More Rocks Than Potatoes

When I see this potato sack, a sack that my mom filled with stuffing and displayed proudly in our house in West Des Moines when I was in high school, I think about my dad’s story about growing up on the farm and picking more rocks than potatoes. As a kid, when I visited the Farm, I heard this story a lot, usually when we were walking by the massive rock piles that studded the front 40 field. Over the years, I’m sure I heard this story several dozen times. It’s a classic “Art Puotinen” story: a witty sound bite and life lesson rolled into one.

In hearing my dad talk about picking more rocks than potatoes, I always remembered (incorrectly) that the rock picking was a one time activity. In order to clear the land for planting the potatoes, they first had to remove the rocks. While that sounded hard, it didn’t sound too hard. Hard enough to learn a life lesson about persistence, but not hard enough to be miserable. But last summer, while re-watching a video interview that I conducted with relatives over a decade ago, I was reminded that new rocks popped up in the soil every year. One relative speculated that it had something to do with glaciers and the fact that the soil in the Western UP is very old. 3.5 billion years old. So, they had to remove new rocks every year. Now that’s hard, miserable, and never-ending work. In the same interview, the relative described how awful it was to pick out the rocks every spring. In fact, in telling her story, she prefaced it with, “Let me tell you what I didn’t like: picking rocks!” I’m pretty sure that she didn’t share my dad’s appreciation for the “life lesson” that was learned (and earned) from removing the rocks.

I like putting these different versions of picking rocks beside each other. For most of my life, I passively listened to my dad’s account, accepting it at face value as another one of his stories about lessons learned while growing up on the farm. But when I heard my relative describe it, it made me curious about the significance of picking those rocks. Now I find myself asking lots of questions and trying to untangle my romantic notions of being on the farm from the harsh realities of living and working on it