Saturday, May 31, 2014

What I Learned From Picking Up Air Potatoes

What on earth is an Air Potato? Are they edible? Where did they come from? And how do they relate to the Gospel?

Air potatoes look like white-brown potatoes that range in size from a lima bean to a small cannonball. They sprout into vines that reach high into the foliage and grow beautiful heart-shaped leaves. The leaves can get to the size of a regular sheet of printer paper. With thousands upon thousands of vines growing bunches of these leaves, they block out the sunlight to the rest of the forest, and the other plants suffer for it. And then, these vines drop air potatoes to the ground to spread their viney abomination even further. This invasive species has almost no predators in America, and so nothing can stop its growth. Except, of course, humans and a certain type of exotic beetle.

At the Ravine Gardens in Palatka, Florida (which you should visit if you ever get the chance to), air potatoes are a reoccurring problem that almost can't be stopped. In their office, they have an air potato the size of a baby's head that has started growing a vine despite no soil, water, or decent sunlight. It's just an illustration of how difficult this enemy is to combat. This plant-version of the cockroach has spread everywhere through the garden, and volunteers are often called in to beautify the garden.

I and other missionaries started volunteering at the Ravine Gardens, and they had us picking up air potatoes. I will tell you, a bag full of these tubers is heavy. You find them at the base of trees; just pat your hand on the underbrush, and when you feel a hard ball, that's an air potato. Then start going through the brush and you'll find 10 to 30 more in a two foot radius. Crawl a bit further, and you find even more.

It was bigger when it was covered in dirt.
Another time, we dug out air potatoes that had already sprouted. If you pulled out a vine and it broke off from the bulb, you dug down until you found it again, because we cannot afford it to grow again. I dug one out that took me twenty minutes just to find the edges. When I pulled out that thing, it turned out to be two bulbs hooked together by a vine. I called it a two-headed baby's head in my email home, and Mom did not appreciate it. 

Besides the missionaries, the Ravine Gardens put together an Air Potato Rodeo, bringing in hundreds of volunteers to pick up air potatoes. They had contests over who could pick up the most, who found the biggest one, who found the ugliest one. The Palatka Wards have gone plenty of times to pick up air potatoes, and I'm sure other churches and school groups have done the same repeatedly. I bet you they picked up more than us missionaries ever did. On top of that Americorps, a volunteer group based in America, has Strike Teams to get rid of air potatoes for several days. These are hard-working people, let me tell you.

What is the point in explaining how difficult this was? Despite all of this hard work and the massive volunteer efforts, the park was still covered in air potato vines as soon as spring hit. Christine, one of the Americorps volunteers told me, "The other week, when we had the Boy Scouts here, there was no air potato. Now look at it." They were just starting to grow, and the leaves were already as big as salad plates. I could look all over Palatka, and there were air potato vines. Vines everywhere. Smooth beautiful invasive heart-shaped leaves growing all over the place. I wanted to burn Palatka down.

Lots of things in life are like invasive species. Just turn on the news and there's another murder, another robbery, organized crime going unchecked, and another natural disaster just killed bunches of innocent people. No matter how many arrests are made or people are warned, the world is just getting more and more wicked, just as has been prophesied in the scriptures. It almost makes us wonder, what is the point?

I am reminded of the plague of Gadianton Robbers that infected the Lamanites and the Nephites in Helaman. The righteous Lamanites did all that was in their power to eradicate this threat from their midst. However, the wicked Nephites allowed it to continue, tried out the secret combinations for themselves, and eventually they grew so powerful that they nearly toppled the entire country into a bloody war. I imagine the Lamanites were less-than-pleased at this. The only thing that put an end to the Gadianton Robbers was the death of Jesus Christ and the violent signs that testified of his passing.

I believe that in the Second Coming and the earth is renewed, Jesus Christ is going to tell all the air potatoes and all other invasive species to go back to where they are supposed to be. There, they can flourish without causing harm. He is the only one who can fix all the mistakes humans have made, including bringing a decorative plant over from Asia and letting it loose. He is the only one who can truly cleanse the earth of wickedness. But I know that it matters to Heavenly Father when we try to change the world for the better, and He will help us. We don't have to wait for the Second Coming to clean things up.

Oddly enough, our time at the Ravine Gardens always left us feeling fulfilled. Our purpose in volunteering was not to get rid of air potatoes, even though this is what we were doing. We wanted to show our love for the community by serving them. And so that was what we felt. Every good act we do, no matter how small, matters to someone in the world.

My challenge to you when the world is weighing you down is to get out there and serve. Change the world just a tiny bit, and you will see a marked change in yourself.

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