“It’s Just Death”

It’s August and blight is upon us.  The tomatoes have early blight, which is bad, but can be controlled by cutting away the blighted parts of the plant and not (!) composting them.  We put them in plastic bags and send them to the landfill.

Late blight is worse, usually taking out the whole plant and while it’s not as bad as it was last year, it’s around Vermont and coming closer to our yard.

Potatoes are a different story.  Late blight wiped them out.  Adrienne had to get rid of the plants and the bags they grew in.  Late blight on potatoes is scary.  One day the plants are healthy, the next they are dissolving into pools of goo.  “It’s just death,” Adrienne said.

It reminded me of June 1977, when I was in the village of Feakle in County Clare in the west of Ireland.  I was staying at a guesthouse with whitewashed walls and flagstone floors.  A small peat fire burned in the hearth in the pub to keep off the chill of a midsummer evening.

The guesthouse had a dining room, which is not a restaurant, because there was no menu.  Meals were served three times a day, but everyone ate the same Irish fare – shepherd’s pie, fish, overcooked beef and always potatoes – mashed, fried or most commonly, boiled in their jackets.

Aside from being a staple of Irish diets, potatoes are a source of pride and they do seem to taste uncommonly good in Ireland.  I’m not sure if it’s the weather or the soil or generally low expectations one has for Irish food, but they’re good.

The British imported potatoes to Ireland from the Americas as something for the peasants to eat while they grew cash crops for the absentee landlords snug in their manors in England.

A family ran the Feakle guesthouse.  A teenaged son was the waiter in the dining room, wearing a dorky sweater that clearly was his “on duty” uniform, because I saw him around the village on his own time in a ragged denim jacket and cigarette in the corner of his mouth.

In the dining room, however, it was the sweater and it, along with his chalky white skin and thatch of thick black hair, made him look like the postcard Irishman the clientele expected.

In 1840-1843, late blight repeatedly wiped out the Irish potato crop, turning healthy plants to mush overnight, just as they did this year in Vermont.  This led to mass starvation and migration of the Irish, who ironically died beside bumper crops of grain – that had to be shipped to England under the terms of the 1798 Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement.  Sound familiar?

One hundred forty-four years later, the day I hold in my memory was a Sunday and the dining room was full of both guests and locals who’d come for early dinner.  The young man was working double fast to get the plates out from the kitchen and on to the table.

A woman at the next table cut into a boiled spud and it collapsed.  The potato was hollow and filled with the noxious black liquid blighted potatoes exhibit.  She dropped her knife to the floor and as heads turned, the room immediately fell into a silence so abrupt it was almost a noise in itself.

The teenaged boy, now paler than I thought was possible for a breathing person to be, quickly scooped up the plate and hurried from the room, but he could not dispel the effect.  It was as if the figure of death – like one might see in an Ingemar Bergman movie – had walked in.  The hum of conversation and the ping of flatware did not resume.  I don’t know whether people finished their meals or not, but the room emptied soon after.

Blight, early or late, is not fatal to hobby gardeners like Adrienne and I, but the economic staples on which we so depend are now in their third year of blight and wilting fast again as I type.  Immigration not an option.

© Mark Floegel, 2011

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