”This tuber is insipid and mealy. It cannot be classed among the agreeable foodstuffs. But it furnishes abundant and rather wholesome nutrition to men who are content to be nourished. It is justly regarded as flatulent, but what are winds to the vigorous organs of peasants and laborers?”
So wrote Denis Diderot of the humble potato in the 18th century French Encyclopédie, one of the principal works of The Enlightenment. Diderot was a philosopher and man of letters, a prolific writer whose bohemian and disordered life led him from Catholicism to atheism. He was a frequenter of coffee houses, and in the opinion of this erstwhile peasant and author, would be gleefully discontented in the bohemian and disordered culture of today.
He would not, however, be content in our garden this week. Plain black coffee is served in a stainless steel thermos, and it’s time to plant potatoes again. The lucky spuds chosen to fulfill their nutritious destiny have been hardening off in the sun for a week now, The tractor is running again, and the tiller is ready. The spirit is willing and the flesh, though weak in the biblical sense, is vigorous enough to plant another garden.
Though I mention the tractor in passing, some of you will understand the significance of the phrase, “running again,” because when your tractor is not running, your life is out of balance. While we don’t encourage attachment to material objects, a tractor is something more. It is a relationship. Your tractor will hurt you, skin you, bruise you and blacken you from fingertip to armpit. It has bolts you don’t need in places you can’t get to. It is cursed with cruel innovations such as a fuel cutoff valve directly over the exhaust manifold so that you can immediately know when it leaks and if your fire extinguisher works. When it runs, nothing runs better, and on the very rare occasion when it betrays you, you’ll never see it coming. It will charm you and infuriate you and by the time that you and your tractor have both oxidized beyond your youthful vigor, it may very well be your oldest friend.
While we’re in the garden, you’ve probably realized by now that I wasn’t joking about saving your seeds. Have your ordered seeds lately? They arrive in a big envelope the size of a sheet of paper. Inside there is a smaller envelope about half the size of a post card. Inside that is a little plastic bag slightly larger than a postage stamp. Get out your tiger hunting tweezers, because you’re going to need them to extract the half dozen or so tomato seeds, and pray that you don’t sneeze.
The winds of coffee house economists tell us to disregard this type of stealth inflation. They assure us that we are actually more prosperous than we think. Our everyday life is full of unnoticed items that would have been considered luxuries by Denis Diderot and the other editors at the Encyclopédie. The common smart phone has more computing power than the first Apollo missions, and televisions have never been cheaper.
But a potato is still a potato, and when history cuts down orchards, destroys vineyards and burns wheat fields, the humble potato, like the peasant who planted it, survives underground to feed another family content to be nourished.