I've spent a lot of time recently pulling up nettle roots. The things in our garden that pass for flower-beds (the bits where the lawn completely fails to appear) are so choked with roots that as soon as you turn over a bit of soil it looks like somebody's tried to dig a shallow grave for a macrame bedspread. The nettles keep coming back, but smaller and fewer each time; I don't think I'll ever get rid of all of them, but I think I'll get them under control. The problem is, you see what looks like a tiny nettle (barely an inch high) growing out of the soil, so you pull it from the base of the stem, and up comes a tiny spindly root, and if I don't break off the spindly root I find that it's joined on to a bigger root. So you stick the fork in around and under the bigger root until you can get a good hold on it with my gloved hand, fingers scrabbling through the soil underneath, and you give the bigger root a good solid tug until it starts to come out of the ground. You pull it up until it hits another root going over it, and either break it off there or try to pull that one up as well... the second root turns out to be lodged under a third root, which is thicker than a tree-trunk and buried deep in the soil. Pulling that up, bits of it break off; you dig down to try to get them out and find that they're buried under more roots. Eventually you get to what feels like a decent run of root which isn't trapped under something, and as you pull it you watch the soil parting, and the lawn parting, like a zip unzipping, and the root rips a line through the grass for a couple of feet before breaking off with an unsatisfying little snap which tells you that there's plenty more nettle roots down there, oh yes, and they're just biding their time. The other trick they play on you is to creep under the fence, so you pull one up and it peels backwards and backwards and lands right up against the fence, at which point you can either start tunnelling under into next door's garden like a badger, or you can break it off (watching bits of rotten fence splinter off soggily now that they're no longer supported by nettle roots) with an exasperated sigh. By this time you've forgotten all about the first root you were trying to pull up, but it's still there, probably growing even while your back's turned. Digging at a bit of apparently clear soil, I find another knot of rat-tailed roots to start picking apart; the Gordian approach does not work.
It's absolutely neverending, and yet somehow satisfying -- I think perhaps it's because it's a physical metaphor for all the things my mind gets stuck on: the arguments I try to construct where I get distracted by all the possible rebuttals, tilting at all the straw men who come staggering out of the mist, led astray by the will-o'-the-wisps of other interesting arguments who lead me further and further into the swamps of endless deferral; the projects where each task becomes a mini-project, not merely cans of worms but matryoshka dolls full of many-headed mini-hydras. Because it's a physical task, it doesn't come with all the emotional baggage of guilt and expectation; it's just a thing I can do with my hands. I can see the physical progress in the pile of roots I've excavated (heaped up on a spare recycling-bin lid) and the slightly-clearer soil, but that's not why it's easier, exactly; with less physical tasks I can often see a result: items crossed off a list, RT tickets resolved, link-checking reports coming back with fewer errors. (Ironically, the nettle roots are trying to fix their web, their links, their network, and I'm trying to bring them down; like the internet, they route around damage, rebuild their series of tubes, and all I can do is keep pulling their plugs out of their sockets.) And it's not that it gives me hope that tasks can be finished, because destroying their network is as unfinishable as fixing the web. It's more that it's a thing that I can do with my hands, setting my mind free from the guilt of unfinishable thoughts for a while. Maybe it is just a thing I can do with my hands, and that's enough, without giving it emotional significance. Maybe I am better at pulling things apart than making them grow. Maybe a nettle root is just a nettle root, and my hands are just my hands.