Taters

Russell Gens - Ecuador


May 9, 2014

“Today, we’re going closer to heaven”

Those were the words my friend Adela greeted me with yesterday. She and her husband had invited me to dig up the potatoes we planted together in some of my first weeks on their farm in the neighboring town of Susutul. Together with an army of in-laws we embarked on the twenty minute ride in the back of a lechero (U-haul sized truck that flys around the Andes collecting milk from farmers) to the top of the mountain on which we live.

Before I go on though, I just want to give some quick background on potatoes. Before they arrive on our plates they go through quite the growing process.

It all starts with old potatoes. Once potatoes get super old they start putting out sprouts all over the place and the skin starts to get soft and gross. That’s when they’re ready to plant.

From there, over a period of four to five months almost the only visible development in the plant is the growth of gross, succulent shoots that wither and collapse into a sad, brown heap. There is no fruit, the flowers are short lived, and it seems like all the weeding, watering and maintenance were for naught.

Fortunately though, that is not the case. All through the lifecycle, fat, delicious potatoes are growing bit by bit underground. Buried treasure hidden beneath the surface of the earth.

Recently, I’ve come to liken this process to my experience in Ecuador. I came in feeling stagnant, unmotivated, and jaded. I wasn’t expecting to change. Months rolled by and while my fellow Fellows would talk about growth, development, and personal revelations, I just felt the same. Like with the potato plants though, hidden just out of sight a special treat was growing.

As I dug around in the dirt that cloudy morning in Susutul, I was searching for more than just physical sustenance. I was also taking a good look back on days past. It may not have been obvious to me but through all of the work I’d put into community projects and my apprenticeship on the farm over the previous months I had been cultivating a healthy crop — latent, but very tangible. Coming into those final days I began to dig my hands into the rich loam of my experience to finally seize the fruit of my labors. I’ve come to the point where I’m comfortable speaking in another language, I’ve learned volumes about agriculture and identified it as an opening to address the question of climate change which has so plagued my conscience, and made lifelong connections along the way.

In returning home I’ll need to take care to store them in a cool, dry environment to keep them fresh and ready to share. While it may not be quite as simple as running down to the market I’m confident that we, the Fellows, are all up to the challenge of sharing our stories.

That’s not where it ends though. The potato process does not finish with the harvest. To have put so much work into the planting, maintenance and harvest of the crop and leave it to waste away on the mountaintop would be an absurd injustice. With the potatoes, bringing them to the people was simple. Throw them in the back of a truck and off you go to the market. My metaphorical potatoes on the other hand may not prove so easy to distribute. In returning home I’ll need to take care to store them in a cool, dry environment to keep them fresh and ready to share. While it may not be quite as simple as running down to the market, I’m confident that we, the Fellows, are all up to the challenge of sharing the harvest of our experience and to watch as our stories take root, only to sprout again in those kind enough to listen.

Russell Gens