Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
~Theodore Roethke “Root Cellar”
I tug on the handle of the heavy root cellar cover to lift it to one side in order to descend the steps to the underground room that serves as a year round natural refrigerator on our farm. At the bottom of the stairs, I open the thick sealed door to permit a shaft of sunlight to illuminate the inner darkness–there is always a moment of wondering what I might find on the other side in such a mysterious place. A rush of cool earthen air blows back at me as if displaced by the light that has rushed in. Until I snap on the lights, it is as secret as a womb harboring its precious cargo. This place smells of dirt and moisture–the lifeblood of the fruits and roots that tarry here until it is finally their turn to be brought up into the light. Potatoes, onions, apples, pears, nuts all resting and waiting, as if suspended in time.
It has been awhile since my last visit. As the lights blink on, I blink too in unbelief. There had been a startling transformation, as time no longer stands still as it had through the winter. Long white arms, almost waving with enthusiasm, were reaching out from the potato bin in a desperate searching plunge through the blackness. In this dark place, their blind eyes must sense a better place and have set out on a mission to get there. The naked shoots are so entangled one with the other, it feels voyeuristic, as if I were witnessing something private and personal.
I gather them up, apologetic for causing them a moment’s doubt about their destiny. A trench must be dug, so they are placed gently at the base with shoots pointed toward the sky, and the dirt swept over them in a burial that is more commencement than coda.
And so the eyes have it, having reached for a light not seen but sensed.
…even the dirt kept breathing a small breath…
Was blind, but now can see.