Archive for October, 2017

Homeland Potatoes



When all things spoke the potato said,

‘set me warm, dig me warm, eat me warm that’s all I want.’

-Irish proverb


 I must grow potatoes.

It’s no different from my need for eating, sleeping, reading books and poking around in wild places. Potatoes run deep in my lineage.

For generations my Scandinavian ancestors grew potatoes in Sweden. As a boy, my great grandfather Eric arrived in Minnesota, having left his poverty stricken province of Småland in Sweden.

The family eventually settled in east-central Minnesota among other Scandinavian and German farmers. Here the well-drained, sandy soil was perfect for growing potatoes. It was the potato that grew my great grandfather’s farm here on the Anoka sand plain.

I am the fifth generation of my family to plant potatoes on this piece of land. I am compelled to tuck several pounds of cut potato seed into the ground every spring. I pat the soil over each earth-cradled piece of spud and silently urge it to greatness. I don’t grow potatoes by the acre like my ancestors did, but I still plant them.

The potato is an alien in Sweden and the United States. This starchy vegetable, a native of the Andes Mountains in South America, was shipped to Portugal in 1567. Up to that point the Inca Indians had cultivated it for 10,000 years.

Potatoes first arrived in Sweden around 1655. It took almost a hundred years before Jonas Alströmer, a pioneer in agriculture and industry, started testing the plant on his farm near Alingsås, prompting Swedish farmers to plant potatoes.

Great Grandpa Eric was known for his hard work ethic. The demand for potatoes was growing along with the human population. Consequently he converted acres of his wooded lands to farmland using dynamite and his team of three workhorses to clear stubborn stumps.

I wish there was a record of the number of wagonloads of potatoes that Great Grandpa Eric steered seven miles to one of the five starch factories in North Branch, Minnesota. In those years North Branch bragged that it was the “Potato Capital of the World.

Those annual heaps of potatoes made it possible for my great grandfather to buy his first automobile, a black 1915 Buick. Decades ago, an old hired hand of Eric’s told me that Eric’s car was the first auto in the township.

A few years after the Buick, the potato harvest yielded a new gas generator in his barn. Now he could milk cows under shining light bulbs. Then he strung wires from the barn, across the gravel road, to the big farmhouse, allowing the flow of electricity to turn night into day. This was the first electrical hook-up in the township.

His son, my grandfather, grew potatoes, but he also diversified as the sandy soil became more nutrient depleted and the potato harvest dwindled. His son, my father, won a medal for his potatoes at the Minnesota State Fair.

My potato growing efforts have not earned me any medals, recognition or new cars, but it has brought me an annual dose of humility.

My yearly harvest has often been compromised by seasonal battles with pocket gophers that also find the firm white flesh of the spud delicious. For the time being I am keeping their incisors at bay by growing the spuds in deep raised beds with a bottom of galvanized wire mesh to prevent tunneling raids.

But mostly I am humbled by the privilege to work a piece of land that our family has intimately known for over a century.

Every fall, I drop to my knees on this home place ground and push my fingers into the sandy soil beneath the collapsed and withered summer stem of the parent potato plant. Like a fallen flag of surrender, it shows me where to dig and blindly probe. Each carefully excavated potato is like a gift and results in a slight jolt of joy.

Satisfied that I have found all the spuds under the hill that I mounded last June, I crawl to the next hill, a measured length of my forearm from the first. Again and again, like a magician, I pull potatoes out of the ground and set them to the side to air dry.

In good years, there is a trail of potatoes like a lumpy pearl necklace delineating my harvest crawl. I linger on soiled knees to remind myself of the privilege of growing spuds here. I understand more completely that both the potato and I are of the earth.

Later, I gather them in a bent wire basket that was used by Great Grandpa Eric. I hold a potato in my grubby hand. Thin crescents of dirt under my fingernails and a heavy old basket are testimony of a job well done.

And now, I must eat potatoes.

Gross. . . Or not

I spied a dead deer lying along the edge of the gravel road when I walked out to the mailbox.

The glazed eyes and bloated belly signaled that this deer had been killed too long ago for me to salvage some meat. However, the twenty-four hours it had been lying there had ripened it perfectly for the first scavengers.

When an animal dies, the march of decomposition begins immediately. Without breathing there is no cycling of oxygen and the wastes of carbon dioxide. Consequently, cells rupture and flesh-eating enzymes bloat the belly.

The rich bouquet of gases causes the dead animal to nearly double in size. Within 24 hours of death, during warm months, a host of odorous gases including “cadaverine” and “putrescine” begin to rise from the swollen carcass. Air currents quickly disseminate them.

For turkey vultures, the advance squad of the carrion corps, putrid exhalations of death are a silent dinner bell. The turkey vulture is equipped with an oversized olfactory bulb nestled next to the brain. Of the thousands of bird species on the planet, turkey vultures bear one of the largest sensory organs for smelling.

Flying low over the countryside, effortlessly riding thermals of swirling air with wide swept wings, the vulture can detect whiffs of gases from up to a mile from the dead.

Vultures lazily wheel overhead peering down to locate the point of death. Other vultures in the area visually hone in on the scavenging swirl and they in turn create a tall living billboard-of-sorts that attracts the attention of other scavengers. Crows, ravens, jays and eagles know that a slow tornado of soaring vultures means food is at hand.

The following day, day two since the deer collision, I was driving home from fetching groceries. When I turned down our road, I could see all kinds of activity a quarter of a mile ahead of me, where the dead fawn lay.

Six turkey vultures, two mature bald eagles with white heads gleaming, a pair of ravens and a murder of two-dozen crows, scavengers all, gathered at the death scene. I marveled at how the twisted fawn could give a clarion call for feasting.

I pulled into our driveway without disturbing the feeding frenzy. I tossed the bag of groceries on the counter, coaxed Nancy to grab her binoculars and to follow me. We eased our way into the brushy treeline that partially screened us and peered at the assemblage of seamy scavengers.

Even though we were sneaky, the crows and ravens busted us. These wary scouts got up and winged away. Their departure caused the eagles to fly off and the vultures to look up, but the vultures continued to surround the dead like mourners paying their last respects. In fact a group of vultures is aptly referred to as a “wake.”

Two of the vultures stood near the dead deer with black wings spread wide, as if ready to embrace something. In the chill of the morning they were spreading their wings to better absorb the warmth of the sun. During the night roost their body temperature drops so they need this thermoregulation trick.

One vulture walked on top of the stilled fawn, paused, and dipped its naked head into the corpse. The featherless vulture head keeps blood and bits of flesh from sticking. It’s an adaptation to keep clean.

A couple of minutes passed and an immature bald eagle glided in and landed near the deer. It hopped to the carcass. The vultures, being lower on the pecking order, sulked away from the banquet. The eagle is an important visitor as it has a sharp, curved beak to tear into the flesh. The vultures and crows are not so handily equipped and take advantage of the eagle’s skill at tearing the deer hide open.

The next day, death’s day three, I hurried out to peek at the carnage to see who was there. One eagle and a handful of crows watched from nearby. I never did see any more vultures. They prefer meat not so rotted.

Curious, I walked over to take a closer look. Some mammalian scavengers, likely coyotes or raccoons, had fed on the fawn in the night. The carcass had been moved several feet and was more skeletonized and twisted. Shiny blue and green bottle flies flew about the carcass while others crawled around the exposed flesh.

Gravid female flies were leaving batches of 150 or more eggs on the putrid flesh. These eggs hatch in less than a day and the maggots will have readily available food.

I didn’t get out to investigate the deer the next day, but did stroll out on the fifth day since the fatal collision. I found a flow of writhing life spewing from the fawn’s frozen final gasp. Resembling swollen rice grains, the tireless larvae whittled the carcass away.

While a seething mass of maggots in rotting flesh might seem repulsive, maggots’ hunger for the fetid aids human medicine. Through history, the newly hatched, germ-free maggots were often applied to clean out wounds and combat gangrene. In the 21st century the demand for medical maggots has increased 25 to 50% annually.

I stood mesmerized by the sheer numbers of maggots and their perpetual motion. The melting carcass was a far cry from the bouncing fawn I had spied in the adjacent soybean field only a week prior.

With the corps of corpse-eaters erasing the fawn while recycling nutrients into the biosphere, I could only salute them all and offer a hearty “Carry on!”

Perhaps the more apt cry of encouragement would be “Carrion!”


(Abundant thanks to Joe Sausen for use of the turkey vulture and eagle image!)