Next Saturday morning, we'll come together as a community to perform a quintessential agricultural ritual: We'll harvest potatoes together. As we kneel down, on the Earth, digging through the soil, sifting the soil with our fingers and bagging the cool, bulbous tubers, we will join in concert thousands of people around the world performing the same act. We will also join untold millions of ancestors who, every Fall, knelt together and harvested potatoes. We will also be joined to a real living breathing chain of seed potatoes -- to hundreds of harvests in Europe and Asia and to ten thousand harvests in the Andes and Northeastern Bolivia and to those people who first knelt, harvested, and saved seed potatoes.
There is nothing quite like a potato harvest and the feeling, afterwards, of storing them away in a cool dark place, a hole, a cellar, a cave; in boxes, in sand, the potatoes themselves breathing slowly, living, promising food, promising life, as Fall turns to Winter.
The highest caloric food crop per-acre in the world (over maize, wheat, and rice) it is the only of these staple foods that forms (the food part, at least) deep in the Earth -- shrouded in darkness and mystery until we lift it up, into light, together in the Fall.
Many have known the feeling of incredible abundance that the potatoes can give, and sadly, many have known it's absence. In1845, due to limited potato genetics in the region and the cold shoulders of powerful men, a million people starved in poorer parts of Western Ireland and the Scottish highlands, as a blighted potato crop rotted in the fields. Aye, the potato has been a powerful, joyful, and also painful bond between people and Mother Earth, in feast and in famine, for millennia.
The poet Seamus Heaney speaks to this intense, mystic history in his poem, At a Potato Digging.
A mechanical digger wrecks the drill,
Spins up a dark shower of roots and mould.
Labourers swarm in behind, stoop to fill
Wicker creels. Fingers go dead in the cold.
Like crows attacking crow-black fields, they stretch
A higgledy line from hedge to headland;
Some pairs keep breaking ragged ranks to fetch
A full creel to the pit and straighten, stand
Tall for a moment but soon stumble back
To fish a new load from the crumbled surf.
Heads bow, trucks bend, hands fumble towards the black
Mother. Processional stooping through the turf
Turns work to ritual. Centuries
Of fear and homage to the famine god
Toughen the muscles behind their humbled knees,
Make a seasonal altar of the sod.
Flint-white, purple. They lie scattered
Like inflated pebbles. Native
to the blank hutch of clay
where the halved seed shot and clotted
these knobbed and slit-eyed tubers seem
the petrified hearts of drills. Split
by the spade, they show white as cream.
Good smells exude from crumbled earth.
The rough bark of humus erupts
knots of potatoes (a clean birth)
whose solid feel, whose wet inside
promises taste of ground and root.
To be piled in pits; live skulls, blind-eyed.
Live skulls, blind-eyed, balanced on
wild higgledy skeletons
scoured the land in 'forty-five,'
wolfed the blighted root and died.
The new potato, sound as stone,
putrified when it had lain
three days in the long clay pit.
Millions rotted along with it.
Mouths tightened in, eyes died hard,
faces chilled to a plucked bird.
In a million wicker huts
beaks of famine snipped at guts.
A people hungering from birth,
grubbing, like plants, in the earth,
were grafted with a great sorrow.
Hope rotted like a marrow.
Stinking potatoes fouled the land,
pits turned pus in filthy mounds:
and where potato diggers are
you still smell the running sore.
Under a white flotilla of gulls
The rhythm deadens, the workers stop.
White bread and tea in bright canfuls
Are served for lunch. Dead-beat, they flop
Down in the ditch and take their fill,
Thankfully breaking timeless fasts;
Then, stretched on the faithless ground, spill
Libations of cold tea, scatter crusts.
Join us as we "shower" up the living roots and scatter libations in remembrance and be thankful for the harvest together next Saturday, at our second community potato harvest.
See you in the potato fields,
David and Kayta