DOTT, PA. -- It had been a confining winter and when the first kind day of February arrived, the farmer avidly attached the plow to his tractor and headed to a field that had been bothering him for months.
The ground should have been prepared last fall, since it was to hold part of the new year's potato crop, but other chores had kept the farmer from the field and it had nagged at him incessantly.
But the soil had been thawed for some days now, the moisture had drained and the task could wait no longer. Even though late, there still would be time to ready the plot for April planting.
When the sharp points of the plow cut into the turf and turned up curling slices of soil, a dense, musky aroma rose and the farmer then realized that this was what he had been missing all through the winter break -- the indescribably comforting smell of good earth.
As the farmer slowly moved his machine in long sweeping furrows running counterclockwise, the fragrance grew and aroused the senses. By an instinct that mysteriously has come to him, the farmer knew from the smell that this field could be very good for his potatoes.
Now, there is no denying that the study of soils has become just as complex a science as the study of the human body and the farmer pays due respect to the experts who have made that come to pass. He reads and he listens and he is impressed by the imparted knowledge.
It takes no great wisdom or classroom teaching to understand that a healthy soil is a nation's most vital resource. Food abundance and the social well being that derives from it are tied to the way a land is husbanded.
So as a duty, the farmer follows the rules as best he can. He wants this small piece of land to make its proper contribution. He wants to leave it healthier and more productive than he found it. And he gets satisfaction from knowing the source of his motivation.
The farmer takes his soil samples each year and sends them off to laboratories for analysis. When the findings are positive, covered with little smiley faces, he is elated. When something is amiss, he feels poorly and devotes himself to the recommendations for improving this field or that field.
But along the way, perhaps from spending so much of his time on bended knee with his hands immersed in the soil, the farmer's awe of the great knowledge of the scientists and technicians has become tempered. He has learned that cold laboratory findings cannot replace a tiller's instincts.
The laboratories and their tests reduce the farmer's land to charts and numbers. They report back in terms that the farmer does not fully understand and the contradictions often leave him reeling. At times the farmer feels small and inadequate for his inability to parse the language of the science.
Other times, the farmer is lured by the commercial propagandists' claims of magic bullets and special formulations that promise the new Eden. He is tempted to allow himself to fall prey to quick solutions that could, for example, give him a wondrous abundance of potatoes.
In the end, however, the farmer relies more and more on his gut feelings -- his instinct, as it were. It is as simple as knowing that he must put back into the soil at least as much as his plants extract from it.
His choices are to succumb to the magic bullets, or to spend less money and laboriously increase his soil's wealth by using the plant and animal residues that nature has provided him. The instincts lead him to the latter course, harder though it may be, for this intimacy with each of his fields has shown how this works.
From the smell and the touch and the color, the farmer has come to sense if good things will happen in each swatch of ground. From the texture and the lay of slope, he has begun to know which crops will work best in each of the patches. From these same nuances, he is coming to know if -- and where -- he may have certain pest problems.
So while the farmer often feels inferior for his lack of formal knowledge and for his inability to talk the language of the experts, he gets a certain quiet comfort from the teaching of the soil through his hands and his nose.
There are friends and neighbors who make some small light of the farmer's obsession with being out there on his tractor. That is all right. Each trip to the field, the farmer reasons, is akin to boarding a school bus that will take him to a temple of learning.
This soil, after all, is a temple of sorts. The learning is constant, the feeling is comforting and the smell ... the smell imparts a rare and mystical incense.
Ward Sinclair is a former Washington Post agriculture reporter who now farms a Pennsylvania truckpatch.