Working in the sweet potato patch

Nicole, Jane, and At Peace With Flowers working in the sweet potato patch at the Limahuli Garden. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s what I decided to do in order to get back in the good graces of the Hindu gods: get on my hands and knees and pull weeds.

Yesterday morning before eight I drove over to the Limahuli Garden, one of Kauai’s national tropical botanical gardens, and joined their volunteer program. I met Katie, the garden’s manager, at the Limahuli Hale, and she turned me over to Nicole, a sweet twentysomething with a braced knee from a surfing accident, who outfitted me with some gloves and weeding tools before taking me up to the sweet potato patch to do some weeding.

Also up at the sweet potato patch were two other volunteers: Jane, who is from Florida, and Karen who told me that her Hawaiian name was Peace With Flowers (I’m not sure where Peace With Flowers is from). I told Jane and Peace With Flowers about my experience at the Kauai Hindu Monastery and they both agreed that doing a little penance in the Limahuli Garden pulling weeds was a good thing.

Let me just say this: getting down on your hands and knees and pulling crabgrass-like weeds out of rocky soil beneath a blistering tropical sun while small groups of well-heeled tourists walk the grounds is humbling. At one point two pasty-looking women with Texas drawls stood over me and said, “I don’t know why he even bothers pullin’ them weeds. Ain’t nothin’ but sweet potatoes.”

Well, let me just tell you, these weren’t just sweet potatoes. They were ualas. Which (as Nicole informed me) were brought over by Polynesians who navigated across the Pacific in large sailing canoes sometime before the 3rd century A.D. Crossing the largest ocean on Earth and finding Kauai (in the most remote archipelago in the world) may well have been the greatest navigational feat ever accomplished. And here’s what’s even more amazing: In 2006, archaeologists uncovered chicken bones from the 14th century in Chile. DNA from these ancient bones matched that of Polynesian chickens. Which suggests that ancient Polynesian navigators may have voyaged east across the Pacific to South America and made contact with the indigenous people of what is now Chile. And if Polynesians introduced chickens to South America, it seems very probable that they brought the sweet potato back with them on their return to Polynesia.

So, ladies, these aren’t just some ordinary garden-variety sweet potatoes; these spuds are windows to the past. So there.

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