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I wanted the taro to be strawberries

I felt so inadequate here. But growing taro was a way I could contribute. 

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    Taro plants growing on Oahu, in Hawaii
    Robert Harbison/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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How I ached to be doing this backbreaking work to grow strawberries instead of taro!

I didn’t care much for taro. But I could manage most of the planting and tending myself, which helped me feel useful. The accounting skills that had served me well in Tahiti’s hotels were superfluous in this remote part of the island of Raiatea, where a machete was the main all-purpose tool.

I had been piggybacking on my husband’s superb fishing skills to boost my sense of value to his family: We net-fished every day and caught more than enough to feed the nine members of the household. Now he had found work, and I wasn’t good enough to fish on my own. But growing taro could be my substitute contribution. So my husband’s parents, who were already growing as much taro as they could handle, allotted us an acre of their land, known locally for producing excellent taro.

The half-dozen large plots surrounded by irrigation ditches were overgrown with six-foot-tall branchy weeds. Wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops (standard field-work attire), I cleared the growth with a metal-bladed weed trimmer. My arms tingled, day and night, for the two weeks of the machine’s daylong vibration. Then the water ditches had to be cleared of mud, so I borrowed rubber boots and shoveled sludge onto the tops of the patches of land: While that was good for the taro, I couldn’t close my hands in a fist after gripping a shovel for several days. Preparing the plants took an expertise I didn’t have, so my husband cut taro “toppers” (stems with a small piece of corm) from his parents’ fields. We set them in the mud-free waterways to await planting.

Next was to pound six-inch-deep holes in the earth with a six-foot-long tool carved from a large branch, fashioned at the bottom in the general shape of a giant taro root. My husband could create a hole with one strike; I needed two or three. I planted one water-encircled field at a time, pounding out rows of holes two feet apart, then placing a stem in each. Dirt would fill in around the growing root on its own.

The plants themselves didn’t need tending during the six to eight months they took to mature. But the fields needed continual weeding, which eased as the leaves grew, shading out the weeds. The ditches also had to be constantly cleared so the water flowed and the taro roots wouldn’t rot.

Every arduous day I looked out over the sea of taro leaves and longed to be spending such time and energy to grow strawberries. Strawberries weren’t my favorite fruit or even my favorite berry, yet they had become a symbol for all I felt I lacked here: electricity, hot showers, football, a movie theater.

Despite this unrelenting inner lament, the taro grew. And when an order came in that my in-laws couldn’t fill, it was my turn! I gently pulled up the biggest, ripest plants, and washed off all the dirt. It took several trips to carry the precious plants to a clear area and arrange them in bunches of six to eight roots that, to my eye, constituted a pack’s worth.

Making cord from strips of purau (hibiscus tree) bark and tying the stems to form the pack were beyond me, so my father-in-law did that.

And so it went, month after month, tending and replanting each plot as it emptied of taro. Now that I was a bona fide taro producer, I started using it in the meals I prepared on my cooking nights.

“I like this with taro in it,” I said one evening to the family eating around the table.

“Of course you like it – you grow it,” my 12-year-old brother-in-law said.

He was right. Taro had converted me: I grew it, therefore I liked it. More likely, though, it had won me over because it had given me a way to contribute in a place where I seemed so glaringly out of my element. What’s more, I suddenly realized, it had been a long time since I’d wished I were growing strawberries.

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