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A SACK OF POTATOES, THE TIRED FARMER, & THE MIGHTY WORLD
by Steph Jones
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I'm hot. I'm sweaty, especially my upper lip from breathing hard with a mask on. My belly rumbles with hunger long empty from a breakfast before the sun rose. It's what farmers call "almost Almost Lunch", the time between 10:20 AM and 11:07 AM when you are past morning snack but really not close enough to lunch. I need to pick up this 40 LB. sack of potatoes, one of 15 bags in this load, out of 10 loads. That's a lot of taters. I roll my eyes thinking whose great idea it was to plant this many stinking potatoes.

Oh dear, it was mine...Back in February when anything growing sounded great. But now we have 6,000 Lbs. of potatoes to harvest. For farmers, hard work yields hard work. And the fact that we stick one half-piece of seed potato in the ground in May and return in August and dig out 8 full ones in its place is absolutely ridiculous.

So when I am tired as a farmer, I find strength as an artist. Both farmers and artists are expert observers of life. I want to know all of the world around me, understand its individuality, what makes it, well, IT. Pinpoint the small details that create the accurate sense of the whole. I throw my senses out into the world like echolocation, pinging on what surrounds me, waiting for the return...

I read the sky. I know the dense fog of summer mornings like walking through pea soup.
The first patch of blue sky opens at 8:30 AM. When you can make sailor's britches out of blue sky, it is bound to clear up. Close after, our daily UPS flight descends into Philly. I wonder if it is the same pilot. By early afternoon, low cumulus clouds stamp the sky in repetition. Big spilling cumulonimbus thunderheads rise in summer. I know dark clouds over the sweet gum tree in the west means the storm will hit us, but clouds over the black walnut or pines means a miss to the south or north.

I am an expert water navigator. I know where all the potholes are on the farm roads and how to avoid them while driving. As I bounce along in the 1985 Toyota, I read the land's slopes and channels, ghosts of summer rainstorms past. I can tell if it's only rained a little from small pits formed in the dry road dust or rained heavily as low spots gather fine silty eroded soil.

The birds are surely entertainment. As the snowbird Juncos disappear in early spring, Canada geese flocks arrive. Turkey vultures swirl lazily in azure skies. The swallows swoop and dive as fields are mowed and kick up insects. They also sit on tomato stakes and laugh as they watch you work. Goldfinch bachelors woo their ladies on the fence. The five resident crows walk behind the disc harrow as delicious snacks are unearthed as old crops are ploughed under.

I listen to tractors. I know a cold tractor will chug for a bit and start with white smoke, and black smoke means a burst of gas and power, but blue smoke means oil. I can smell when a fuel line clamp comes off and diesel is dripping, which is different than the gas leaking out of the sediment bowl on the 1941 Farmall A. I know the purr of idling and the powerful hum of 540 engine RPM. I am not an expert tractor fixer, but I am an expert manual reader. A little elbow grease and perseverance. And a call to some experts.

I am a weed identifier. Winter is chickweed's game, and wild mustard bursts in yellow in spring, often the first flush of new life. When dandelions bloom it's time to plant those potatoes. Broad leaves like galinsoga, lambs quarter, amaranth, and smartweed are barons of the summer, with foxtails and grasses vying for top spot. I know that as daylight shortens in fall, weeds that grow to 6 feet in high summer, set seeds at only a few inches tall as they know frost is quickly approaching. Better to grow short with seeds than no seeds at all.

These pings fly back to me like a boomerang coming home true. My overused August muscles still have doubt, but this time I inhale the power of life around me. I grasp the rough sack and I inhale those potatoes right up over my shoulder. Yes!

I am an artist. I am a farmer. To me, these are the same. As both I study, shape, and form life. Each requires me to see life exactly as it is in that moment and put equal weight in all details that build the whole. Our actions every day are the lines that make up the drawing of life. Each line deserves the same attention. To see truthfully is to know understandingly. To understand is to farm well. To understand is to draw well. To understand is to live well. And I'll be eating a lot of potatoes tonight.