Aug 29, 2009
When I kneel beside them, the potato plants and I are the same height.
With one hand, I reach through spinach-green leaves, so like those of its cousin the tomato, until I find strong, celery-like inner stalks. With the other, I feel my way through layers of dry, then increasingly moldy straw, until the tips of my fingers touch the cool, slightly damp dirt from which all of this chlorophyll-fueled bounty has emerged in less than three months.
I push against the plant with gentle force, lifting the mass of heavy foliage up off the straw as I might lift my own long hair off of the back of my neck. But how tame mine seems compared to this riot of dreadlocks, tipped in bow-like flowers of white, yellow, pink, and lavender. Mythological hair. Goddess hair. The hair of the Earth. As I stretch my other arm, now elbow-deep in straw, and feel the dirt move between my fingers, under my nails, the potato’s locks fall over my shoulder, blending with my own.
The sensation of cool dirt rubbing against my skin is surprisingly soothing. I wriggle my fingers, waving them as if through water. My hand sinks deeper. A potent mix of local topsoil, peat moss and turkey compost slides against my palm. I know exactly what’s in it because, a little more than a month ago, I mixed this dirt myself.
It sounds odd to me, even now. Dirt used to be something I assumed was always there, just below the surface, beneath the grass and the sticks and the leaf litter, waiting. Available not only to worms and moles and nematodes, but also to any human being with a shovel. It was something bought by the cubic yard at Lowe’s and poured out of plastic bags into terra cotta pots. Dirt wasn’t something to be made, like cake batter. Dirt simply was.
But that was before I lived on an Allegheny ridge top, back in the days when water simply flowed from the tap and electricity was summoned by the mindless flick of a switch or press of a button. When it never would have occurred to me that I could dig a hole to plant something and have nothing, nothing whatsoever to back-fill the hole with but a pile of rocks. When I couldn’t have imagined thinking of dirt—c’mon, it’s dirt—as a resource. The kind of thing worth spending time trying to locate, harvest and transport. Something I would value, much like water, enough to cultivate and conserve.
Now I hunt topsoil or the humus of a rotten stump with the same enthusiasm I bring to hunting oyster mushrooms and sulphur shelf. Or checking to see if a stand of black raspberries has ripened. The same hopeful energy another woman might bring to a flea market, or a midnight madness sale at her favorite department store. So much treasure just waiting to be discovered. If one only knows where to look.
The topsoil that represents about a third of the dirt in the raised vegetable beds actually came from just along my gravel driveway, beneath the remains of old stock fencing, probably last used in the mid-1930’s. When we ripped back the lush green sod, there it was, like the dark-chocolate center of a truffle. Eureka! We’d struck the gardener’s equivalent of gold. We dumped it by shovelfuls into the back of the Rhino, and then sifted it through our hands, pulling out the roots and rocks and dropping them on the ground at our feet. The smell was equal parts mushrooms and turnips, scented with a hint of the fragrance that rises like mist from an ear of corn when the first shuck is pulled.
When the back of the Rhino was full of well-sifted topsoil, I drove it inside the solar-fenced enclosure. Earlier in the month we’d constructed several 4 by 6 foot raised beds out of black locust timbers harvested off the land. We lined the beds with steel rabbit wire, tedious labor intended to prevent burrowing animals from reaching the garden from below. Or so we hoped.
Backing up to the first bed, I dumped about half the dirt, then added peat moss, and the contents of a couple bags of turkey compost, which I split open with my pocketknife. After several long moments attempting to blend these disparate ingredients with a long-handled shovel, I realized that all my effort was akin to stirring Toll House cookie dough with chopsticks. I set the shovel aside, stepped into the bed, and dropped to my knees.
Like biscuit dough or meatloaf, it turns out dirt is something much better made hands-on.
Kneeling on the loam, I scooped up big armfuls, caught dry chunks of peat moss between my palms and rubbed until it fell like grated parmesean. Then I folded that surface coating into itself, picked up another chunk and grated some more, as if cooking by instinct.
Following, not my taste buds, but a desire to achieve a certain texture I knew I’d recognize the moment the mixture was right. To doubt that I would recognize that moment never occurred to me, a confidence I attribute to my style of cooking more than any knowledge of soil science. Most of the time, I approach cooking as an opportunity for experimentation and self-expression. I’m no gambler, but in the kitchen I have no qualms about following hunches. Coloring outside the lines is not only allowed, it’s required. I’ve never met a recipe I’d hesitate to alter.
Dirt-making appealed to me as the same process—plus. I was literally splashing in dirt as I hadn’t splashed in anything since I was a toddler in the tub. Having a sort of food fight with myself, all the more enjoyable for the absence of any mess to clean up later. The dirt on my forearms, between my palms, cascading down on my jean-covered thighs felt like infinite possibility. The texture of freedom.
No seed could spurn such a bed.
Then it occurred to me that if I myself knelt there long enough, roots—long, white, curling tendrils—might grow from my kneecaps, and a hardier, woodier type from the tips of my toes. Who’s to say what might happen if I just chose to stay?
When people speak of having roots someplace, they generally mean ancestors, a family history. But I believe roots can be grown. And growing roots is something I want to do as much as I want to grow potatoes and grapevines and trees. I want to live close to the earth of this particular place and be fed by these acres of dirt, even as I want to feed them in return.
And in this occupation, as I learned some years ago, I would do well to take my cues from legumes—plants such as pole beans and red clover and black locust trees. There’s a brilliant symbiosis between the roots of these plants and the dirt in which they are bedded. As the roots draw nutrients and water from the dirt, they leave nitrogen behind, feathering their own nest, as it were, or at least the nest into which future seeds might fall.
Legumes leave the homeland a little more nutritious than they found it.
I’d like to do that, too. And at the same time I know there’s no chance this will happen unless I learn to stay. Not just in the sense of living here and not moving someplace else, but in the sense of being here. Letting this particular dirt under my skin even as it accumulates under my nails. I can’t leave things better than I found them unless I’m willing, quite bluntly, to leave myself behind. My blood, sweat and tears. My skin cells.
And so I want to know this dirt as I would a lover’s skin, with all my senses. To swim in it as if it were the womb from which I was born. It’s this desire that roots me to this spot of earth as deeply as any birth certificate, any family tree. I chose it, after all. This is the place I chose to plant myself.
Along with a mess of seed potatoes.
And now, just a couple months after the first green leaves pushed back newly-minted dirt, I’m elbow deep in the bed in which I laid them, groping for what fruit they might have borne.
Yes, it is an oddly thrilling sensation, plunging my hand into something unseen. I’m reminded of the neighborhood haunted houses of my childhood Halloweens. Standing in a dark, sheet-draped hallway as a masked and hooded teenager plunged my hand into buckets of peeled-grape “eyeballs” and wet-noodle “intestines”. Allowing myself to be seduced by the power of suggestion. Giving over to that peculiar joy with a full-throated scream.
Not that I expect to feel anything scream-inducing in the well-known dirt in which my fingers are immersed. Today, my excitement is fueled not by anticipation of the texture of something unknown and repulsive, but by the expectation of the familiar, smooth surface of something very much desired.
The tip of my index finger is the first to make contact. My heart gives a little leap. I’ve got one. It’s like fishing, watching a bobber go under and stay under. Knowing I’ve got a fish on the line, and not knowing yet what it is. In order to get my fingers around the potato, I have to lean further into the bed, and allow the plant’s tresses to fall further down my back. A heady green scent fills my nose. I close my eyes and focus on what my fingers are feeling. Finally, I have the potato in hand. It’s bigger than I expected, about the size of a jumbo egg. And indeed, as I work my hand up through the dirt and then the layers of straw, it feels like Easter. Like I’m pulling an egg out of the heart of my grandmother’s boxwood, the only egg remaining, the one that will put me over the top, and make me champion of the hunt.
I sit back on my heels. I look at the fruit in my hand.
It’s a Red Cloud potato. Bright cranberry skin so delicate it flakes off when I rub my thumb across it.
I hold it to my nose and inhale.
It smells like dirt.