Ted Kalvitis - Far Muse

The young man was painting the air blue. The focus of this fellow’s wrath was the spreading top of a huge maple tree that had fallen in his parent’s yard.

Though inexperienced, (there’s only one way to get it) he rose to the challenge of cutting up the large tree with a borrowed chainsaw. He was becoming acquainted with that woodcutter’s nemesis, the pinched chainsaw bar.

I found my cant hook. This amazing instrument is also known as a Peavy and an adjustable log wrench. The Old Hippie calls it a “can so” hook.

I gave the fellow a quick demonstration. Now that he was able to throw this sizable tree around like a Scottish caber, work went on unabated.

I might even have heard him whistle a Metallica tune.

Later, as he returned the cant hook, he said, “You old folks really need to take the time to teach us this old-timey stuff.”

Old timey? A cant hook? There’s people who use one every day. Oh well, guess I’ll look for opportunities to honor his request should there ever be any.

Recently, a friend who is awaiting orthopedic surgery asked if I could use a tractor with an auger attachment to dig a post hole so that he could relocate his mailbox. It just so happens that I’m not so equipped.

Moreover, it’s in a populous residential area so it’s anyone’s guess what might be under the ground. There’s an old wellhouse nearby that the county still maintains. This suggests buried water lines, probably in a delicate state. There’s an old apple cold storage nearby and the possibility of buried ammonia lines.

There’s even a modern Potomac Edison substation nearby. No, I’m not going there-not with an auger, anyway – things can happen too fast with machinery.

I thought back to the young man and his admonition that we older folks pass rural skills along to younger generations. The fellow who requested the posthole has 2 very bright teenage grandkids who often visit him. I could teach them to dig a posthole.

A post hole? What can be so uniquely challenging about a post hole? A post hole isn’t even something; it’s the absence of substance – a hole, nothing. Well, let’s see how we’ll go about this supposedly mindless task.

Buried lines: Any buried electrical line, whether charged or not, creates a tiny disturbance in the earth’s magnetic field. This disturbance can be detected by holding 2 lengths of stiff metal wire extended in front of you.

If there’s a line buried under the suspected area, the wires will move toward each other as you walk over the buried line.

Some people insist that this method has its basis in witchcraft though some traffic control devices – including our own driveway alarm – work under the same principle. But, by all means, use your own judgment.

Damaging or otherwise compromising a buried line can lead to a variety of unfortunate outcomes. If we’re digging near a buried power line during an aerial inspection, we might get to enjoy the added excitement of a helicopter landing.

Perhaps the most bizarre of these instances occurred locally when a section of a buried fiberoptic line, supposedly a direct line to the Pentagon, became exposed during a flood. Marine Special Forces camped in the treetops, keeping an eye on things until the repairs were completed.

They later broke camp and moved on not leaving even a footprint. We’ll touch on this subject again later; meanwhile, let’s go diggin’.

First, throw away that 2-handled post hole digger. They don’t really work and can’t go deep enough. Hey, if you want mine, come get it – no charge.

Starting with a narrow spade, remove the topsoil from the area of the hole; it’s that darker soil with grass and worms sticking out of it. Set it aside by itself; we’ll need it later.

The soil we’ll encounter next will likely be of a different color and harder. Use a digging iron, shale bar or spud bar (depending where you’re from). I use an aluminum bowl from an army mess kit to dip the loose dirt which is why my postholes are exactly the depth corresponding to the length of my right arm.

If the ground isn’t level, the natural tendency is to burrow at an angle into the hillside. Keep checking that your hole is plumb.

If we’re going to go real deep, a string line with a plumb bob should be no cause for embarrassment.

How deep do we need to go? We need to get “below frost,” that is, insulated by the soil so that water seeping under the post doesn’t freeze and expand, pushing the post upward. Below frost, it’s always the same temperature, around 54 degrees Fahrenheit. Below frost is generally thought to be 18 inches deep in our area so 2 feet should be super-safe.

If you feel the need to go below 3 feet, move.

Now we’re back to buried utilities which may affect how deep we can set our post. Laws regulating buried utilities come and go over the years, but lines, once buried, become timeless.

We may find – as I did – an old rubber insulated extension cord only a foot or so underground, the insulation rotted nearly away but still carrying current.

Nearly all lines are “bedded” in crushed limestone gravel. (Stop calling it “bluestone.” Bluestone is copper sulfate, an obsolete orchard fungicide.)

Some older lines are marked with a stripe of contrasting material such as yellow sand in order to warn us that we’re getting close.

Lines buried in, say, the 1950s when we thought we were building Utopia were never meant to be dug up so someone digging may find no warnings at all on the way down.

It’s a good idea to keep a lookout for things that simply don’t belong underground.

With more recent burials, we’ll encounter red, yellow or orange ribbon with a printed warning. If we should find this ribbon, this would probably be a good time to stop digging.

Please have consideration for “things that go bump in the night.” Never leave a post hole open after dark. Possible victims might include lovers on a nocturnal stroll or maybe a prowler moving stealthily about.

These may not have any business on your property, but no one is deserving of a broken leg, least of all a deputy investigating or in foot pursuit. We might also find ourselves with the responsibility of extricating a trapped cat or possum.

Better to stand something in the hole even if it isn’t the intended post if we have to leave the hole open for the night.

Now, let’s set the post. Center the post in the hole and push some dirt (not the topsoil) in around it. Using the flat “button” end of the digging iron, tamp the soil tight around the post.

Check for plumb; it’s best to use a level for this. If we depend on our eye for plumbing the post and get it a few degrees off, it will disrupt the scenery for years or until we get around to pulling it straight with a tractor. Keep filling, tamping and checking. Believe it or not, all of the dirt should fit back into the hole even though the post now occupies most of the volume.


A little dirt slightly mounded around the post is not only acceptable, but advantageous as it turns rainwater away from the post. Finally, add the topsoil and plant the sod around the post. That should do it for the next 50 to 100 years.

Well, I guess I’ll stop by to dig that post hole and set that post.

I’ll allow 15, maybe 20 minutes; it’s just a posthole. How complicated can it be?

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