Week 12: August 17-23
Towani Farm, Bangor, CA
Sierra Seed Cooperative, North San Juan, CA
Sharon and Guy live and work in a bountiful jungle at the end of a long, and very dusty dirt road. The plants, the ground, and the wheelbarrows are speckled with overflowing harvest of every color imaginable.
Clues that we are definitely in California....
...Black walnuts and many other nut trees growing in endless linear rows!
...Blazing sun turning grass golden beneath oak trees!
...Birds taking flight from rice paddies!
...Changing flat tires on the side of I-5!
One day, elders of the Anishinaabe tribe on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota received a call from a nearby farmer. While plowing his field the farmer had come across some remnants of Native American dwellings--perhaps a midden or an abandoned homesite--and he wisely invited the Anishinaabe to come investigate their ancestors' belongings.
Among the goodies they unearthed were curious clay balls about the size of a bacci ball (but because no one actually plays bacci, let's say they were a little bigger than a softball), and when shaken they rattled like a maraca. There was something inside.
Ever curious, the Anishinaabe cracked open the clay balls to find their contents: seeds! But what kind of seeds?
They sent these ancient seeds off to the lab that carbon dated them to 800 years old. Not only that, but these 800 year old seeds still had viable DNA! So, the wise Anishinaabe planted these seeds and out grew this vibrant orange squash.
Since the old Anishinaabe name was lost like the seeds themselves had been (and as the Babylonians had it, a thing does not exist until it is named),Winona Laduke of the Anishinaabe people gave it a noble name:
Geteokosoman: really cool old squash.
And now, here the really cool old squash thrives in the Sierra Nevada foothills under Rowen White's care.
lit. Anishinaabe for "Really cool old squash."
In the smoky orange evening light, we crept over terra cotta colored soil to harvest eggplants for dinner.
Rowen White thrives in the space where the sacred and the functional meet.
Inspired in part by the story of the Geteokosoman and the little clay balls that kept those seeds living for eight hundred years, Rowen White has plans to build a earthen seed bank on her property in the Sierra Nevada foothills. The structure will be made of natural materials, principally clay, to hold the seeds she grows and saves for her surrounding bioregion. She hopes the construction process will be collaborative with friends, neighbors, fellow farmers and seed savers coming to help build the bank that will house their seeds--perhaps for the next millenia. This project illuminates Rowen's approach to farming and to life: practical, spiritual, based in place, thriving in community, autonomous in togetherness. "I want to create a sacred and functional place for seed," she expresses as she gestures to the open space of duff where the bank will someday stand.
Indeed, Rowen reveres the divine element in practical wisdom. These connections between people, place, seed and the eternal surrounded Rowen growing up on the Mohawk reservation on the New York-Canada border. She says the cultural aspect, her people's stories of seeds, is what initially fascinated her about what she calls the "sacred connection between humans and plants." The Mohawk creation myth holds that the creator god planted a single maize plant in the body of his mother, a gift to humankind that would ensure long prosperity. "Stories about corn and corn seed were everywhere growing up," she told us, "I believe there has been a long co-evolution of humans and plants." Native Americans like Rowan's Mohawk ancestors had evolved to a place of fitting with their landscapes, their plants, their bioregion--"theirs" because the place held their own stories, growth, and spirit. It was a co-creative encounter between the human, non-human and the beyond balancing each other in the sacred everyday.
This co-adaptation and sense of fitting together is one that Rowen seeks to reinvigorate now with the Sierra Seed Cooperative. The Sierra Seed Cooperative is a collection of farmers and seed stewards dedicated to building a diverse collection of regionally adapted seeds and educating others on seed-saving practices. Their mission statement asserts, "We need to work with our plants and seeds to create a new revolution and evolution of local foods, which better fit our lands, our growing methods, and our tastes and imaginations" (sierraseeds.org). It's all about the fit; for instance, the foothills see very little rainfall. Therefore it makes sense to cultivate organic seeds that are adapted to produce delectable foods (or beautiful flowers) with minimal watering. This is precisely what Rowen is doing on her property: she and her husband, Gordon, are organically growing vegetable crops and selecting for the most resilient seed to eventually breed plants ideally suited to their particular bioregion. "Seeds are at the foundation of a truly sustainable and sovereign local food system," Rowen adds.
The sense of fitting goes beyond seeds that grow well in a specific place, however, because for Rowen it is also about the relationship between people and the seeds. Rowen describes that about 150 years ago, there were virtually no seed companies at all, but in just a generation or two we have (almost) completely removed ourselves from the practice--and the culture--of seed saving. The Sierra Seed Co-op seeks to remedy this. "We are reawakening the power of people, rekindling knowledge and reclaiming rights to save seed," she declares, "We are providing people the experience to reconnect and relearn... on a cellular level people get recharged."
Speaking as a person culturally enmeshed in a cosmology of a people borne from the Creator's maize, Rowen breathes a deep sense of belonging and a fundamental sanctity into her seed-saving practices. "My life is to speak from the seeds, be here for the seeds," she says as she harvests another eggplant, "I am always learning and inspiring others to do the same." For Rowen, the co-evolution of people and plants is not over--no--this collaborative process must continue to grow and diversify everywhere to reconnect us with the seed and so ourselves.