Volunteers, Metal Detector Guy, and Mr. Coleman & His Dancing Ditch Witch / by Erin Hollaway Palmer + Brian Palmer

Erin and I don’t get out much these days. We both teach at the University of Richmond, in the journalism department, during the week. This is Erin’s first semester teaching at the college level, so she's buried in quizzes and assignments. We have pizza night on Friday. (A Malbec for Erin, a root beer—or two—for me.) And on Saturday, we go to East End and dig in the dirt. As we did today. And it’s marvelous.

Mr. C. B. Coleman stopped his pickup not far from me today. This was a convenient excuse for me to take a break from vine wrangling. I admire what you do, he said of the volunteers, and offered his help. He’s been digging graves for 35 years at Evergreen, the adjoining cemetery, he said. Coleman figured he could use his backhoe to clear some of the ground cover for us. "Save you time." I heard "backhoe” and thought—and then asked—is it possible to scrape the ground without disturbing and possibly smashing buried headstones? The volunteers now gathered around him were wondering this, too. Coleman answered us 30 minutes or so later with his Ditch Witch.

I found him by mistake. I had gone searching for a gent who had rolled up in white Land Rover — who, my fellow volunteers told me, was metal-detecting for Civil War relics. As far as I know, that's not legal. Tromping around a cemetery hunting for goodies to take home with you or sell is also kind of disgusting. But I stopped to watch Coleman, and I stayed.

He had already deftly cleared a wide path into an untouched swath of the burial ground. He used the bucket of the Witch more to tug and sweep than to scrape and dig. He’d purposely entangle the bucket in ivy and undergrowth, and then drag it away, like he was peeling back nasty old wall-to-wall carpeting. I had to see it to understand it. I wandered into his path, with my camera. He swung the bucket without a glance, avoiding me and the titling headstones jutting out of the ground.

After a little while, he chugged off to park the Witch at Evergreen. This, I gathered, was a demonstration. He’d done the equivalent of a day's work by a dozen volunteers in barely an hour. (My estimate. John Shuck and team can correct me.)

"Sometime when I’m around here digging graves,” Coleman said as he got ready to drive home, “I’ll just go ahead and erase some stuff.” —BP