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  • Emily Levenson

Digging Potatoes

By Emily Levenson

“Hi, are you Dave?” I asked the only man in the airport waiting area when the plane was unboarded in Watertown. He gave a quick nod.

“You must be Emily, right?” 

I’ve spent the night alone before on an airport bench in London, faced a bombardment of questions at security before a flight to Israel and gone the wrong way in the customs line at Newark International. But this was my weirdest airport experience yet. Dave, the farmer, didn’t seem to think twice before he helped load my suitcase into the back of his van on top of a jumbled collection of tools. 

What was I doing, jumping into a farmer’s car 2400 miles from my home in the Bay Area? Maybe the strangest part was that this felt like the right choice despite the twisting doubt. 

A month before, I was spending every day alone in my room in Berkeley, talking to professors on Zoom. With the whirlwind (or better yet, tornado) of COVID-19, wildfire smoke, and political unrest, I knew something needed to shift. The walls were closing in, so when a friend mentioned that she was spending the semester on a farm, the idea stuck. I wrote to Dani and Dave, the farmers at Cross Island, through the WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) website. Come the last week of September, I was discussing vegetarianism with this masked farmer (him: against, as a meat farmer, me: pro, as a climate and budget-concerned student) while driving away into the dark.  

When we arrived at Cross Island Farms a half hour later, the first thing I noticed was the quacking of ducks. About a dozen of them were chasing each other around their enclosure in the front yard, squawking like the world was ending.  Maybe the world was ending. But hey, at least I’d be riding it out here on an island, just minutes from the Canadian border. 

I met Dave’s partner Dani, who fed me hearty white bean chili for dinner at the outside table. After eating, Dave strapped my small suitcase to the back of a golf cart and dropped me off at a tent in the woods. I would sleep outside until I got a negative COVID test.

I woke up the first morning, felt a rock in the middle of my back, and remembered I was not in Kansas anymore. The sun was rising, pink and orange peeking out between the trees. The air was fresh, the green leaves were all-encompassing, and I couldn’t help smiling. I walked across the pasture towards the farmhouse, pastel mist blanketing the grass. Cows and goats turned their heads as I passed. It looked like the scene from the 2005 film version of Pride and Prejudice when Lizzy and Mr. Darcy meet at dawn and declare their love for each other in the English countryside. 

When Dani announced at breakfast that I could look forward to digging potatoes later that day, the other WWOOF volunteers laughed. Zoe and David were both my age, also taking time off after their second years of college. Apparently, digging for tubers is what passes for an initiation ritual out here. While we ate our oatmeal and drank black tea, my stomach was tense with nerves. The morning turned out to be small potatoes in terms of work, though. I delivered tomatoes past their prime to the pig, Snorty. I collected squash from underneath a long, white row cover using a pair of clippers to separate the gourds from the vine. 

After lunch, the real work began - the big potatoes. Dani walked me over to Garden 3 with a pitchfork and a knowing smile. She showed me how to begin, stabbing the pitchfork into the ground, “vertically, not horizontal at all, so you don’t stab the potatoes. If you stab the potatoes, I can’t sell them, and we have to eat them before they rot.” No pressure. She shook the dry soil from her pitchfork and plucked several brown tubers from the loose ground. Just like that - and they looked just like the ones we cooked at home. 

She passed me the tool and told me she’d watch for a little while to make sure I was doing it right. Again, no pressure. I stabbed my pitchfork into the soil and wiggled it side to side. The dirt separated in clumps, but my hands felt awkward and nothing appeared. I puzzled over Dani’s instructions in my head, “Dig down vertically, not horizontally. That way, you don’t stab the potatoes.” But how could I get out any dirt if I didn’t dig under it? I tried to scoop down below where I guessed the roots would be. Nothing. I pulled out the pitchfork with a heave and inched it forward an inch, holding my breath as the tines broke the ground. Nothing. Dani grabbed the pitchfork from me and dug half a foot farther, pointing out the potato plant's leaves above ground, which I’d been too far from. I grabbed my first potato and brushed it off with my brand-new work glove. 

“Be careful how you handle the potatoes. Even using your glove like that is taking the skin off. See?” And again, no pressure. “You’ll figure it out,” Dani said. Just like that, she left. So, I dug. And I stabbed a few potatoes. I tried not to freak out about the ones I might be leaving buried on the sides of the row. Dani had mentioned that any left behind would create potato weeds next spring.  No pressure. My back ached from bending over. The sun left my cheeks feeling raw. Sweat collected behind my knees. When I looked behind me though, the potatoes stretched back in little starchy piles, almost all intact. 

My potatoes. I dug those with my own hands and muscles and shallow breath. 

When the farmer came back to collect me, she praised my work and told me I was done for the day (early). “You’re not used to this kind of work yet.” 

While a part of me wanted to prove that this city kid could handle more manual labor, I wasn’t used to it yet. My soft hands hadn’t been doing much more than typing on a keyboard and scribbling notes the last two years of college. 

As I left Garden 3 an hour before my workday was supposed to end, it struck me that I wasn’t being graded here. There was no A+ for not missing any tubers. A weed might come up next year, but I wouldn’t be there to see the small failure. I wasn’t being paid either - for the first time since middle school, I wouldn’t have some kind of paying job. That took some pressure off, too. This was a simple exchange. I worked. The farmers fed me. I’d get to sleep in a bed in their house and take the afternoons off for hiking, writing, canoeing, reading, whatever suited my fancy. No pressure, for real this time. I took a deep breath and walked away from the potato rows. 

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