by Eloise Davis (United Kingdom)
Audio: "Potatoes," read by Eloise Davis
For as long as I can remember, Dad’s been in the garden, kitted out in his camouflage jacket and army-style boots and covered in streaks of mud. He wells holes 6.2 centimetres apart so that each bean plant grows just right with maximum crop yield. I’ve never really understood why he bothers. Why spend all his spare time turning the soil and asking for free manure from the farm down the road? Why keep last year’s potato skins to grow this year’s crop, when larger, cleaner products could easily be bought from the supermarket? And most importantly, for me, anyway, why force me to drudge my way outside and sag from lectures about tubers and compost?
I suppose it’s a generational thing. He grew up on a farm, climbing trees, chasing sheep and watching the natural cycle unfold every year, the income resting on yield and how many poults (baby turkeys) would be ready in time for Christmas. Me? I grew up rooted firmly in the first world, with half a dozen devices at my fingertips. When he moved to the city, he had to sacrifice being on his farm, with his parents, with nature, all for a quick commute and an easy lifestyle. And the unintended consequence—something incomprehensible to him—was that I would much rather have been huddled on the sofa swiping rows of colourful candies on my iPod than shivering in wellies that went up to my thighs.
He used to get me to help plant the potatoes, to measure the spacings with a focus and precision no eight-year-old could ever hope to achieve of their own volition. But he’d cup my hands in his as we took scoopfuls of soil that looked like chocolate cake and showed me how to gently wrap the potato, shrivelled and pocked with white shoots, back into its bed.
All through the year after planting, he’d spend his time watering the plants, checking for shoots across the garden, or sitting in a chair outside. Just him, the steady trickle of our broken hose, and his mind, cast back to how the taste of the countryside used to roll round, rich and gritty, on his tongue. Then, in the summer, he’d take the weight of the fork and sink its prongs into the ground, getting me to push down so that the end levered up. Potatoes, round jewels, would tumble through the warm brown earth.
I’d run off as soon as we’d finished, and scrub my hands until they were red and the sink was grey; at least I was there.
Over time, my dad and I have come to the mutual realisation that he can’t force me to help him out in the garden anymore.
So I don’t.
But I remember the evenings when we’d boil our potatoes and eat them in salad with pounds of mayonnaise or mash with his chives: fork to mouth, and grin to the eyes as we relished in our success.
Times change, I guess. My brother leaves for university next year, the first of us, right up the other end of the country. Dad will grow the same number of potatoes as usual and dig up a bucketload for a Sunday roast. Our grandparents might not be able to come, stranded by the pandemic or their own fragilities. Without the extra mouths and without my brother to guzzle down a few platefuls, there will be far too much food, so we’ll be having leftovers for the next week. Still, I’ll clutch onto the smell of roasting potatoes for days, infused with garlic in full cloves and handfuls of rosemary. I’ll taste the spiced earth they sprung from, and I’ll look out the window at clouds that chase each other like the sheep through Grandad’s farm.
I’m still figuring out why Dad puts in all the effort through the frost and the rain for our yearly potatoes. I’m coming to think it’s because he wants to make a connection, and it’s the only way he knows how. His Dad taught him how to shear sheep and how to ride a bicycle down the wobbly lanes yet to be flattened by the hunger for towns and motorways. And so, in our little garden, where if you look one way there is nothing but cow fields, and the other pylons and an Amazon warehouse, he taught me how to grow. He taught me how impossible it is to put a value on the soil that hums with potential; on our potatoes that poke their golden heads out to see everything under the steady summer sky. He taught me that sometimes, it takes the rain and the cold and the racking wind to reach the end goal. And, sometimes, it’s just worth it.
So this year I’m helping him dig his trenches—I’m old enough now to be able to wield his fork on my own and to measure out exactly 6.2 centimetres between each bean plant. I’m old enough to place the old potato skins, shards of last year’s care, back into their plush brown beds. I’m old enough to realise that his potatoes, replanted to sprout food for us each year, are worth more than any hug or ice cream or lesson he could ever give me. It’s what I one day hope to give to my children: pure love, homegrown in our back garden.
Even though when we have that roast, we’ll be stuck with a chicken that will never be eaten—because my sister is a vegetarian, I’m really fussy, and my brother will be struggling over a can of soup in some tiny apartment kitchen—we’ll all dig into those potatoes, and grin to our eyes in our shared moment of bliss.
Eloise Davis is seventeen and has watched sixteen summers of potatoes grow in her garden. She’s tried them with as many recipes as possible, and invites anyone to send over recommendations for more dishes! She would suggest a cosy shepherd’s pie with excessive heaps of butter in the mash.
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9/24/22, 2:13 PM
Was this inspired by flights over Iceland?
9/24/22, 10:04 AM
Amazing. I love it.
9/23/22, 7:34 AM
This is just so good!!!! "The air has been poisoned' I love how you describe things! Congrats :))
9/23/22, 7:32 AM
Love the message! The way you prompt the readers to rethink over 'is anything free' is so effective and the ending is...gorgeous.
9/23/22, 7:30 AM
Gosh, Antara...this is really beautiful! I love your use of language, and the anecdotes were so effective!! Congrats so much :))
9/22/22, 9:30 PM
I love it! Especially the part where you say if humans can control the world, they can control themselves too!
Keep up the brilliant writing!
9/22/22, 5:22 PM
Poignant and so beautifully written!
9/22/22, 5:19 PM
I love the flow, this is gorgeously written! Great piece!
9/22/22, 5:17 PM
Life really is all about the little things and you wrote about them in a beautiful way!
9/22/22, 5:16 PM
This is a lovely piece, Keren-Happuch! It provokes such a magical and dreamy feeling.
9/19/22, 5:47 PM
Oh my god, the part about changing the mindset given the pre-existing beliefs drilled in by those around us... Even we often hesitate to have these conversations at times amongst friends as this topic is seldom more than a subject of twss jokes. You put it into words brilliantly!
9/17/22, 6:46 PM
this was thought-provoking! I particularly enjoyed how you connected existentialism to the topic. it provides a different perspective.