Hitting Ledge

I didn’t have the camera with me last week when we pulled out of the driveway of the convalescent facility where a family member has been recovering after surgery. Utility crews have been laying gas line in our area for the last couple of years, which has entailed digging up pretty much every major roadway and most of the secondary ones, sometimes twice in a summer, and as we waited for the light to change Spouse and I noticed the words spray painted on the asphalt beside a small (patched) excavation:

Ledge – 1.5 ft

It’s this thing about Maine, probably true of other places as well, places where the topsoil is irregularly thin and rocky: dig anywhere, deep enough, and sooner or later you will hit ledge. In this case, it appeared that the utility crew had hit ledge – the granite bedrock that holds up northern New England both geologically and culturally – about eighteen inches down.

I’m not sure how deep they were planning to lay that gas line, but I’d wager it was more than eighteen inches. The frost line – below which the ground reliably does not freeze, the depth to which foundations and footings must be dug to avoid precarious shifting with the freezing and thawing of the soil – is more like three or four feet down, maybe more; I’m not a foundation contractor, I’m guessing from the depth of old cellars. Not eighteen inches.

But, they’d hit ledge.

When you’re digging a hole for a purpose, the clank and shudder of steel blade against stone will send chills down your spine, even if you’re just digging in the garden. I can only imagine how it works for larger, more expensive public works projects. You stop, and you stare for a minute or several. Maybe you poke around with the shovel to see if the rock has edges. Maybe it’s just a boulder, something you can dislodge with a bit of effort and roll out of the way, down in the back where you wanted a bit of fill anyhow. After all, sometimes it is.

Sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, it’s ledge.

It sinks in slowly, when you hit ledge, the rising realization that whatever it was you were working on just got a lot more complicated and a lot more uncertain. You realize you have choices and none of them look particularly great. The Maine landscape is littered with the relics left by people who have tried them all.

You can redouble your efforts, the shovel yielding way to the pick-axe, the drill, the blasting cap. Extra time, extra money, extra effort to make this road, this hole, this foundation conform to your human will, leaving jagged edges exposed along the cut.

Or you can stop, decide that the hole is as deep as it’s going to get, the road is as smooth or as far up the hill as it needs to go, that quitting while you are ahead is more sensible than spending any more resources trying to change something as stubborn as a granite ledge. Perhaps then you will redesign the project, or what remains of it, around the ledge, working with the landscape instead of forcing your way through it. Or perhaps you will decide to abandon the effort altogether and do something else.

I have found, sometimes, that working with people is not unlike working with the earth. Most of us have places that are soft and easily tamed; many of us also have a bit of ledge within us, close to the surface or buried deep. It does not seem useful to me, most of the time, to spend a lot of effort blasting and grinding away at the tough places that make us who we are. In time, exposed to the wind and frost, even the rawest edges will weather, keeping their character but becoming softer, more rounded in their forms.

What hitting ledge forces you do to is ask yourself “Just how badly did I want to do that – exactly that thing, in exactly that way – anyway?” Sometimes resistance is an opportunity to reimagine what happens next, and how to get there.

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