The most annoying part of digging four 20 foot long potato trenches in steady rain, I discovered today, is the dripping on my scalp. Bending over to wield the mattock, the rain hit my hair, then ran or dripped onto my scalp, mimicking the Chinese water torture we all heard about when we were kids. I can confirm: it is somewhat maddening. I wore the wrong boots and developed admirable clumps of mud and weeds on my soles, rendering walking a carnival act: think fun house not high wire. My shirt stayed dry in the front, but the back got gently, inexorably, saturated. Rinsing the mud off my hands by grasping the raindrop-beaded grass, I “dried” them on my shirt or pants. Soon my black winter hiking pants – my selection for the task since they are both waterproof and fairly warm – were a rich reddish color from the knees down from the mud, and a lighter shade of mud-tones on my thighs and butt where I wiped my hands.
The potato trenches were not in the plan for the day, but when I offered to do “anything” to be helpful, the farmer hesitated. Walking down to the garden area destined to be a potato patch, we talked about mulch and manure, and using potatoes as shock troops in the campaign to transform former lawn into garden. “Digging potato trenches is the heaviest, nastiest job,” she admitted, showing me how deep and how wide. “Come back to the greenhouse if you get sick of this.” Dig down to the solid clay with the mattock, ripping out weeds and grass, then follow with the spade, widening and deepening the trench to ready it for planting. No problem.
After the trenches were dug, I went back to the greenhouse and pricked off celeriac with two wwoofers. That was a fun sentence to write, partly because I know a translation is necessary: pricking off is gardenerspeak for replanting tiny seedlings from an open tray into tiny pots or six packs. Wwoofers are laborers that come from all over the world to travel and work on organic farms (WWOOF = world-wide opportunities on organic farms).
My potato trench digging reminds me of two quotes: in Much Ado About Nothing, the prince, Don Pedro, remarks to Leonato that “the fashion of the world is to avoid cost and you encounter it.” Of course, I remember this little throwaway phrase so well in part because the completely delicious Denzel Washington delivers it, and let’s face it – I hung on his every word in that flick. But my potato digging adventure struck a similar chord in my farmer. Her tone spoke volumes: “You want a heavy job? But the fashion of the world is to avoid work/effort/cost and you seek it.” Are you crazy?
The second quote is from William Blake’s The Price of Experience and is a wee bit darker. This one also reached me via pop culture: Van Morrison mumbles this poem in his song “Let the Slave.” Van’s ranting renders Blake’s words almost frightening but so evocative, I find myself recalling them frequently.
What is the price of experience? Do men buy it for a song?
Or wisdom for a dance in the street? No, it is bought with the price
Of all a man hath, his house, his wife, his children.
Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,
And in the wither’d field where the farmer plows for bread in vain.
It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer’s sun
And in the vintage and to sing on the waggon loaded with corn.
It is an easy thing to talk of patience to the afflicted,
To speak the laws of prudence to the houseless wanderer,
To listen to the hungry raven’s cry in wintry season
When the red blood is fill’d with wine and with the marrow of lambs.
It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements,
To hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan;
To see a god on every wind and a blessing on every blast;
To hear sounds of love in the thunder-storm and destroys our enemies’ house;
To rejoice in the blight that covers his field, and the sickness that cuts off his children, While our olive and vine sing and laugh round our door, and our children bring fruits and flowers.
Then the groan and the dolour are quite forgotten, and the slave grinding at the mill, And the captive in chains, and the poor in the prison, and the soldier in the field
When the shatter’d bone hath laid him groaning among the happier dead.
It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity:
Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.
William Blake 1797
It is an easy thing for me to dig potato trenches in the rain, getting cold and filthy and exhausted when I know I can go home and change my sodden clothes, get warm and clean easily, and fill my belly with damn near anything I please, healthy or otherwise. I don’t take for granted my blessed and cushy life; I come to the farm ready to work: ready to do “the heaviest, nastiest job” laughing at the wrathful elements, aware that any of this can turn on a dime.
I am humbled by farm work, and in awe of my farmer. She lives what I dip my toes into each week. Farming is an impressively dirty enterprise, and a rather humid one as well. Much like other activities I find myself drawn to (bushwacking, yoga), I find farming to be a spiritual exercise. Farming’s every effort is a prayer of hope and a celebration of faith. Weather, insects, or bad luck be damned: I am planting seeds. I shall harvest.
And so I will continue to encounter “cost” despite the fashion of the world, because, deep down, I want to know what it feels like to be spent, to have left all of it in the potato trenches.