Sculpting a Landscape

It’s not often that you hear the words sensual and bulldozer in the same breath.

Unless you’re talking to John Keene. When the owner of John Keene Excavation in West Tisbury talks about moving earth, one gets the feeling that he actually feels the earth move.

As he explains, “Bulldozers can be used to wield brute power, but they can also be used with a surprising amount of finesse, contouring and shaping the earth – it’s almost sensual.”

The bulldozer operators begin with big pushes: moving boulders, felling small trees, and carving out mountains of earth. But the finishing touches are much more subtle and nuanced. As John puts it, “It’s like a knife spreading butter.”

When preparing a site, John generally works from landscaping and engineering plans, but there’s only so much that can be conveyed on the printed page. He always remembers that it’s not just a house that’s going to be on the land – it’s a family. The way the land is shaped can contribute to the quality of people’s lives. He steps back and looks at the whole site – the way water will flow, the way people will use the property – and shapes it to be both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

While a bulldozer might look prehistoric, today’s models are anything but, with ergonomic seats and rockin’ sound systems. The driver controls the backward, forward, and lateral movements of the dozer from a stick on his left, and a joystick on the right controls the blade or bucket. A deceleration pedal on the floor can be used to slow down the bulldozer’s movement.

For most jobs, the bulldozer works in tandem with other pieces of machinery, such as excavators, loaders, rollers, and trucks. John creates a plan that will utilize the right amount and the right-sized equipment for the job. Too little equipment and you waste time; too much equipment, you waste money and everyone gets in each other’s way.

Finding the right teams of people is also critical. Because of the noise factor, non-verbal communication between equipment operators is often essential. John and his brother Pete have been working together for thirty years and something as simple as a head nod can speak volumes.

“I don’t want to get too carried away,” explains John, “but when the operators are truly in sync, it’s almost like a ballet between two machines.”

Jobs here on the Island can range from the relatively simple – like grading a driveway – to the far more complex. John and his crew recently had to remove seven hundred eighteen-wheelers full of dirt so an Island property owner could site his house in just the right spot. As John is fond of saying, “There’s a hole in there; we just have to get the dirt out.”

And then there was that humongous boulder.

John was digging a swimming pool for a client when he kept hitting rock toward the deep end. The more they dug, the more they realized that this was no ordinary rock. Finally, after a month and a half they were able to extract a 350-ton boulder.

John admits that when you start peeling back the surface of the earth, it can be humbling. “Sometimes I’ll be digging,” he explains, “and I’ll come across rounded rocks down twenty-five feet deep. And you realize that they are rounded because they came tumbling down from the glaciers. Or you’ll look at the curve of a hill and think that it was shaped that way millions of years ago – back in the days of dinosaurs. So just because we can reshape the earth any way we want, we shouldn’t feel arrogant. What we really should feel is respect.”