in the beginning
It starts with the earth. How can it not? Imagine the planet like a split peach, whose pit forms the core, whose flesh its mantle, and whose fuzzy skin its crust-no, that doesn't do justice to the crust, which is, after all, where all of life takes place. The earth's crust must be more like the rind of the orange, thicker and more durable, quite unlike the thin skin of a bruisable peach. Or is it? Funny, how you never think to wonder.
On one small section of that crust-small, that is, by global or geologic measure-in Power County, Idaho, where the mighty Snake River carved out its valley and where volcanic ash enriched the soil with minerals vital to its tilth, there stretched a vast tract of land known as Fuller Farms.
Vast, by human scale. Vast, relative to other farmers' holdings in the region, like the Quinns' place down the road. And as for the description, "land belonging," well that's a condition measured in human time, too. But for one quick blip in the 5 billion years of life on this earth, that three thousand acres of potato-producing topsoil and debatably the slender cone of the planet that burned below, right down to the rigid center of its core, belonged to my father, Lloyd Fuller.
It used to be the best topsoil around. Used to be feet of it, thick, loamy. There's less of it now. But still, imagine you are a seed-of an apple, or a melon, or even the pit of a peach-spit from the lips of one of Lloyd's crossbred grandchildren, arcing through the air and falling to earth, where you are ground into the soil, under a heel, to rest and overwinter. Months pass, and it is cold and dark. Then slowly, slowly, spring creeps in, the sun tickles the earth awake again, its warmth thaws the soil, and your coat, which has protected you from the winter frosts, now begins to crack. Oh, so tentatively you send a threadlike root to plumb the ground below, while overhead your pale shoot pushes up through the sedentary mineral elements (the silt, the sand, the clay), through the teeming community of microfauna (bacteria and fungi, the algae and the nematodes), past curious macrofauna (blind moles, furry voles, and soft, squirming earthworms). This is life in the Root Zone, nudging your tendril toward the warmth of the sunny sun sun.
And then imagine the triumphant moment when you crack the crumbly crust, poke your wan and wobbling plumule head through the surface and start to unfurl-imagine, from your low and puny perspective, how vast Lloyd Fuller's acreage must look to you now.
Of course, during most of his tenure and the decades that followed, these three thousand acres were given over primarily to the planting of potatoes, which means that you, being a random seedling, a volunteer, an accidental fruit, will most likely be uprooted. Just as you turn your face into the rays and start to respire, maybe even spread out a leaf or two and get down to the business of photosynthesizing-grrrrrip, weeded right out of there. Sayonara, baby.
That's what it felt like when I was growing up, like I was a random fruit in a field of genetically identical potatoes. Burbanks-that's what people planted. Centuries of cross-pollination, human migration, plant mutation, and a little bit of backyard luck had resulted in the pride of Idaho, the world's best baker, the Russet Burbank. From one side of the state to the other spread a glorious monoculture of these large, white, long-bodied tubers with rough, reticulated skin, high in solids content with a mealy texture when cooked and a pleasing potatoey flavor.
Honestly, I never liked potatoes much. I preferred rice, a taste I inherited from my mother, Momoko, and which, in a state of spuds, was tantamount to treason. Momoko used to make me rice balls, the size of fingerlings, to take to school in my lunch box. Lloyd called them "Tokyo tubers"-this was his idea of a joke-and when I was a little girl, I thought it was pretty funny, too. I used to look forward to lunchtime, opening my plastic Barbie box, where, nestled next to a slice of meat loaf or ham, I'd find the two little o-musubi sitting neatly side by side. They tasted faintly salty, like Momoko's small hands. If the other kids thought my lunch was queer, they didn't say much, because Lloyd Fuller had more acres, and thus more potatoes, than almost any other farmer in Power County, and I was Yummy, his only child.
No one said much either when Lloyd brought my mom home from Japan after the war, at least not to his face. Just that she was the cutest thing they had ever seen, so delicate and fragile looking, like a china doll, and how was she ever going to handle the work of running a farm? But she did. Lloyd had inherited five hundred acres, adjacent to the Quinns' place and up from where the Snake River was dammed, and he and Momoko rolled up their sleeves and went to work. People used to smile, call them Mutt and Jeff, because Lloyd was one of the tallest men in Power County and Momoko bought her work clothes in the little boys' department at Sears. You can imagine the two of them, standing in the fields, side by side, Lloyd as tall as a runner bean stalk and Momoko barely coming up to his buckle. Dressed in jeans turned up at the cuff and hanging from her shoulders by suspenders, she looked like Lloyd's son instead of his wife. The son they never had. After twelve years of trying, they had me instead-named me Yumi, only nobody in Liberty Falls could say it right. Yummy, yummy, yummy, I got love in my tummy. People said I was the apple of Lloyd's eye, the pride of his heart, until I went rotten.
As it turned out, Momoko was a born gardener, or, as Cassie Quinn's mom used to put it, "She may be yeller, but her thumb sure is green." Maybe this was meant to be a compliment, and we all took it that way. Over the years Momoko's kitchen garden grew into a vegetative wonder, and she planted varieties of fruits and flowers that no one had ever seen before in Power County. I remember her whispering to her pea vines as they curled their way up her trellises: "Gambatte ne, tané-chan!" "Be strong, my little seedling!" People drove for miles to see her Oriental ornamentals and Asian creepers. Their massy inflorescence burst into bloom in the spring and stayed that way throughout summer and deep into the fall. It was truly exotic.
Momoko must have been proud of Fuller Farms, in the early days. Lloyd surely was. In the first years of their marriage, they battled droughts and early freezes, mildews and viruses and parasites, and a host of pests that nobody could imagine why God had even bothered to create:
Seedcorn maggots, leatherjackets, and millipedes.
Thrips and leafhoppers.
False cinch bugs, blister beetles, and two-spotted spider mites.
Hornworms, wireworms, white grubs, and green peach aphids, not to mention corky ringspot...
And, most dreadful of all, the rapacious Colorado potato beetle.
All these creatures were dealt with, and thank God for science.
"Insect infestations are one of the greatest threats to the production of high-quality tubers," Lloyd used to say in the introduction to the speech that he gave every year to the Young Potato Growers of Idaho. "It is crucial to plan the applications of pesticides to harmonize with seasonable cultural practices."
"Seasonable cultural practices"-how he liked the sound of that! I remember him practicing the phrase, standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom, and when I stood there and looked at my reflection, I would practice saying it, too. Fuller Farms seemed living proof to us all that with the cooperation of God and science, and the diligent application of seasonable cultural practices, man could work in harmony with nature to create a relationship of perfect symbiotic mutualism. The first five hundred acres had grown to a holding of three thousand by the time I turned fourteen.
That was 1974, the year Nixon resigned, the year Patty Hearst was kidnapped and Evel Knievel attempted his historic leap across the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle. But most important of all, it was the year of the Nine-Dollar Potato.
Consider the economics. Year after year you teeter along in a stable 'tater market, breaking even at $3.50 per hundred pounds of premium grade. When the price goes up to $4.00, you make a little, when it goes down to $3.00, you lose a little, but generally you fall in the balance and scrape by. Then, out of the blue, nature blesses you by cursing others. She sends an early frost to Maine, too much rain to California-1974 was certainly an odd year for weather, everywhere except Idaho. The failure of the nation's crops, combined with the explosive demand for french fries created by the burgeoning fast-food market, resulted in a potato shortage that sent prices rocketing into the clear blue heavens. Across the country, housewives who paid $1.29 for a ten-pound bag last year were now paying $2.39, and all of this translated into an unheard-of, unbelievable bonanza, the $9.00 per hundredweight that made my father a rich, albeit flabbergasted, farmer.
So there was Lloyd, in his prime, a Depression-born agriculturalist exercising pride in his new capitalist muscle. And who gives a flying fuck what happened after that? That's what you would have thought anyway, if you were me, on a predawn winter morning in 1974, stuffing your clothes and diary into your father's army duffel, lifting the keys to his pickup truck from the hook in the kitchen, and creeping down the porch stairs, out into the frigid night, careful not to slam the door behind you.