Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Of Potatoes

“Well,” said my friend the poet, “we need to dig up the potatoes.” I was visiting one of my oldest friends and her husband over the weekend and this autumnal chore, and making dinner, comprised our plan for the afternoon.

There is a particular strain of sweetness in people who fold you into their lives, who welcome you to their to-do lists and chores. I find the ordinary to be more beautiful than words and it is a high compliment to be put in service to the chores of my friends’ lives. Ceremony and formality and the hiding of the gears of what makes a life work, this makes me nervous and uncomfortable, like starched clothes and stiff shoes.

And, so nothing could have made me happier than being handed a bowl and a trowel and heading to their garden. The potatoes we dug up looked like bulbous lumps of clay, all nodes and knobs. They were nothing like one might expect a potato to be, and much more fun to unearth for being a surprise.

In the course of a few days with these friends, I saw their jars of applesauce, their cords and cords of neatly chopped, split, and stacked wood from the trees in their yard. We walked on nature trails and dusty gravel roads, past hay fields and a therapeutic farm with solar panels on the barn roof. We stopped to scratch the ears of some pigs, on our way home from eating the sausage of their kin at a local café. Our dogs dug up and ate a dead rabbit, covering themselves with the terrible scent of rotten death to their great doggy delight, and our horror. And, without much fuss, we washed and walked and induced vomiting until the dogs were fine, if confused and damp. There was talk of hunting deer and picking blueberries, of clearing land to build, of the peculiar problems of being young and vibrant in old and rural places, where too many of the jobs depend on tourists who come, hungry to see a softened version of the past in this landscape. My friends fed me from their garden, on tomatoes the size of brains and cheese from the goats down the road and the syrup from their maple trees.

I like this way of being, where labor is part of a normal day, where life and death are omnipresent and gloriously visible. While we sat around a fire in their yard, I could almost taste their hours in the garden, growing the food we ate, splitting the wood that we burned. I was touched to be the beneficiary of their efforts.

It is the fall, when the world seems to shudder to a contented slumber. There is enormous contentment in recognizing the cycles of seasons, in digging out the potatoes before the winter comes in, in putting gardens to bed before the first snowflakes. The distinct difference of seasons is one reason that I love New England—the changes call attention to the time, force my eyes open to appreciate what is real and present before me, and that the particular joys of each season are in hibernation for much of the year make them each all the sweeter.

Beside the joy of living closer to the natural give and take of our spinning planet, dancing unevenly around the sun, there is also a sweet rebellion in these lives of greater self-reliance, of eating the food you grow and being warm through dint of your labor among the trees. I do not know anyone, yet, who is entirely divorced from the horrors of the global economy, who lives entirely unslaved by fossil fuels and unclean power sources and the bloody wreck of capitalism. But, today I don’t feel much like railing against all those things, or our cultural complicity and culpability. Besides, I know an increasing many who try to live away from these dangerous ways of being.

I’d rather speak more for the way of life that renders such anger and frustration unnecessary. Just beyond the surface of ordinary, there are better ways of being than what most of us know. Let’s go dig them up, and allow ourselves to be surprised and delighted by what we might find.

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