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Can science explain everything?

Bill Meredith

"May the road rise up to meet you; may the wind be always at your back;
may the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall gently on your fields;
and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand."
…beannacht traidisiunta na hEireann.

(April, 2015) My great-great grandfather came to America from Ireland in the early 1840s, a fugitive from the potato famine. Fortune brought him to a farm in West Virginia, where there were no parades or green beer; but there was good, rich soil, and he used it to preserve some of his ancestral customs. He taught his children and grandchildren that potatoes must be planted on St. Patrick’s Day, come rain or shine (unless it fell on a Sunday; in that case, one day earlier or later was acceptable). In the course of time, that bit of wisdom was passed on to me by my grandmother. So when March 17 arrived this year, the temperature passed 60< for the first time, and the birds responded with a lilting song, the March wind blew gently at my back, the sun shone warm upon my face… and I got the shovel and headed for the garden.

The rain had fallen gently on my field a few days earlier and I knew, even without asking Dave Elliot, that it was too wet to plow. Normally, digging or plowing wet soil will cause it to get packed into a consistency like concrete, and seeds planted in wet soil tend to rot; but with potatoes planted on St. Patrick’s Day, it’s different. The ground will freeze and thaw several times in the next month, and that will keep the soil soft if we don’t walk on it. And potatoes don’t mind a bit of dampness; even the ones we missed when we dug them last summer will sprout this spring without rotting. It would be nice to think St. Patrick told my ancestors that it worked this way 1600 years ago; but, since potatoes didn’t arrive in Ireland until several years after Columbus brought them from America, I guess the Irish must have figured it out by themselves. However it happened, it works.

There was a time, not too long ago, when spading a 30-foot row and planting one-eyed slices of potato in it would have been a pleasant way to pass half an hour in the spring sunshine; but I have reached the age where it is a day’s work, so I put the shovel away and went inside for a nap. In hindsight, that may have been a mistake. I inherited a vivid imagination and an affinity for storytelling from both sides of my family… Mom’s folks were Irish, and Dad’s were Welsh… so when I go to sleep tired, I often dream a bizarre mixture of their stories and things I have read. And it happened again.

In both Irish and Welsh folklore, once upon a time there was a young God named Lleu Llaw who fell in love with a human girl and resolved to marry her, even though that was against the rules for Gods in those days. Lleu Llaw’s mother created a curse which prevented the marriage, and he was despondent; so, to cheer him up, his uncle, who was a magician, combined nine spring flowers and produced a new goddess named Blodewedd, who so charmed Lleu Llaw that he married her. History does not record what became of the earthly girlfriend, but Blodewedd went on to become the Celtic Goddess of Spring; and I am told there are those who say she is still around, in the form of an owl. Personally, having spent 60-odd years studying ecology, I have to doubt it; but if you think about the weather we have had for the past couple of months, the influence of a mischievous Irish goddess could explain a lot.

The next couple of days were clear and pleasant, and it actually looked like the weird weather patterns that have ruled our lives since 2015 began might be moving toward a more normal climate; but behind the scenes, strange things were going on. About the time I was planting the potatoes, a solar flare erupted on the surface of the sun, and the following night there was a spectacular display of the aurora, or Northern Lights. I don’t think it was visible in Emmitsburg, but the papers said it was seen as far south as Tennessee. And then the following day the paper reported a total eclipse of the sun; it wasn’t visible here either, but you could have seen it if you were in the Faroe Islands. So that got me thinking. Will Rogers was still on the radio when I was born; I was too young to remember him, but my parents set great store by his wisdom, and they told me that all he knew was what he saw in the papers. And then when I got up the next day, which happened to be the first day of Spring, it was snowing.

I don’t always think clearly that early in the morning. I had the vague idea that if it was the first day of Spring, it shouldn’t be snowing; but it was, and seriously, too. It was logical to ask, "What’s going on here?" but the answer that followed was not logical at all. It was what logicians call the "post hoc fallacy" …that is, when several events occur in sequence, the first event is the cause of the others. Applied to the present situation, it would mean planting potatoes in wet soil on St. Patrick’s Day had caused the solar flare, the Northern Lights display, the eclipse, and the un-seasonal snowstorm… and goodness knows what might happen next! I’m ashamed to admit that for a few minutes it gave me an exhilarating sense of power; but it didn’t last. It wasn’t long before I realized that it would make just as much sense to assume Blodewedd did it all… but since I haven’t heard any owls, I guess I will have to fall back on some dry, boring scientific explanation.

Except for that confusing start, spring has been quiet, but not uneventful. There have been several mornings when large, V-shaped skeins of geese flew overhead as I went out to get the paper; they don’t seem to honk as loudly as they used to, but I can still hear them, and I always watch until they’re out of sight. There were a few robins around all winter, but the first wave of migrants arrived during the biggest snowstorm we had in February, and now I see them every day. After that same snowstorm I looked out of the bathroom window one morning to see a young deer standing there, munching on a euonymus bush; and around the corner, in the edge of the Great Forest was a herd of them. They were nibbling at the leaf buds that were just starting to appear on small trees and bushes; some were lying down and chewing their cud. My wife and I watched them all day, and counted a total of 15, about half of which were last year’s fawns. They will be glad to see Spring arrive; winter was colder and snowier than usual, and their food supply is running short.

Deer are browsers; their preferred foods are new growth on woody plants such as shrubs and tree seedlings, and they also eat nuts, fruits and broad-leaved weedy plants. They can eat grass, but it is harder for them to digest than woody growth. Late winter is a hard time for them; they will have eaten most of the twigs they can reach, weedy growth has stopped, and grass is often covered with snow. Where the invasive English ivy has grown up into large trees, the deer have eaten all of the leaves they can reach; and in places where the deer populations are overcrowded, some will starve if Spring doesn’t arrive on time. So we watch them, and wait. I’m glad to get rid of the English ivy, and I don’t mind if they prune some of the saplings; but if they decide to browse on my crocuses, pussy willows or potatoes, there will be war, and I’ll be out there throwing rocks and banging on garbage can lids… and listening for owls.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith