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www.zidao.com Apprentice harmonizer, for sheer fun. Journeywoman writer, for work and pleasure. Starting point was Iowa, current stopping point on this journey is Switzerland, with frequent pauses around the world to watch and listen to the crowd, and occasionally make comments.

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Tulips 2006 for Gran ellengwallace's Tulips 2006 for Gran photoset

Monday, May 01, 2006

Spuds and under-goers

The potato patrol


Newly planted potatoes hide under their cozy mounds of earth

This weekend in the Swiss Alps was beautiful, if still tinged with cool verging on cold (temperature at freezing) if you happened to be out at 4am.

The Glacier Patrol, on the other side of the valley
While the sun beamed down on us some people walked across the tops, and I do mean the peaks, of the Alps. The Patrouille des glaciers is an annual event where serious mountain people walk from Zermatt, home to the Matterhorn, to Verbier, home to trendy English-speaking jet-setters and other skiers. This is a distance that a crow could fly in about an hour, if a crow were flying at the same rate of speed as a car on a Swiss autoroute. Mountain peaks have many more ups and downs, with a few slippery bits in between, so the winners this year did it in 6 hours 18.48 minutes, record time.

While they did this, I dug trenches, planted potatoes, 8 good rows of fine spuds, red and white varieties, on my side of the mountain. From my slope, where I was focusing on burrowing under the mountain, I could see over to the glaciers, which remained pristinely white from a distance. I half expected them to shimmer and even boogie a bit, given the 3,700 people who were marching across them. They remained aloof and even cool to the human touch of this mass of bodies.

I had time to reflect, as I scraped and hoed and chopped at my bit of earth, that the Alpine world is made up of toppers and downers, or walk-acrossers and dig-underers. I am one of the latter, and I'm not sure why. Maybe it is a safety thing: less risk digging a potato than hiking over peaks just as the snow is getting soft. Maybe it is a coziness thing, where I feel some kinship with potatoes lying snug under their earthen quilts, contemplating the intricacies of sending out runners, avoiding other roots, breaking up the soil.

People who do not garden ask me why I do it. I can give a lot of good reasons, such as reducing stress, growing chemical-free vegetables which are undoubtedly better for all of us but especially for my autistic child, exercise. I think in the end I just plain like to plan spuds. There is no real explanation for that.

There is an explanation for why I never join those very admirable people who enter the Glacier Patrol every year. The very thought terrifies me. Life on earth should be lived mainly on the plain, or not very high up, I believe. From here I can admire the mountains, and I do.

A few years ago I was sent on a reporting job to Chamonix, a fine resort in France, just over the border from Switzerland. It was for a beautiful travel magazine and my expenses were paid: I stayed in a wonderfully expensive hotel and interviewed the chef and ate his best meals. I was given a guide and told to march across the glacier. At that point my dream journalism job began to seem a little rough around the edges.

I somehow forgot to bring along a warm jacket - possibly a sign of impending panic - and I had to buy one in the resort, for a price that was about the same as my payment for the article. It had a fancy label and many colors.

The guide showed me how to wear crampons and promptly led me down an incredibly steep slope, which others did while chatting and checking their watches, without watching their feet. I was amazed at their bravado.

I then got into the spirit of the thing, for this was really just another walk, wasn't it? So what if under my feet was a glacier, rather than warm dirty earth.

Then we got to one of those snow bridges with crevasses underneath that you always read about in magazines like National Geographic. I decided that their photographers' lenses did not come close to showing the fearful depths of these icy gaping bits.

Somehow I got across, got down and lived to tell the tale. Fifteen years later I still wear the jacket, much to the embarrassment of my son, who says no one else on the mountain has a jacket like that. No kidding! Those faded colors bear witness to a whole patchwork of human emotions, lived through during a half day or so (maybe it was a bit less).

Give me spuds anyday, over a crevasse and a shimmering glacial route in front of me. And while the others march on, I stand across from them, cheering them on while admiring the glaciers' indifference.
One of the joys of being human is that we can mix our emotions so freely.

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