Monday, September 8, 2008

Potato Digging

It is September, and light twinkles through the trees, coming in at a lower angle every day. The maple leaves are beginning to turn orange and red on selected branches, and in a sweeping glance at hillsides, one sees a tinge of yellow and orange. The green is fading. Serious gardeners have reaped most of the benefits of the spring seeding and summer weeding, and are starting to pull out all the fading and wizzled vines in an effort to bring some order back to the gone-crazy-August garden. My kitchen and pasture gardens are reduced to broccoli, carrots, beets, turnip, swiss chard, pole beans, parsely, kale, collard, zucchini, nasturtiums, and a few tomatoes. Cucumbers are still multiplying by the bucketful, pole beans are hanging in there, but the beets and swiss chard are fighting a nightly battle of survival as neighborhood deer drop by for a visit. My sister and I ask each other on the phone, “How are you?” sensing something in the other one’s tone of voice. When one of us admits that we’re a little tired, the other one readily agrees. There’s been a lot of canning and freezing to keep up with, even though it is less then at the height of our family life.

I have another garden that both exhausts me and elates me, and it is about a mile away. Our neighbor, Brud owns a big farm, at the elbow of Swett Road, off Crow Hill Road. His belted galloways, goats, sheep and chickens roam free -- at least they seem free to look at them grazing in the brilliant green grass that seems to touch the sky. We have developed a help-each-other-out-wherever-we-can relationship that started just after he moved in with his golden retriever who would not stay home, and as a result introduced Brud to all his neighbors. Over the past two years Brud spent many evenings around our table, sharing a meal, sharing ideas, sharing the long lonely nights together because a real estate agreement went bad and he was left holding two properties concurrently, his wife and boys holding down one, and he, the other.

Deep winter is a great time to dream about gardens, and some time along the way we hatched a plan of sharing a garden at his place. It was a very loose agreement whereby he would prepare the ground, and provide a good share of the seed, and we would tend the crop, harvest the crop, and divide the crop in half between us. The crop? Potatoes! Plans hatched in winter are often part dream, but this one worked itself into reality bit by bit. Brud stopped by one day to announce that the ground was plowed. Weeks went by, then he stopped by again to announce that he had the seed – but I was to remember that he wanted to add soil amendments to each row – he would show me how. We agreed on a day when we could both be there, and as God smiled on me that day, his hired boy and my best potato-planting daughter were available. We made time digging the trenches and sprinkling the minerals, cutting the seed and then covering. Eventually Brud and his boy went off to cut some hay and Emily and I continued. We continued until she had to go, then I continued until every bit of seed was planted, which makes perfect sense to me, but the next morning I was quite sore and Brud called almost shouting into the phone, “You are a potato-planting FOOL!” “Am I?” I asked innocently. Ten rows, fifty feet in length.

David helped me hill them – twice, and I spent wonderful hours in amongst the rows, picking potato beetles and popping them into soapy water in a jar, the quiet of the afternoons broken by crows calling and cows bawling. When my mother came to live with us late in June, she would walk down into that garden behind the barn and help me pick the soft pink bugs as long as her back could stand the bending over, then wait for me in her chair on the side of the garden.

In August the potatoes in our cellar began to run out. The potato patch called out to me. I couldn’t keep my hands out of the hills much longer, there was an itch to see what was underground, an inner excitement building. When I had one meal of potatoes left, I felt justified to do it. I could not tell anyone I was going. This was my time by myself, and besides I would like to avoid my husbands I-can’t-believe-you-can’t-control-yourself look. I dug one hill, four red potatoes. It is the end hill, what will be in the next one, I wondered. I dug into it, five red potatoes. Maybe there is more in the next one….

I really have a hard time stopping myself from digging. I have to admit it. David laughs at me and reminds me that in 1844 folks left their potatoes in the field till after October 22nd , thinking Jesus was coming, and those potatoes fared better than the ones dug in September. I know this is true, and I know that there is no big hurry. But, even when I go up to that garden to innocently check on the broccoli that we planted between the rows, I stand and look at the rows of potatoes left to dig, and it is hard to walk away.

Last week I dug four rows of potatoes. My mother was my witness at the end of the rows. It was hard work, there is dirt underneath my fingernails still, and my back on Friday night was complaining, but I sat on mounds of dirt and opened little windows into the potato houses and pulled out families of seven, ten, and eleven. There were big, fat, golden Yukons, odd shaped King Harry’s in pale skin, and scarlet reds rolling out of the soil. Dirt goes down my boots but who cares. My pants are filthy but so what. On I go, like a mole, digging hill after hill. I love to have my hands there in the earth, searching and finding the hidden treasure, humble though it is. I am sometimes surprised.

In four rows of potato digging, I have come across three mouse nests inside the hills. It is a place of leaves in a loose ball, that provides space and softness to furry bodies. Two of these mouse nests have been occupied and I have squeaked as the mother mouse has jumped quickly and nimbly between my hands and scurried off. Squealing babies are not near as fast and one batch could not yet see. I hate myself for ruining a home and orphaning those young, and come warily back the next morning to see the fate of them. Their little fawn colored backs are still squirming around, now in a hollow. How have they made it through the night? Has the mother been back to feed them? Will she make another nest and carry them to it? I can only hope. It would ease my conscience.

On Friday I walk down to the potato patch to look things over. I am not there to dig potatoes, I am too tired. I am there to pick some corn for supper. Only seven ears, I tell myself, seven will be enough. I look at the wilted potato tops. They have done so well this year, grown so tall, and so far have produced so well, and their time of growth is over. So soon it seems. Where has the summer gone? I count six and a half more rows to go, and four varieties: Yukons, Green Mountains, Superiors, and Russets. I want to see each potato as it emerges into the light. Not now, I tell myself. You have to go home, your mother is waiting for you.

I stand alone for a few minutes and it seems so good to be here. The wind ruffles the corn stalks and tassles, the baby mice are gone. How can there be so much joy and hard work all in one place? It is the story of my life and I wonder, when my hill is dug by the Master, what my lifes' summer will have yielded? What will roll into His hands? I hope He will be as pleased as I am right now. We too have such a short growing season after all. I pick nine ears of corn, turn my back on the potato patch, and remind myself that they will still be here when I can come back to them.

1 comment:

EEK said...

Oh-- the potato-planting daughter misses you, and taters, and dirt under her fingernails.

A big hug to you and give my greetings to the real potatos--mashed, shredded, baked, or boiled though they be.