Her small, soft hand plunged into the soil. Deep into it, where it was dark and rich and loamy. She almost couldn’t help herself. My instinct was to stop my exuberant 7-year-old daughter from getting dirt simply everywhere, but I checked myself. “It’s so soft,” she whispered as she let it slip through her hands and blow in the brisk wind.
And then she grabbed some more.
The towering row of trees behind us huddled together with leaves chattering like the anxious tail of a rattlesnake. A late afternoon sun illuminated the full splendor of North Dakota autumn. And we all peered in the distance over the blackest of farmland as the tractors drew steadily closer.
This was potato harvest.
The windrower, an impossibly medieval contraption of discs, treads and levers, delved deep into the soil to gather four broad rows of potatoes into two. This practical monstrosity serves as forerunner to the potato harvester which follows and extracts potatoes from the earth, carries them up a treadmill and dumps them into the bin of a neighboring potato truck. The truck, once full, is immediately – seamlessly – relieved by another just returned from unloading its haul at the nearby warehouse. In the mind’s eye of a city boy, farming once upon a time seemed elementary. But having seen my wife’s family work over the last two decades of our courtship and marriage, I realize how grueling yet poetic it truly is.
Oh, sure, it is dirty work. Grit gets under the nails and sweat clings to the clothes. Muscles are pulled and fingers are pinched. But the work is also delicate. The line driven by each oversized machine must be exquisitely straight. The pace must not be too fast or too slow. The truck receiving the potatoes alongside the harvester must gauge speed and alignment with subtle precision. Communication is perfected with a nod or a wave rooted in years of working with one another.
“Here they come,” Grandma said. My girls leaned forward on their toes.
The dirt-covered, soft-spoken Uncle Mark was the first to greet us followed by the grinning bear of a man, Uncle Mike. With little hesitation, our 7- and 9-year-old girls scrambled up into the harvester’s cab for a ride up the field and back. Watching them roll off, we knew Mike would be the picture of patience fielding questions about levers and buttons and “when do you” this and “how do you” that. Meanwhile, the vehicles smoothly resumed their concert. The work was well done.
Before long, the girls returned beaming. Mike smiled as he turned the harvester back up what seemed an endless number of patiently waiting rows. Meanwhile, we drove to the warehouse where the trucks emptied themselves onto another moving track. Grandpa and others stood by the track as sentries staring intently at the procession of innumerable passing potatoes. They removed clods of mud, sticks and misshapen potatoes. Meeting my daughters’ gaze, Grandpa’s eyes lit up. Workers puckishly winked and put potatoes shaped like dogs and toothless old men into my daughters’ eager hands. Their cousin Christopher, a farmer himself, guided the telescoping track of potatoes into the awaiting maw of the ever-filling warehouse. He explained the delicate art of heating and cooling stored potatoes through unforgiving North Dakota winters, smiling as he spoke. We excused ourselves to explore a few other curiosities on the warehouse grounds: fresh deer tracks, a well-loved vegetable garden and a 1941 Willie car patiently awaiting restoration. I left with three large potatoes in my hands.
Within an hour, seated at Grandpa and Grandma’s countertop, we made the sign of the cross, prayed and ate dinner: ham, pasta salad… and potatoes. It was delicious.
As I drifted to sleep that night, I half-dreamed about that rich Dakota soil slipping through my daughter’s fingers. I thought of priests and farmers and Gospels and potatoes. The laborers few, the harvest great. The complexity and the simplicity. The precision and the poetry. The hunger of the world and the feast awaiting them.
I could still hear my daughter’s whispered words, “It’s so soft,” as she let the soil slip through her hands and blow in the brisk wind. And then she grabbed some more.
Next time, I think I’ll grab some too.