I did the coolest thing today.
I went potato gleaning.
This is cool for a lot of reasons.
I am from Idaho, and Idaho is a strange place which is not known for much besides potatoes and the occasional Boise State football game. I’m proud of the fact that Sun Valley had the first ski lift in the world in the 30’s, but that’s not something a lot of people pay attention to or would be proud of if they did. We’re not iconic. Well, our icon is a potato. So yeah, we’re not iconic.
I’m from Mountain Home, which is a stranger place to Idaho’s strange place, and I am realizing this more than ever now that I’m not actively living there. It’s a very strange place in the scheme of things. It’s in a strange place – halfway between Boise and Twin Falls, just kind of sitting there cooking meth and flying jets (done by two different groups, fortunately) in the middle of the Interstate. Our makeup is also weird. Migrants, rednecks, trash, air force people, Basque Catholics, everyone else, etc. We’re strange, and not much like anywhere else in Idaho.
One of the other things about Mountain Home is that the entire high school hates it there, and is always saying how much drama goes on, how girls are always starting crap and none of the guys are worth having a relationship with and on and on and on. I was never above agreeing occasionally. I tended to hate it, too, in its way.
Since sophomore year I’ve come to Pocatello about once a year for state journalism, and now I live here, and there’s this singer called Sofia Jannok. Non sequiturs are fun, and in the video for Sofia Jannok’s song “Irene” (which is about reindeer because she sings in Sami), there are seven- or eight-second shots of a gorgeous full moon in a pinkish-grayish-bluish sky over frosty pine trees, somewhere in northern Sweden, which always reminded me of east Idaho, just those seven or eight seconds.
Looking back, east Idaho has always given me magical memories. I am still haunted (in a very excellent way) by the time I went skiing with my family at Pomerelle (about forty-five minutes or an hour back west of Pocatello) when I was nine. We ordered in Domino’s and everyone had crazy dreams, and the moment that sticks with me even now, going on ten years later, was the moment I peeked out behind the blinds and saw all the lighted cars going down the highway. It inspired my poem “Road Trip,” which I have around here somewhere.
I swear the sky is just different here.
I was driving home from potato gleaning tonight and I thought that again.
Mountain Home’s sky is blue and can be quite beautiful and optimism-inspiring and glorious, but it seems – I don’t know – solider than the sky out here. Like it’s closing you in and holding you down, and sometimes you are happy enough that it doesn’t matter, but here the stars are closer, the layer between you and infinity is thinner. Maybe that’s it.
I also have a lot of roots here, so maybe that’s it too.
But today I was out doing a wonderful thing, and that would be potato gleaning. When the big nasty looking combines turn around at the end of a row, sometimes stuff gets left behind. And it’s great fun to go and pick it up. I now know what potatoes look like when they’ve been exposed to the sun too soon (kind of greenish purple, like a bruise). I went out there today with my honorary uncle and his old friend, and it was a grand time, and I loved it, and here’s why.
Aside from the weirdly wonderful feeling of taking a potato out of the dirt (Idaho blood? Perhaps), there was first of all the feeling that this was heritage. I’ve spent two months’ worth of my life telling a bunch of fellow scando-nerds mostly from the Midwest that I am from somewhere west of them, not south, and when the one girl asks in her California accent, “So, what is Idaho known for?” and I say potatoes, I don’t know how serious I’m being. We Idaho kids make jokes about being from Potato-land, and I’ve already heard someone here make the joke “Spud State University in Pocatato,” but how many of us really understand that potatoes are, in fact, a very important and serious thing?
I’m an Idahoan, and a Spud Kid, and whatever else we call ourselves, but I know plenty of Idaho kids who make potato jokes who have never discovered a beautiful, dirt-shrouded, Idaho red potato in the dirt, just waiting for you. It’s quite an incredible thing.
I wrote once in a post called “Sweet Baby James” (October 23, 2011) on the other blog that “and then you get right out into that blurry golden prairie in all its knee-high grass, with the semicircle of pine trees your grandmother planted, down on a road named Alta Vista. The neighbors took out the dying trees for the family and when you go to count the rings on the stump you can’t count past 90 because they’re all too close together. And when you look across to Brundage Mountain and then back towards Jughandle, you realize that plowing through knee-high golden grass that isn’t public property is a pretty darn cool thing.”
That was too much text for the point I was trying to make, but I like it. I was talking about the family property up in McCall. It’s a wonderful thing to walk on ground that means something (here comes the Irish in me). It’s an incredible thing to find your heritage under your feet.
And that’s what I did today – some of our heritage as American pioneers, some of my personal heritage as a daughter of the Oregon Trail, and some of our heritage as people of Idaho. This is who we are. This is our territory, and this is our heritage growing under your feet. It’s a staggering thing to feel, as the lovely old Irish song “Galway Bay” says, that you “speak a language that the strangers do not know.”
Potatoes are not poetic, no indeed. Not really. Dirt can be, sometimes, depending on who you’re talking to. Potatoes are not. But they mean something, something very important. Something intrinsic to who we are. And it is a very very very staggering thing indeed to find something that matters to who you are and to hold it in your hands.
(It is also a little ludicrous when you are holding a potato. But to laugh at yourself is a good thing.)
I don’t know if this is just the wonder of it all, or the wonder of a change to someplace new, or if Mountain Home really is a stultifying place. But I feel freer and alive-r under this sky than I have anywhere else and that is fine by me. If Pocatello, if East Idaho brings me to my ontological self, even if she’s holding a potato, that makes me perfectly happy.
What would make it astronomically better, of course, would be if it were an Idaho red potato, because I am an Idaho Red. Get it?
What I also think is cool is that east Idaho has brought me to my roots, but also to my stars. The layers of sky and earth are both thinner here. You can feel the heart beating beneath your feet and see the soul sparkling above your head, better here than you can anywhere else. If you’re me.
Anyway, this is who I am.