, hydraulics and that big, toothy shovel. It is like our childhood fascination with dinosaurs.

Alas, there was no mammoth buried under our barn. Yet just confirming the absence of something astounding was an archeological discovery, given the length of time the barn had occupied that spot. And it kept five men enthralled for a morning. Plus the photographer. And, remotely, me.

The photo of the backhoe event on Main Street shows ten people at my side, fellow backhoe aficionados, intently focused on a truly gaping hole. We are certainly aficionados of Fred’s delicate control of the big machine, its hydraulics puppeting those Jurassic ligaments in their delicate manipulation of a steel bucket the size of my bathtub, alternately brimming with dirt and rocks, or backhanding mere cupfuls of sand away from his target.

Which brings me to grace. Beyond subterranean discovery and making structures fall down, my backhoe fascination centers on this dance of intense contrasts. The backhoe paws, stomps, and snorts; then gracefully unfurls its shoulder, then arm, then wrist. It plods, then flits. It is the dance of a hulk, a brute; a dance of immense force and control and restraint; part tyrannosaurus, part butterfly, in the hands of an artist.

I know of no greater backhoe artist than Jamie Gross. He has been at it longer than Fred, descendant of a long line of heavy machinery operators. His dexterity with the big machine is legendary, a thing of beauty and a joy to behold. Enthroned at the controls, he articulates the big arm’s motions to within inches of a building, gently forking the ground, tiptoeing under the sod with this groaning beast of a tool. Our friend Pat said: ‘Watching Jamie work is like watching a ballet.’ The chance to observe Jamie must have redeemed the whole woeful experience of digging out her failing septic tank, such is his finesse.

I’ve seen his work. The nearest equivalent is watching Baryshnikov partner Kirkland. But how do you tell the dancer from the dance?


First published in The Christian Science Monitor.

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