Josna Rege

281. Invasion of the Potato Beetles

In 1980s, Family, Food, Nature, places, Work on August 14, 2014 at 9:19 pm

fresh-picked Yukon Golds (from

fresh-picked Yukon Golds (from

In my experience, potatoes and potato beetles go together as love is said to go with marriage in the old song: you can’t have the pleasures of one without the travails of the other. And potato beetle warfare is hellish; so much so that since that summer in Winchendon, circa 1987, when the Colorado potato beetles invaded, we have ventured to grow potatoes only twice. This year, the second time, the results have been wonderful, and—so far, anyway—consequence-free.

I hadn’t realized how much that summer had affected me until a city friend of mine, recently returned from a rejuvenating weekend visit to a friend’s farm, mentioned innocently in an email message that he had spent some pleasant hours “picking potato beetles off plants and picking the world’s biggest blueberries.” On the first readthrough, my eyes must have skipped right over the former activity to the pleasing image of the gigantic blueberries; on the second, I was filled with revulsion. I realized then how deep I must have buried my own memories of potato beetle-picking, a chore about as far from the idyll of blueberry-picking as one could possibly imagine.

At the time, Andrew and I were living on the farm with Maureen, Rudy, and Charlie, and Nikhil and Eric were babies. We maintained a large home garden together, and in addition Maureen and Rudy grew perennials and enough vegetables to support a small, all-organic CSA, mostly for friends in the city. To this end they had planted a large number of tomato plants, followed by a smaller number of eggplants, and, behind them, what we hoped would be a modest crop of potatoes. The previous year we had had some trouble with Colorado potato beetles, but I don’t remember having had much difficulty keeping them in check, even with organic pest control. This year, it was an altogether different story.

Colorado Potatoes Beetle larvae, munching (from

Colorado Potatoes Beetle larvae, munching (from

The glistening salmon-pink larvae munched their way through the potato crop like squat, squelchy locusts, growing steadily all the while, and moved right on to the eggplant. Eggplant was hard to cultivate to maturation in Winchendon because of the short growing season, and we knew that we had to up our game. We issued a desperate call for reinforcements, friends from the city to come out and participate in an all-out campaign. But they were now slow to respond, though they had been initially charmed by the opportunity to spend a working weekend on our organic farm. It was not for nothing that our friend Harvey had dubbed it the Gulag, and only partly in jest; meanwhile, the mature beetles were laying eggs, and the situation was about to get out of control.

Mature beetles at work. (Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University,

Mature beetles at work. (Photo by David Cappaert, Michigan State University,

The population exploded on the weekend that our intrepid friend Reva answered the call for help. Reva, then in medical school, had always been an immensely capable person for whom no difficulty was too great to be overcome. As soon as she had stepped into our mud-trodden farm kitchen, she stepped up to the sinkful of breakfast dishes and began working her way through them with a speed and determination not unlike the potato beetles themselves. Then, sink and dish-drainer cleared, she drew up a plan of action over a large mug of coffee. First, we were to set out into the field en masse, working our way toward the eggplant from the tomatoes, so as to head the enemy off before they got to our prize crop. Reva would come in and make lunch for all the hungry workers, and then, after the babies were tucked into bed, perhaps we could take in a movie or have a relaxing evening after a job well done. No one contradicted her, but farmers are a pessimistic lot; and not without good reason.

We duly set out with our waxed cardboard milk cartons half-filled with water. I’ve forgotten whose ingenious idea this had been, but for me, the most repulsive part of the job had always been crushing the beetles, whether it was the sticky yellow mass of eggs, the shiny soft-skinned larvae, or the fully-formed adults with hard, crunchy exoskeletons. This system simply called for us to drop the creatures into the water and close the lid back up: out of sight, out of mind—sort of. We set out in a close phalanx, aiming to move systematically through the tomato crop, scooping up any of the advance guard, until we reached the eggplants, where the work would get fast and furious. But we had reckoned without those tens of thousands of mindlessly-masticating jaws. We started finding them only a few rows into the precious tomato plants, and soon realized that we were fighting a losing battle; the potato plants were devastated, the eggplants were already a write-off, and we would have to fight for our lives if we wanted to salvage any tomatoes at all.

Devastation (Photograph by Lyle J. Buss, University of Florida)

Devastation (Photograph by Lyle J. Buss, University of Florida)

I can’t tell you how traumatic the next few hours were, as we embarked on an orgy of killing under the unforgiving summer sun. We worked until our hands were stinking and stained yellow and we were ready to drop from heat exhaustion. When we dragged ourselves back into the house, dear Reva was drying and clearing away the dishes and had a spread laid out ready for us on the kitchen table. After scrubbing the evidence off our hands, we fell upon the food like locusts. As we ate, despite Reva’s best efforts to keep the conversation on current affairs, new and recommended reading, even the state of the nuclear industry—anything but potato beetles—the talk inevitably turned to the gloomy subject of the state of the crops and the diminishing prospects for a viable harvest. The verdict from the die-hards was that there would be no harvest unless we went out for a second stint in the fields and finished the job. How long might that last, someone ventured to ask? Until dark or the mosquitoes descended, whichever came first, came the grim reply.

I could see Reva’s visions of a civilized Saturday evening watching a movie or engaging in quiet conversation becoming a distant dream. Fiercely loyal friend that she was, this was the way she had chosen to spend a rare 36 hours off from her punishing residency at Harlem hospital. Dismissing her disappointment, she offered to babysit the boys, so as allow the rest of us go back out for a second stint. But then she turned around and saw the kitchen sink, which had been empty and polished clean just a few minutes before. It was yet again as full of dirty dishes as it had been when she had waded into the job first thing that morning. It was only then, when she realized that the work was truly never-ending, that our fearless friend gave way to despair, broken at last by the Gulag.

roasted Yukon Gold potatoes (from

roasted Yukon Gold potatoes (from

This year, I tried not to think about the fact that Andrew had taken some old, sprouting potatoes out back and put them in the ground. Last week he astounded and delighted me when he came in with two big bags of beautifully formed Russets and Yukon Golds, heavenly when we roasted them in olive oil and garlic. Discovering all over again the incomparable taste of home-grown new potatoes, I dared to hope that we were finally out from under the Curse of the Potato Beetles. More likely, though, it’ll only mean the beginning of a new population cycle, especially when the word gets out among them that we had a good Solanum harvest this year.

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280. My Love Affair with Penguins

In 1960s, 2010s, Books, Britain, Childhood, Family, Greece, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, reading, Stories on August 2, 2014 at 6:04 am

Penguin Books, that is. I’m too unsystematic to be a collector, and besides, the ones I love the most have no monetary value by the time they’ve been read for the umpteenth time. I grew up with Puffins, and eventually graduated to Penguins. By then, the logos, the colors (orange for Penguins, blue for Pelicans, green for Crime, brown/black for Classics), the book designs, the illustrations, and, of course, the works themselves had (like George Orwell’s suet puddings and red pillar-boxes) entered into my soul.

Edward Ardizzone's illustration for The Little Book Room, by Eleanor Farjeon

Edward Ardizzone’s illustration for The Little Book Room, by Eleanor Farjeon

books and frog


BlackBeautyIt’s almost incredible to look back and realize that the period during which I voraciously devoured Puffins was less than five years long, from when I was seven or eight years old until I was about twelve. It started in Greece when I read my first novel, the Puffin edition of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, and was subsequently allowed to go down to the English bookshop in Athens and choose a new Puffin book every time the loose change in our kitchen drawer added up to 60 drachma. It was in Greece that I first read, most memorably, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Hobbit. When we moved back to India my parents would let me order half-a-dozen Puffins from the Penguin catalogue every so often, and when they arrived, in a delicious-looking brown paper parcel, I would unwrap it rapturously and bury myself in them for days, transported magically into their worlds. Most of the books in the gathering of Puffins below were bought or shipped to me in Kharagpur.

PS158I was lucky that that period, from 1961 or 2 to 1966, also marked the beginning of Kaye Webb’s editorship of Puffin, so that the authors (such as Arthur Ransome, C.S. Lewis, P.L. Travers, John Verney, Clive King, Laura Ingalls Wilder) and illustrators (Edward Ardizzone, Pauline Baynes, Ronald Searle, Raymond Briggs, Margery Gill, Mary Shepard) were absolutely first-rate, never, never patronizing their young readers. (Seven Stories, the national centre for children’s books in the U.K., has a digital archive of Kaye Webb’s 18-year tenure at Puffin and you can listen to a 1993 interview with her on BBC4s Desert Island Discs.)

1949-1969_96dpiMy attachment to the chubby Puffin logo of my era (I never took to the modernized logo of the Seventies, when the poor emaciated creature looked as if it had been put on a forced diet) carried over into a lifelong affection for Penguins as well, and I understand the obsession of those, like Karyn Reeves, author of the awe-inspiring blog A Penguin a week, who aim to collect the entire set of 3000 vintage titles that predate the ISBN, from the first 10 Penguins published in 1935 to the end of the Sixties. You can find the complete list of all the early Penguin series here, along with their cover art, including Peacock, Ptarmigan, Porpoise, Pelican, and Peregrine Books. Another feast for the eyes is the work of the Penguin Paperback Spotters’ Guild on flickr.


the first ten Penguins

the first ten Penguins

I myself am sometimes a little embarrassed by my brand loyalty for an outfit owned by Pearson, that London-based mega-corporation that owns everything from the Financial Times to Penguin Books. But the truth is that I grew up on Penguins. Their history is intimately bound up in my own, and their distinctive orange covers stand for so much that is dear to me. Penguin paperbacks helped shape the consciousness and sensibilities of my generation and that of my parents, inaugurating a new era in 1935 when they made high-quality literature available to working-class readers for the price of a pack of cigarettes.

I welcomed the establishment of Penguin India in the late 1980s for its role, along with others, such as Rupa Books, in helping to make both foreign and Indian titles, including English translations of excellent works from other Indian languages, available at affordable prices (although I was extremely disappointed in it earlier this year when it buckled so easily to pressure from the Hindu Right and withdrew Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History). The books pictured below include Penguin India titles as well as King Penguins and Penguin Modern Classics.





Perhaps I’m in danger of becoming an anachronism, along with my aging paperbacks. Occasionally I feel rather sheepish about the stacks of them spilling over and multiplying all about the house, but soon revert to unabashed pleasure in them. I reserve a special place in my heart and on my shelves for Penguins, which, when I am seized by the urge to rearrange, are organized by series and by color, although not, as yet, by number. The Puffins, almost the only things I have managed to retain from my peripatetic childhood, still occupy several shelves, two-deep, in my study at home. In my son’s childhood it gave me tremendous pleasure to be able to revisit them while reading them aloud to him, and I continue to resist all charges of hoarding and exhortations to de-clutter by not only holding on to the collection but adding to it whenever I come across a vintage Puffin in good condition. Picking up strange Penguins is a vice, I suppose, but a relatively innocuous one, as vices go; or so I tell myself. No, this is a lifelong love affair. Until I run out of space to lay my head, or develop a dust allergy, they’re here to stay.

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279. Raking, or In Praise of Puttering

In 2010s, Books, Inter/Transnational, reading, Stories, travel, Work on July 22, 2014 at 2:55 pm


After a long period of international travel and intense activity, perhaps it is only natural to have a period of retreat and reflection. Work of all kinds beckons, in the office, the kitchen, the yard, but day after day I stay put and just putter (or potter, in British English). One day, reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, for possible inclusion in my World Literature course; another, sorting through a closetful of clothes to take to the thrift store; yet another, weeding, pruning, raking leaves and pine cones; today, taking a disk of digital photos to be made into prints. Day after day slips away as I read, write emails, run errands, rendezvous with friends, watch each new episode of EastEnders on BBC iPlayer; all these exertions accompanied by copious cups of tea. Meanwhile the big tasks loom all around me; I nibble at their edges.


If I have learned anything these past few years, though, it is that excoriating myself on this account is worse than useless. It only lowers the morale and raises a wall of resistance. Instead, I try to find pleasure in the tasks I must perform, and accept my need for periods of relative inactivity. After all, it won’t be long before I must perforce galvanize into action once again. Now, as mid-summer stretches inexorably towards late summer, now is that golden moment when the simple task of raking pine cones slows treacherous time to a standstill, and shores up treasures against the bitter winds of winter.


It occurs to me that, in fact, everything I have been doing these past three weeks, since returning from my travels, has been a kind of raking: raking up, raking over, raking in, simply raking. Raking over takes oneself or someone else to task for things done and un-done; raking up exposes the buried past to view and enables one to confront it; raking in harvests the fruit of one’s labors in the past; and raking clears the ground to permit new growth. In this light, puttering is not occupying oneself “in a leisurely, casual, or ineffective manner,” with “little energy or purpose” (though the British definition is kinder to potterers): puttering is—or can be—an essential activity, akin to what Doris Lessing used to call woolgathering, “indulging in aimless thought and dreamy imagining,” which was the daily pre-requisite to her tireless and prolific writing.

Soon enough I will re-enter the fray and tackle the big items on the To Do list, trusting that I will be rested and ready for them. But for now I am content to keep on raking: a little bit of this, a little bit of that, punctuated by tea breaks. Here’s to puttering, aimless thought, and dreamy imagining!

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