“It is right
that I fall to my knees
on this damp, stony cake,
that I bend my back
and bow my head.
Sun warms my shoulders,
the nape of my neck,
and the air is tangy with rot.
Bulbs rustle like spirits
in their sack.
I bury each one a trowel’s width under.
May they take hold, rising green in time
to help us weep and live. “
We learned in botany class over the winter of onions: Allium Cepa, in the family Amaryllidaceae; cousin to daffodil, snow drop, and amaryllis. The whole root, bulb, leaf, and stem are edible and medicinal, fodder for squirrel, porcupine, deer, or to be used as poultice for blisters, remedy for fever, even an amulet to ward off dizziness or asthma. “Onion” comes from the old French word “oignon” and the Latin “unio” meaning oneness. The bulbous structures atop Russian orthodox churches are called “lúkovichnaya,” literally “onion tower”. A symbol of eternity and resurrection, ascending in veritas, plucked from the ground, and cut open, the fragrance of the earth released, a story of loam and unusual endurance.
It is an organism of obfuscation and trumpery whose lavender blossoms deftly belie the fragrant acidic breath that draws us in. Essential to all cuisine, every stew, each roast beef sandwich. Peel, pickle, pair, poach. Slice, dice, simmer, sweat. How often happiness begins with chopping onions. A lump of butter slips across the floor of a cast iron skillet. A sharp knife and ten easy strokes, a tumble of onion. It could become a soup, a risotto, a strudel (from the high German “struden”, whirlpool). Slowly the onion goes limb, then opalescent, then what the cookbooks call translucent. Fragrance fills the kitchen, warmth finds its way into the body – a memory and a hope. It is true it can make you weep to peel them, to unfurl and to tease from the taut ball first the brittle, caramel-colored and papery outside layer, and it’s true you can go on weeping as you go on in, through the moist middle skins till you get to the core, acrid, bud-like, fibrous, stalky, and incomplete. These are the most pungent, like nuggets of murmury animal comfort or infantile secrets.
Allium Cepa. This was the first seed we put to soil, enveloped in greenhouse warmth though outside, in the middle of February, snow blanketed the ground. Side by side bent over trays of sweet smelling potting soil, our hands learned the rhythms – Fill, dibble, drop, sift, tag, pants. Each of the 5000 tiny rounded seeds finding their way into the most satisfying of black plastic grids. How love burns through us in the planting of seed and through the watching for that early birth. A week later, each of those seedlings, with arched body, came shouldering its way, shedding crumbs of soil, reaching for light and life in both directions, revealing itself to be an epigeal monocot. Who knew? Two weeks more and the seed husks hovered so far off the soil surface they became tiny cliff hangers, grip loosening. The shells fell and we trimmed the bladed leaf tips into a uniform crew cut to encourage bulbous development. When algae covered the soil surface regardless of the our judicious watering schedule we painstakingly scraped it off to allow for appropriate water absorption and airflow.
Finally, this past weekend we finished transplanting all 5000 onion starts in the field we affectionately call “Home Base” directly behind the Maggie’s farmhouse. The whole ridge-top came together: Stufas, staff, board members, and family members to put a plant in the ground that we will diligently wait for all season. As the last of the bulbs in our root cellar are being eaten or being found rotten we sink to the soil on our knees with heads bowed so that each small plug, adorned with leaves like swords pointed skyward, ready to pierce, might poke holes in the last lingering cold and help us welcome in the summer.