The last night of Troy - Cassandra seized by Ajax at the Palladium

The Cassandra Pages is a weblog of personal reflections on world culture, place, and spirit. The author, who uses the internet pen name "Cassandra", grew up in a small town in central New York State and went off to university where she got a degree in classics, but she also spent summers working as a naturalist for the New York State department of environmental conservation. Cassandra is a self-described polymath who's always been interested and involved in many things: literature, painting, music, nature, and spirituality. Her writing reflects all of those passions.

"I've always kept a daily writer's journal," she says, "and maintained a large correspondence with people all over the world. Both letter-writing and journaling help you figure out the shape and flow of your life and thinking. Challenging correspondence with other thinkers, and with people you care about, forces you to sharpen your thinking, back up your opinions, and write evocatively and clearly about daily life. I may have 'learned to write' in college, but I became a writer through working in these other forms and taking them seriously. And in turn, writing made me see the treasures that are under my nose in ordinary life - everybody's life is extraordinary, we just need to learn to see it that way."

Cassandra wrote a monthly essay column on spirituality and daily life for four years, and her work has appeared in spiritual and religious journals in the United States and in England. She's currently working on a collection of essays, and starting to focus on a new project about how people finding meaning and beauty in life despite the world's chaos, violence, and anxiety. The ongoing discussion about post-war Polish poetry on The Cassandra Pages is part of that project; so is her writing about "place".

Other pieces by Cassandra

Requiem for a Tree
Faith and Potatoes
Ten Grains One Life

Faith and Potatoes

Faith and Potatoes My grandmother and I carried on a long correspondence from the time I went away to college until a few months before she died. Our letters were always full of garden talk, from the January recitation of seed orders, to the seedlings lists in March, and the major articles on spring planting. My grandparents’ vegetable garden declined in size as they grew older and the big maple in the backyard shaded more and more of the old plot. Grandma still insisted on a few tomato plants, a row of green beans and some lettuce, and right up until 90, when he died, Grandpa dutifully carried out her orders. He was strong, even then, quite capable of digging up a rose shoot or a clump of daylilies for his granddaughter to take back to her home.

In one of those last years, my grandmother wrote, “What I’d really like to grow again before I die is a hill of potatoes.” When I asked why, she said, “It just reminds me of being that little girl on the farm in Beaver Meadow. While Mama made dinner, Inez would be reading, and Minerva playing on the floor, so Mama would say, ‘Beth, go out and get me some potatoes.’ And I’d take a basket and run out to the garden and reach my hand in there under the plant, and there they would be! Like buried treasure. I just loved to pick potatoes, and I suppose I’d like to do it again.”

Before she told me this, I never grew potatoes. I had mentioned the possibility once to my husband in the early years of our marriage. Not a gardener himself, he had gone to an organic farm boarding school as a child, and spent lots of time in friends’ hippie homesteads later on. He cast a dubious eye in my direction. “Are you sure you want to grow potatoes?” he said. “Nothing gets more bugs, and they’re prone to all those blights and things... and then you have to store them, and they rot.”

“How do you know?” I retorted.

“Because at school, we grew potatoes, and stored them in a root cellar, and they fed them to us all winter. Every month they’d get worse and worse. By spring, they were black.” He looked revolted, thinking about it. No wonder he’d always preferred rice!

However, I was more easily dissuaded when I was younger. That spring, after my grandmother’s letter, I went down to the local feed store and wandered out back, past the peeping chicks and ducks in their pens, to where the barrels of seed potatoes were kept: Red Bliss, Kennebec, Yukon Gold. You could buy them in big burlap bags if you were planting a whole field. Since I had modest intentions, I scooped out a couple of handfuls into a small paper bag. “Potatoes,” I said to the man at the counter, the one who always wore overalls and a striped railroad hat. He peered into the bag. “You can just take these,” he said, handing it back to me with a little smile. “Planting one row, I guess?” I nodded and thanked him, not sure whether to be embarrassed or not.

That year I planted my potatoes in two hills. Jonathan and the cat watched, skeptically. Several times during the summer, I peeked, and thought I could detect round tubers growing, but I was reluctant to pull up a whole plant. Somehow, after all the ribbing I’d taken, I wanted to prolong the suspense. Sure enough, the plants attracted potato beetles - how did they know? - and many of the once-green leaves withered and turned brown. In October, before the first frost, I announced I was going to harvest the potatoes, my brave march to the garden belying the trepidation I felt. But with the first careful forkful of soil, out tumbled six big red tubers: clotted with dirt, but unmistakably familiar. I picked one up. It was heavy and cold; it smelled like the earth itself - like minerals and water and soil. I brushed off the dirt. The flesh was firm, unblemished, the skin tight and glossy. No mold, no fungus -- just a perfect potato. “Honey,” I called, “you’ve got to come out here!”

My grandmother never grew those potatoes. Grandpa died before spring, and without him to do the heavy work, her gardening world began to shrink toward the porches and window boxes. But I told her about mine. Each year, as I perform this absurd ritual, cutting shriveled old potatoes into pieces that, by any logical standard, should simply rot underground, I think of the family farm that lives on through her stories. I imagine my great-grandmother preparing a supper of trout, laid in a moss-lined creel by her father, while my grandmother runs out to fetch potatoes she helped her father plant that spring. My mouth waters at the thought of fresh potatoes with butter and thick cream, eaten guiltlessly and happily, because you were hungry and had spent a long day outdoors. I suppose I grow my row for her as much as for myself, but as I get older I also appreciate the rare surprise life occasionally offers. Potatoes, more than any other garden crop, have that element of delight and discovery, even after a long season of tending and growth. I understand why she loved being sent out to the potato patch as a child, and why, as a very old woman, she longed to reach her hand under that plant into the cool darkness, just to see what she might find.