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The scent of small miracles on the farm

Published Aug. 28, 2005

The merest touch of frost the other morning brought down the potatoes in the lower garden. It seemed all the more surprising because the vines had been so rank with growth. Suddenly all the green was gone, and I could see the lumps where the new spuds lay hidden under the straw. I began lifting potatoes. Wherever I pulled a plant, I found earthworms thriving in the borderland between straw and soil, writhing in their sudden exposure as though being threaded on a fishhook. The potatoes looked overexposed, too, still thin-skinned, their brilliant white flesh visible through their jackets.

There is really no getting used to the biological miracles on a small farm, the simple fecundity of the earth. A couple of months ago I scattered seed potatoes on raw, bare ground and buried them in old hay. The vegetation seemed like recompense enough, but now I have more potatoes than I know what to do with.

I planted a dozen Steuben bean seeds in June. Now the pods have dried on the plants, and my dozen seeds have been repaid 40 or 50 times over with new Steuben beans _ white with a caramel eye _ drying on the sideboard. Like most gardeners, we have nearly fed ourselves sick on fresh tomatoes. Now they march directly into the kitchen, into a pot of slowly condensing sauce, to be frozen for a winter day when fresh tomatoes are just a memory.

There is not a sign of stasis anywhere. The goldenrod, so vivid a couple of weeks ago, has faded to rust. That means the bees are tapering off, as well. The past couple of years have been hard on honeybees, a combination of mites and bitter winters, but our hive is now in its second year. On a warm day the air thrives with bees outside the hive entrance. A strong smell of wax and honey and propolis drifts out of the frames. It adds just the right quality of darkness and sweetness to the complicated scent of this place.

By now the floral traces have mostly vanished, replaced by the burlap scent of decay in the wild fields around us. But the strong notes are always the smells of manure and the animals that make it _ the horses, predominantly, and the chickens and ducks and geese. What ties it all together is the smell of pig, not the toxic, scalding scent of an industrial operation, but the much friendlier odor of two pigs who move often to new pasture. Our Tamworths are nearly full grown. The barrow, especially, is as round as an overgrown cucumber.

I forget how complex that farm scent is when I've been in the city for a couple of days. But when I get home, just after dark, it hits me all over again. I stand in the twilight, looking out over the pasture, wondering how such smells _ blending in the night air _ can seem so vital and so welcoming.

Verlyn Klinkenborg writes for the editorial page of the New York Times.

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