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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seed saving and cultural sustainability

    An educational and cultural project involving home garden seed saving was the centerpiece of Rosann Kent’s presentation at the cultural sustainability symposium last month at Sterling College. Hers was one of the talks that engaged with my own work, for I’ve been an organic gardener and seed saver myself now for some thirty-plus years. After all, a university’s academic year calendar permits faculty time in the summer to do research, write, and in my case, also to tend an organic garden and orchard. Hand-work is complementary to head-work, and the easy pace of gardening frees me for creative daydreaming. If I had to make a living as a farmer, I’m sure that my mind would be full of worry about the year’s crops, the weather, and market prices; but growing for home use (with surplus for friends) involves a different kind of accounting.
    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
This is one of the things seed-savers do; we swap seeds. Every seed variety has a name; they are not just “bean seeds.” Otherwise we couldn’t keep track of their differences very well. When I asked them what they called these bean seeds, or those tomato seeds, the answer often was something like, “Oh, those are Joe beans.” “Joe beans?” I would reply. “No, I mean what variety of beans are they?” “Well,” the answer would come, “these are greasy beans, if that’s what you’re getting at. Lots of folks around here grow greasy beans. These are ones that go back to old Joe Caudill, whose home place used to be up here (points up higher on the creek bed) where he grew them, must have been one hundred years ago.” And then the lady would go on to tell a little story that revealed old Joe’s character, or maybe something about one of his descendants, or she might say she went to school with so-and-so who was old Joe’s nephew’s cousin’s niece, or something like that. In this way, the seeds, the land, and the families all were put into meaningful relation. Their “use-value,” so to speak, was cultural as well as agricultural. Saving seeds also meant saving culture.
    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.    

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