This morning’s lower backache is the price I pay for trying to be a farmer. I am not strong and agile. I don’t know a lot about plants or horticulture or the biosphere. It’s the miracle I’m after. Yesterday I dug a dozen holes in a bed that had been covered by black garden cloth all winter. Weedless and friable, the soil called out to be touched and used. I stuck my forked spade into it and tilled in a bit of compost. Then I tucked a seed potato in each hole and covered them with dirt.
What will happen next, I wonder. Will wireworms wreak underground havoc and subvert the growth of new tubers? Will voles tunnel under the fence and the wooden bed frame and nibble at them? Will a blight fall out of the sky and ruin the whole endeavor? This worrisome curiosity is yet another price I pay every year. I stick a seed into the earth and let it become whatever it is, knowing full well that failure is a possibility. But when the miracle happens instead, I am richly rewarded.
I was in Ireland last summer. The land appeared to be fertile and fully cropped out. The people we met were healthy and happy. The imprint of mass starvation in their DNA was not evident, but I learned that the population is still only half of what it was over 170 years ago. Do they remember life before the Great Potato Famine? In their current state of well-being, do they remember the millions who vanished from the land? Irish poet Eavan Boland writes about their disappearance and anonymity. She searches the back roads to find evidence of children having starved in ditches. She demands, in poetic terms too graphic to ignore, that we remember.
I learned that successive seasons of blight decimated the potato crops in the 1840s. I learned that England’s long-running political hegemony over Ireland made for massive poverty and inequity in the social structure. One source has it that “the most glaring cause of the famine was not plant disease” but the fact that the Irish were forced onto bog lands where the only food that would grow was potatoes. And as a mono-crop, two years of blight turned into a case of genocide when no relief aide came from the English-owned, fertile agricultural properties in Ireland. That food was exported to the tables of England. The Irish poor simply perished.
With a small hand fork, I stir up the soil and bury a seed potato. I cover it over with blessings and hope. Even if all twelve plants survive to produce a bushel of fresh, beautiful tubers, I realize that my efforts are not enough to feed a family for very long. Survival of this thin thread of the species—one family—would not be guaranteed. My children might die of hunger. I might be forced, like hundreds of thousands of mothers, to watch the light in their eyes go out.
But no, I’ve not had to endure such a heartbreaking tragedy. My ancestors made their way to this land, doing back-breaking work to survive. My father grew a garden to feed us, and marginally—we thrived. I carry the imprint of the feel of dirt between my fingers and the impulse to urge things to grow. It is an ancient grace I’ve only recently become aware of. It is a tenuous miracle for which I’m grateful.
Ann Hutton, an out-of-work freelance writer in upstate New York, is currently unable to make literary sense of the pandemic. She goes to the garden and tries to count her blessings instead.