My potato plant had flowered; the small potato growing on the bottom had become a real, live, larger potato. I may have given a little whoop of joy, or done a little dance in my kitchen in its honor. Of course, I still hadn't planted it. So in a day or two, the flower wilted, the stalks yellowed, and it was looking much more sorry again than robust. From the time it realized it could become a real potato plant, it has wanted to be outside, in the rain and the wind and the sun, being pollinated. And though I care for it as best I can, I can't hope to replicate natural conditions when I'm keeping the plant suspended by four toothpicks over a glass of water by my kitchen window.
In the early 1990s, Biosphere 2 conducted its first closed mission. Among the things they observed during that mission was that though trees in a closed system grew rapidly, they suffered from etiolation (a condition characterized by long, weak stems) and weakness caused by lack of "stress wood." Like the stalks of my potato plant, they would grow taller and taller until finally, they'd just topple over. It turns out that trees actually do grow stronger in response to wind, and when there is no wind--which there wasn't, during the closed system mission, just circulating air--they become long and spindly, with less well-developed root systems.
Today's NaBloPoMo prompt invites us to respond to Dolly Parton's
comment: "Storms make trees take deeper roots." If I'm going by the results of the Biosphere 2 experiment, and the mini-experiment in my kitchen, it's a no-brainer. Yes, trees need storms. It sounds to be a lot
like the old adage "that which doesn't kill us makes us stronger." But it's also complicated, isn't it? Because "that which doesn't kill us" is a powerful qualifier.
All storms are not created equal. I've seen first hand the destruction of a hurricane. Sometimes the wind can be too strong, even for the oldest and most well-developed of trees. Sometimes the rain turns solid ground to mud, or washes them away in a flash flood. We lost many pines this year, which have--I learned--more shallow root systems, but we also lost some older hardier-looking trees that had deeper roots than I would have expected.
It's a lot like what Bjork and Bjork refer to as "desirable difficulty" in the psychology of learning: we learn best when we are challenged, but we have to be able to map the new information on to things we already know. Interleaving also helps us to learn better in the long-term, but too much randomness makes it impossible to make connections. Small storms benefit us most. Taking "baby steps" towards strength makes us strongest in the end.
It's common practice to stake young trees--not all young trees, because each species is a bit different in its needs, but many kinds of young trees--at the beginning. Sort of like people. We don't start out subjecting young saplings to the greatest winds; nor do we subject novices to the most relentless criticism without constructive guidance. Children who have to deal with crisis or tragedy at a very young age are most resilient when they have good support systems in place, when they are "staked" externally. Adults aren't much different.
What I've learned over the past few years supports these observations. When life takes a turn for the worse, we don't automatically grow deeper roots. We need systems to withstand the wind. We need to be able to shelter ourselves when a storm is too strong. And we need nourishment to grow again when the storm has passed.
Lentil Shepherd's Pie
Our CSA gave us some spring carrots, and the onions are not far behind.
Though it's not technically "root vegetable" season, it's a good idea
to start thinking about how I'm going to use those potatoes, so that
they don't become the subject of another unnecessarily cruel experiment.
1 pound Yukon Gold or white potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 tablespoon butter
3/4 teaspoon salt, divided
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, divided
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
1/2 cup finely diced carrot
1 tablespoon water
3/4 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 14-ounce can vegetable broth
1 1/2 cups cooked or canned (rinsed) lentils (see Tip)
Place potatoes in a large saucepan and cover with 2 inches of water.
Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium,
partially cover and cook until tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain and
return the potatoes to the pot. Add buttermilk, butter and 1/4 teaspoon
each salt and pepper. Mash with a potato masher until mostly smooth.
While the potatoes are cooking, position rack in upper
third of oven; preheat broiler. Coat four 10- to 12-ounce broiler-safe
ramekins (or an 8-inch-square broiler-safe baking dish) with cooking
spray. Place ramekins on a broiler-safe baking sheet.
Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add
onion, carrot and water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until
softened, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in corn, thyme and the remaining 1/2
teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, for 2
minutes. Sprinkle with flour and stir to coat. Stir in broth. Bring to a
simmer; cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Stir in lentils and cook,
stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
Divide the hot lentil mixture among the prepared
ramekins (or spread in the baking dish). Top with the mashed potatoes.
Broil, rotating halfway through, until the potato is lightly browned in
spots, 6 to 10 minutes