Smells Like Spring

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Apr 25, 2008 2:40 PM
By Richard Barnes

One day in early summer, while motorcycling west on Route 2 into Conception Bay South, Newfoundland, the air blowing by my face startled me with a message from my childhood.

The trigger was the smell of freshly broken ground, and I soon caught sight of its source sliding by on my right: reddish soil ploughed into rows of furrows ready for planting.

The chapter of my past that had rushed to the present was created some 45 years ago. My father was the youngest of a large Protestant family that grew vegetables and kept animals on Spruce Hill Road in Topsail (now part of CBS).

Every spring during my childhood, Dad and his two brothers and a sister (all the siblings who still lived in the Topsail area) would help their parents plant potatoes in the "lower garden," a section of land that today lies beneath the lawns and basements of a housing development. Throughout the year the Barnes "kids" would hoard a couple of vacation days from work so they could trade in their white shirts, business suits and skirts for coveralls and a chance to work "at the ground." The third generation, late baby boomers like myself, came along to help out where we could in sowing the field.

The lower garden, perhaps half an acre accessible by an understood right of way through property owned by several branches of the Barnes family, was bordered on one side by narrow, dusty Spruce Hill Road. The plot was fenced with weathered wood and the perimeter lined with mottled stones of all sizes, which had been dumped there after they had been painstakingly dug from the earth by earlier generations of planters. These man-made barriers of brittle stone held the sun's heat even on cool spring days and somehow supported the growth of birch and dogberry trees that sported just as much exposed root as trunk and limbs. Today, all around Conception Bay, you can see many abandoned gardens delineated by stone borders, some sprouting young trees instead of the vegetables they once produced.

On planting day, the division of labour was clear. Aunt Elsie and grandmother prepared a huge meal for all, and they would assist with planting after "dinner" was cleared away. The midday meal was not lunch, but a full dinner with gravy, meat and vegetables (including, of course, potatoes). I read somewhere that a diet rich in potatoes prevented appendicitis. I don't know if there is any truth to that, but there is no appendicitis in our family. In fact, many of my relatives aged well into their 90s without ever seeing the inside of a hospital.

It was Uncle Max's job to cut the seed potatoes. Like everything, there is a skill to cutting seed. I never understood the process, but it has to do with cutting between the "eyes" of the seed potatoes, and Max was considered the expert.

The cut seeds quickly filled a five-gallon bucket, and then were transferred to smaller buckets the younger ones could carry into the field. From the small buckets the seeds would be set in place, one at a time, equally spaced in the troughs of the newly ploughed furrows.

As they worked, the adults talked of sabagos, gems and blues. The conversation recalled all kinds of potato plagues, such as canker, late blight, root maggot, and rot that came to a field for no good reason.

When the field was nearly seeded, my father's cousin, Harrison, would appear with a horse tackled into a plough. As she was fitted with blinkers that blocked her side vision, her ears kept pivoting in the direction of the men's conversation. She was completely at ease with the playful pushing, shouting and arguing of the Barnes clan, and even ignored the cigarette smoke that occasionally drifted past her nostrils.

When Harrison took his place at the plough handles, she lowered her head, and pulled the plough through the earth, covering the pieces of potato seed. She knew just how far to go beyond the edge of the field so the plough, trailing some distance behind, would reach the end of the furrows. If no command came encouraging her into the turn, she would wait there, half-turned, the vapour of her exhaled breath made visible by her exertion, even on a hot day. Her strange, powerful animal smell blended with the smell of the damp fecund soil.

I don't remember noticing the potato field any more until fall, when the potato stalks were dry and crispy, perhaps burned by an early frost. I didn't think about it until later, but someone must have weeded and watered and "trenched" the rows of potatoes and coaxed them along through the growing season until I discovered the spent stalks in the fall. My dad or one of my uncles would stab a prong into the ground and wiggle the stalk free from the earth, revealing a mass of potatoes. The younger ones, like myself, would shake the potatoes free of the stalks and leave them to dry on the ground.

Later, we picked them up, filling to the brim those same buckets that had carried the seeds to the furrows in the spring. We dumped buckets of new potatoes into sacks that the men would tie at the top and carry on their shoulders to a Chevy pick-up for the trip to the huge family cellar.

The dry stalks were raked into piles. After dark, they were burned in smoky fires and we danced around the flames like fairies.

I can't remember when that extended family potato harvest ended, but the field, the cellar, Harrison and his horse, the uncles and grandparents are all gone. Our family ritual wasn't about saving a few dollars on a bag of potatoes. For those tough old Protestants, neglecting to sow and reap was sinful and an insult to the fickle forces that governed survival. The sight of a fallow field was obscene.