Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rejuvenation Through Saving Seeds

"Institutions do not save seeds- humans with hearts do."
- Dr. Gary Paul Nabhan, 2013 Annual Conference and Campout, Seed Savers Exchange

This post was updated on July 22, 2017

This year I attended the 37th Annual EcoFarm Conference held at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California, as a gift to myself at the start of the new year. I greatly looked forward to spending quality time with organic growers and advocates. I always learn something, connect with interesting people, and return rejuvenated and inspired with a renewed commitment to my work with edibles and seed saving. The theme of this years' conference was 'Cultivating Diversity', as in people, as well as seeds. It's a theme close to my heart, as an immigrant and a seed steward.

So I got to thinking about seeds and my ancestral origins. And as I day-dreamed about the coming spring planting season, strong emotions were stirring within. I'm passionate about seeds- they truly stir up my emotional side. It's taken me a while to understand why and to be able to begin to express it words. Seeds, especially for edibles, have been saved by humans for many thousands of years. First Nation Peoples consider them as "living, breathing, ancestors" in a literal, not figurative sense. And in fact, viable seeds ARE alive, and they are handed down through families and communities to this day, although alarmingly, much less so. These are true heirloom varieties that are a crucial means by which we carry on our culture, whether it's rooted in Native American traditions or in a family group of immigrants, perhaps generations ago.

In my family, favas are a must-have spring food that I grow annually

We all have family food stories with origins in those who came before us, if we dig deep enough. For immigrants like me, those connections to my cultural foods are strong. I arrived in the USA with my parents and brother from Chile many years ago as an infant, but I grew up around an extended family and community of Chileans. It was years into adulthood before I realized that many of our favorite Chilean dishes originated with Native Peoples in the region, especially the Mapuche ("people of the earth"). In fact many of our words in Chilean Spanish have their roots in Mapuche language (Mapudungun).

Beans and fresh corn with basil is a typical Chilean food combination

So it's not surprising that my garden reflects my cultural roots, a mix of what the European conquistadors brought with them and Native foods: different types of common beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), fava beans, salad greens, artichokes, squashes, and various perennial herbs are my staples, including two shrubs of Lemon Verbena for herbal tea (Aloysia triphylla), native to Chile and Argentina. 

Squash is another family favorite 

I recently received a precious gift of seeds from Chile: winter squash, beans, a sweet pimento pepper and a spicy pepper, plus corn seeds with which to make a favorite national dish, pastel de choclo (derived from the Mapuche word for corn). Through my research I discovered that some of the old seed varieties are stewarded by dedicated guadadores de semillas or seed savers, same as in the USA, but not accessible to me, (as far as I know). 

My harvest of beautiful runner beans (Phaseolus coccineus)

I have been conducting seed trials of heirloom seeds as a volunteer for Seed Savers Exchange for several years, and this work as been very satisfying. At the 2017 EcoFarm conference I was fortunate to meet Rowen White , a Mohawk Seed Keeper and seed advocate. I participated in her 'Seed Seva' online mentoring course that weaves Native Peoples' traditional seed practices into gardening and farming training. She's a very knowledgeable and precious mentor.

My current focus is cultivating seeds of my Chilean and Native origin crops in a responsible manner, and putting my effort into growing, eating, and respectfully maintaining these- it's a way to connect with my own ancestors. It is both tragic and traumatic that many tribes have lost the seeds specific to their People as an outcome of colonization- seeds that were essential to the continuation of their cultures. A good place to start is Native Seeds/Search in Arizona, specializing in seeds for crops suited to arid areas, as well as Indigenous in origin (quite relevant to our dry and warming climate in California).

My passion for saving seeds has been rejuvenated by these living seeds and honoring my ancestors from the southern continent.
Photos: Patricia Larenas, Urban Artichoke