Digging Up the Dirt on St Andrews' New Society
As a strong south-southwest wind peppered raindrops onto East Sands beach on Sunday 31 January, three passersby walking their dogs looked on in confusion. A group of students was shoveling away at the sand. From a distance, they appeared to be working on an excavation project.
“What are you doing?” the walkers asked as they passed. Charlie Mone, a second-year Physics and Mathematics student, responded cheerily with an answer that produced a fit of laughter: “we’re just digging a hole,” he said.
As ‘HoleSoc’, the St. Andrews hole-digging society has grown in popularity this past semester, digs like these have become more common. The organisation hosts weekly events that have attracted upwards of thirty students, notably collaborating with Saints LGBT+ on a large dig as part of TransFest, an annual week-long celebration of trans and nonbinary people.
The society’s aim is straightforward: dig holes. The committee distributes shovels and tends to work on East Sands, preferring its spacious dig zones to other beaches. Members have said that the practice of digging is a welcome retreat from the chaos of student life – allowing them to relax, meet people, enjoy the campus, and practice mindfulness.
Mone conceived the idea of HoleSoc on a beach trip with friends over reading week in October. One day, they spontaneously began digging a hole: “we all enjoyed it, and thought, we should do this back at St. Andrews.”
Mone soon started an Instagram and Facebook page dedicated to HoleSoc. To his surprise, it generated traction. “I started the Instagram account half-jokingly, not thinking it would go anywhere,” Mone recalls. “Then everyone loved it and now it's this huge thing. It feels much bigger than myself now.”
The group, however, has not been universally understood. Mone reflects that even his parents are perplexed by his beach pastime. “I don’t think they get it,” he muses. “‘People are quite shocked when they realize that this is a real thing that people come to do.”
The transient nature of HoleSoc’s work understandably raises eyebrows. The group refills the ditches they spend hours etching into the beach for fear they will entrap unsuspecting walkers. In an academic and workplace culture that stresses outcomes, aimless hole-digging doesn’t seem to occupy a position of relative importance. Why dig without a definite goal?
Helena Fuglevand, a second-year Chemistry student, jokes that HoleSoc’s work is similar to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of constructing sand mandalas. In the ritual, elaborate geometric works of art are constructed from sand and then dismantled to symbolize the transience of material existence. HoleSoc’s projects may not be as profound, but Fuglevand’s analogy emphasizes that it is the activity – not the result – that is meaningful.
“An important thing people ask us is why we dig the hole, what's the purpose?” Fuglevand comments. “They do not always get that it's something you do that's not necessarily used for something. It is about the process.”
Fuglevand adds that there seems to be a natural human inclination toward hole-digging that heightens its appeal. “I think it's something very, sort of, deeply ingrained in people,” she says. “Very basic things like digging holes, picking berries. There's some sort of caveman, or cavewoman, inside of us that's like – yes, it is good to dig holes.”
It’s easy to guess that hole digging may be embedded in human nature. As kids flop around on beaches, they commonly excavate the sand – searching for buried treasure, burying friends, or simply amusing themselves. Digging’s almost subconscious appeal makes it believable that it is related to some lingering primeval tendency to create shelter, cultivate land for agricultural purposes, or conduct burial rights.
A simple Google search, however, provides little research on the relationship between hole-digging and the human mind. A Wikipedia page on ‘digging’ states that there “has long been observed that humans have a seemingly instinctive desire to dig holes in the ground, manifesting in childhood,“ but cites only a single outdated journal article from 1910. A century-and-some-year-old study alone seems to scarcely qualify the Wikipedia page’s claim.
In an interview with the Northwest Florida Daily News, Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University suggested that the childhood inclination toward hole digging at beaches is much more simple. He posited that digging in sand is an entertaining pastime because it is quick, easy, and offers instant gratification. "Sand is the easiest material to dig in," he remarked. And besides, he added, "It's fun because you can rapidly dig a hole."
Regardless of whether HoleSoc members are fulfilling their primal childhood instincts, the practice of digging itself has been described as therapeutic – an aspect which Mone partly credits to the society's success. At HoleSoc events, the gentle hiss of metal slicing sand and the breaking of the waves ushers in an air of tranquility. The group works in relative silence or at conversational tones, a relaxed rhythm broken only by an occasional sand fight. “A lot of people have said the simple task of digging a hole can clear your head,” Mone says. “It's just kind of relaxing.”
Mone added that digs also have a social element, and that people have met through the society and begun to attend regularly together. Other members noted that they enjoyed getting outdoors and exercising in a soothing setting.
Robin O’Mahony, a first-year Biology student, discovered the club through its collaboration with TransFest and has since become a regular. They describe the process of their induction into the society as easygoing. “It was sort of a stressful week and I had a lot of revising,” they reflect. “It was really good to just get outside and do some exercise, and just not be thinking about that for a while. Because I really enjoyed it, I just came back.”
O’Mahony comments that they found the carefree character of the club more welcoming than other student events, which often lead to repetitive introductions and superfluous small talk. “You don't get lonely if you're digging a hole, but you also don't have to talk to people any more than you want to. You can just turn up and start digging this hole.”
O’Mahony emphasises that it can be a helpful way to stop taking everything too seriously at University. “Just give it a shot,” they say. “A lot of people come to uni and they try to be adults. Digging a hole is simple and easy – you don’t have to worry about all that other, serious, stuff.”
Anisha Minocha, a newcomer, says that she was attracted to the club because she wanted to experiment with different student groups and appreciate the campus beaches. Despite originally being unsure whether HoleSoc was actually a club – or a joke – she was pleasantly surprised. “It's very, quirky, very cool. It's like making your little mark on nature that will get washed away. I think that's beautiful.”
Meanwhile, Timothy Redpath, a second-year BioChemistry student, says that he was attracted to the relaxing repetition of digging. ‘It’s good to not think for a bit,” he said. “It’s just mindlessness.”
He added that it is a valuable way to depart from the infinite distractions and anxieties that define university life. “Just dig a hole, turn yourself off for a bit. Just don't think,” he says. “People think too much these days.”
Mone says that as he continues to run the club, his ultimate goal is for HoleSoc to become a permanent fixture at St Andrews. “When I leave the university in a couple of years, I want the society to still be going after that,” he muses. “I think that would be really cool.”
He also takes care to remind members that despite how absurd HoleSoc may appear, it is indeed a real society. “A lot of people thought it was a joke and it wasn't real,” he says, upon hearing a current member shouting out that they had shared that presumption. “It’s not a joke, we’re real,” he chimes back.
Mone is assured that he will continue providing students with the opportunity to participate in the zen art of hole-digging – even if his parents don’t quite understand why he’s doing it. “If you want to spend an hour on the weekends digging a hole and clearing your head, then come down.”
The society events are regularly posted on their Instagram and Facebook pages (@holesoc.sta).
Image: Helena Fuglevand