Rosann Kent’s school, re-named the University of North Georgia earlier this year, resulted from the merger of the North Georgia College & University, and Gainesville State College. Its website proclaims it “The Military College of Georgia,” and Kent was quick to state that one would not normally associate seed saving with a military college. Nonetheless, the university’s Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, where Kent serves as a faculty member and the director, recently completed a project entitled “Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories,” which not only gained a good deal of local attention in this fastest-growing region of the state, but also was featured in a forum on local food systems and sustainable agriculture last year, sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Seed saving brings together culture and agriculture, a unity famously inscribed into the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s by Wendell Berry, whose words were prophetic then and whose voice remains essential today. Kent’s project was designed not just to inventory varieties of home garden seeds that had for years been saved and shared by local families, but also to collect and then present the stories that went along with the seeds. Stories connected with seeds may seem a little strange to anyone who either hasn’t either grown up in a family that keeps heirloom seeds, or hasn’t encountered the practice of storytelling surrounding the intersection of generations on the land through such things as names of places. Even the name of an old fiddle tune, when played in a circle of friends, if it names a place or person (or even if it doesn’t), often will draw forth a short story, or a reference to a known story, of the place or person named, or the fiddler from whom the player learned it, or an occasion on which it was played and something unusual occurred.
In 1990 when I taught for the spring semester as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College, in Kentucky, I spent most weekends in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky; and one of the things I did was ask the people I got to know, the ones who had home gardens, whether they saved seed. Among other things, as a seed saver myself, I was interested in trying new-to-me varieties of heirloom non-hybrid seeds, and swapping some I’d saved with theirs.
|My garden bean field, 2013. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon|
Kent’s presentation added another cultural layer. This part of north Georgia was being inundated by people “from away,” as we would say in Maine, contrasting them with “natives.” In Kent’s country, the same distinction was between “came heres” and “been heres.” As in Maine, each group had its own notions of what it wanted. The “came heres” wanted Starbucks and services they were used to in the big cities; they thought that the “been heres” were culturally deprived and they wanted to “help.” The “been heres,” of course, had a culture of their own; and seed saving was an unimaginable (to the came heres) part of it. Kent had her students go out into the community and talk to the been heres who had home gardens about the seeds they saved, and of course just as had happened to me nearly a quarter century earlier and in a different part of Appalachia, they not only got seeds but also stories. So the seed saving project, along with the oral histories and stories, was presented in the community, and the came heres began to understand something about the been heres, while the been heres were reassured about their own culture.
In our cultural sustainability symposium, Kent not only talked about this project, but she got us all into a workshop where we told each other family stories, something that might have gone on all afternoon—but there were other presentations to hear, and besides, all this talk about food made us hungry for the farm supper that was only a couple of hours away.