Every year I bristle at the fall time change. I treasure my outdoor hours and with work calling me indoors most of the week, the shift in time seems like an indecent robbery. It usually takes me weeks to reconcile myself to nothing but dark hours inside at the end of my weekdays. This tragic turn of events is of course aided and abetted by the fact that the days themselves are getting shorter and shorter, with moments shaved off as each passes, not to be returned to the bank of daylight until February or March. Or even later… Who can wait that long?
But this year I approached calendar changes both natural and contrived with a new weapon: the story of the humble potato. From Barbara Kingsolver’s book, I learned one of the many miracles of the potato plant. Coming to us originally from what are now the Peruvian Andes in South America, the potato is a nutrient rich food which these days takes a lot of (not wholly deserved) blame for our nation’s nutritional crisis. Bad rap aside, what I learned about the potato is encapsulated in the quote above. In order for this crop to flourish, it must sleep a deep, dark, restful winter sleep. It needs months in a cool, cozy bin with “eyes” shut up tight in order to eventually open them and send robust runners out into the world. So in the spirit of the potato, I am spending these winter months embracing the darkness for the sake of what it makes possible.
Nevertheless, I relish the tipping point of the winter solstice, as it contains the central message of one of our most ancient cultural traditions. It is no new news that this passage from darkness to light signals the promise of hope, of a better world, and even of better relations between humans. The metaphorical aspect of the Christmas story is the one to which I adhere most closely – that in the moment of our darkest hour there is a promise of new light for our world. We must only tend to our loved ones as best we can, get our good rest, and wait.
The potato has known this all along. It’s futile to think that the sleeping spud can open her eyes before she’s had a long winter’s nap. And it’s futile to cling to the idea of permanent spring and summer. The good stuff, the clear light, the pushing green, the running sap, come to those with patience.
Now is the time to eat the stored, caloric bounty of the year behind us – the hard squashes and hearty greens, the tubers and roots which guard us against chilling temperatures and all manner of winter storms. Having passed the hurdle of the very shortest day, we know we are on our way to greater light.
Which is why I think it important to point out the absurdity currently on display in mainstream grocery stores: In my own local outlets: Apricots! Nectarines! Plums! Cherries! All of these come my way courtesy of Chile, which is tipped precisely on the other hemisphere of the globe so as to have summer in our winter. It’s no secret than in an imaginary, seasonless parallel universe I would reach for a peach over any and all other foods and fruits. Storage apples could just slink back to the musty corner where they’ve been keeping time, when faced with a perfectly in season peach.
But not like this. I find the displays lurid – like I’m seeing flesh that is strictly forbidden. I feel a little embarrassed for the tarty blush on the fruit, the round, smooth nectarine skins. I sound like my mother admonishing me to dress for the season. Put on a wool sweater! Cover yourself, for god’s sake. IT’S STILL DECEMBER! That peach is going to taste so much better when it comes to you less jet-lagged, no spray-on tan, in August, as she always has.