To Scatter New Potatoes

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.

Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down

Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.

The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.

By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.

My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

~Seamus Heaney, “Digging” from Death of a Naturalist

Van Gogh Painting, Oil on Canvas on Panel Nuenen:
August, 1885 Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo, The Netherlands
Digging Potatoes by Martin Driscoll

Digging potatoes is one of the most satisfying tasks for a farmer. Often the dead above-ground vines have melted into the ground, blending in with the weeds and encroaching sprawl of squash vines. Finding the treasure underneath the topsoil is an act of faith. You set the shovel or fork boldly into the dirt to loosen up the top eight inches. Then you submerge your hand into the dirt and come up with a fistful of potato gold nuggets, each smooth cool tuber rolling into fresh air like so many newly discovered hidden Easter eggs.

A daily dig for words to write isn’t nearly as easy as finding potatoes in the soil; the bounty under the surface often remains hidden away from my view and elusive. I have to keep searching and sifting and sorting. Some that I end up with are rotten. Some are overexposed, too green and toxic. Some are scabby and look ugly, but are still useable and hopefully tasty.

Yet I get out my virtual spade and dig into the dirt of life every day, hoping, just hoping, to come up with words in my hands that are not only beautiful, colorful, smooth and palatable, but a sheer delight for the digger/reader to discover along with me.


The largest potato I harvested from our garden this fall was the size of a small grapefruit–a yellow fleshed variety with a smooth surface, a rather irregular shape but nevertheless impressive in sheer bulk. It had been waiting on the shelf in the root cellar for just the right dinner this winter and tonight was the night.

I peeled it and to help it steam faster, started to halve and quarter it. I could tell as the knife went through it that something wasn’t quite right. And it wasn’t.

This beautiful spud was hollow with brown fleshy mush in the center–not rotten–no odor whatsoever, but internally a defective mess. Gorgeous outside, a shambles inside. There wasn’t really enough good potato to even steam up to eat. It was beauty only skin deep, with no substance within.

Potato hollowheart is an abnormality that occurs when a potato grows too quickly with uneven climate conditions–too much rain, too much fertilizer too quickly. I’m not sure why this potato suffered when the rest of my crop were regular size and all exposed to the same garden soil and weather. I don’t fertilize at all so this was a potato that simply went awry for reasons of its own.

It is a reminder that the best of the crop are the ones that tend to blend in with the rest–sometimes with scabs that need to be smoothed or peeled off, or a rough surface that requires extra cleaning, or too many eyes, or just a bit on the small side. But once they are cleaned and steamed and prepared, they are sweet and fleshy and buttery without butter. They are nearly perfect despite their plain outward appearance.

I don’t ever want to be discovered to have a hollow heart. Give me scabs and scars and wrinkles and puckers. But make my heart full, overflowing and sweet, with joy revealed inside a plain and rough outer skin, and all my grimy spots scrubbed clean.