By Rowen White
Rain is falling on the roof, the stove is bubbling with a fragrant stew, the hearth is alit with warm fire…. I have lived in this land of the Maidu and Nisenan, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains for over 10 years now, and I still find myself wondering when “winter” will come, since my cells deeply remember white snow as the harbinger of the season, and here we only get rain.
Midwinter is the beginning of our agricultural cycle, the time when the seeds lie dormant, just like the seeds in the dark of the soil before the spring sprouting. Winter is the sacred season of story and dream. Midwinter is the time of seed-dreaming…for some this comes in the form of gathering the stack of seed catalogs that arrive daily in our mailboxes…for some it is digging into their treasure box or shelf of saved seeds from previous seasons…tiny little gems of seeds that hold such embodied potential…
Winter is the sacred season of story and dream. For my ancestral people, the Haudenosaunee, Midwinter is a time for sacred beginnings, when the infinity loop of time resets and the sacred fire must be put out and restarted with prayers and blessed new intention. It is the beginning of our ceremonial cycle, and reconnects us to the place of our origins, the sacred smokehole in the sky known to many as the Pleiades star constellation. When the “Seven Sisters” are directly overhead, it is our cue to spend days in prayer and healing.
It is when we see ourselves as seeds in the moist and dark earth, allowing our seed coats of imbibe the StoryWater of Life and begin to crack open in anticipation of the coming spring…we must seed our prayers well in advance of the sprouting of the Earth, to nourish and feed the keepers of Life. It is an honor and privilege to tend this exquisite tension of Life wanting to bound up and bless us with abundance.
The palate of seeds for my garden design for the season ahead admittedly comes from both sources….I have treasured seed varieties that I bring out of our living seed bank, the kiva; old trusty friends who grace our gardens and tables each season. Sacred Mohawk Red bread corn that looks like juicy pomegranate gems; blue corn whose kernels are lined up in 8 neat rows of shades of grey, slate and nearly purple; multi-colored Calico corn whose pearlescent seed-coats that catch the light of the eastern morning; shiny spiralling Chapaloté corn cobs that look like they are sculpted of iridescent Tiger’s eye stone. Piles of beans, some speckled and resembling orca whales, others earthy and mimic soft buckskin; all invisibly pulsating with the dynamic life energy that infuses us all. Each one of these varieties I know with intimate reverence…they have fed my body, my children, my friends and community. Their seed song will live on in our blood and bones as we pass along life from one generation to the next. These seeds have become one with the land here, having grown them here for over 7 plant generations, they are now at home here in this earth. Heirlooms of the future.
Yet my curiosity is always piqued by looking through the catalogs and online seed sources, finding new seeds to get to know…As I pour over the pages of seed catalogs from other vibrant seed collectives and companies across the country, I realize what a modern convenience these seed catalogs really are. Up until 150 years ago, having access to a seed catalog was a luxury, and 200 years ago on this soil there were virtually no commercial seed companies to speak of. Prior to 200 years ago in this country, all seeds were traded, swapped and shared between farmers and gardeners. To be a farmer or a gardener and not be a seed keeper was unheard of…the two roles were inherently linked together.
“In 1854, seeds were sourced in the U.S. by way of a small number of horticultural seed catalogs, farmer (or gardener) exchange, on-farm seed saving, and through the beneficence of the United States government. Specifically, beginning in the 1850s, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) and congressional representatives saw to the collection, propagation and distribution of varieties to their constituents throughout the states and territories. The program grew quickly so that, by 1861, the PTO had annual distribution of more than 2.4 million packages of seed (containing five packets of different varieties). The flow of seed reached its highest volume in 1897 (under USDA management) – with more than 1.1 billion packets of seed distributed.” (Matthew Dillon, SeedMatters)
In the course of the last couple of centuries, seed stewardship has gone from being an integrative part of every farm and homestead to becoming increasingly specialized and commodified. Seeds stewardship is a vital and fundamental practice towards the sustainability of the whole farm organism. In this age of specialization and fragmentation of whole systems, we have seen on-farm seed stewardship become nearly extinct, most farmers instead relying on a small handful of seed companies to steward the seeds on their behalf. With this trend, we have seen the diverse and regionally adapted heritage seeds of the past replaced with the “one size fits all” seeds from these national and international seed houses.
I will say with an open heart and mind, that within the pages of these seed catalogs, there are some new gems emerging from the swiftly growing organic seed movement. In the last 10 years we have seen a heartfelt swelling of farmers and gardeners remembering the call of the seeds…that seeds are our connection to adaptation and evolution, to the plant’s own storehouse of creativity and fertility…To forget our relationship with them is to damage ourselves and diminishes our creative capacity to continue to evolve as the face of our Mother Earth changes.
It has been a great joy to see the awakening of the seeds in the hearts and minds of the people. Across the Earth there is the rumblings of a peaceful grassroots revolution to reclaim the seeds into the hands of the people. People are remembering our responsibility to care for the seeds. Farmers and gardeners are once again exercising our inherant birthright to save and swap seeds. Since the dawning of agriculture, people have been passing seeds down from generation to generation…all seeds that grace our fields and gardens and tables all descend from the collective efforts of countless ancestors, carefully selecting the right seeds that meet the needs of the family, the village, the land, the watershed, the bioregion.
One magnificent proclamation of our love for seeds has been through our annual ritual of seed swapping. It is the time of year that we gather with our extended gardening community to host our Annual Seed Swap. Each February, we gather in celebration to honor the seeds for all they give to us. With humble beginnings 8 years ago in our one-room schoolhouse cultural center, our local Seed Swap has now grown to draw over 400 people at our local Banner Grange.
Seed swaps are another beautiful way we exchange our own farm’s abundance and increase the diversity of seeds that we have in our farm’s collection.
For each person that comes with their boxes and baskets and jars full of abundance, we are seeing a magical homeopathic distillation of the seasonal cycles of the land where they dwell and grow…seeds that have come into being in a grand interplay between soil and sun, blossom and bee, wind and pollen, seed and chaff.
Each one of these Seed Keepers has their own Earth Apothecary, a whole living library of nourishment from the unique piece of land that they have the honor of stewarding.
You see, through the act of seed stewardship, we re-write ourselves back into the story of the magnificent dance between humans and plants. Gardeners and seed collectors are part of the evolutionary mix; new expressions emerge from the blend of the terroir of the land, the interplay of the elements and weather, and the tastes and imaginations of the seed steward.
We are bound in a reciprocal relationship with seeds that extends past beyond living memory…these agreements between us and the plant kin-dom are imprinted into our cellular memory… you can see these memories being rehydrated when you walk into a seed swap, seeing peoples eyes and heart swelling with wonder as they admire and talk about the diversity of seeds that are in jars and packets upon the table. The stories that pass from one person to the other as seeds change hands. The visceral feeling of hope that we are blessed with another season to grow old and new seeds. The seeds inspire new dreams, new beginnings, potent transformation; In colorful patterns and shapes, they whisper to us and remind us that their life is our life, and our mutually beneficial relationship extends in our bloodlines thousands of years. In this social ritual of seed sharing and swapping, we thank them and ask that they continue to fulfill their time honored responsibility to sustain us, and to continue to bless us with abundance.
The Seed Swap is the most rich example of a gift economy. The seeds are talismans of abundance, they remind us that abundance and generosity is the innate nature of Life. We witness the incredible alchemy of one seed turning into hundreds in the course of one season… in just a couple season, that one seed is multiplied exponentially. How did we ever buy into the story of scarcity? Perhaps when we stopped caring for the seeds?
Our greatest wealth is not only in the seeds and their stories of abundance and nourishment, but in the connection that is made between people who share seeds. This is the currency of connection. The social fabric that is woven and reinforce in so many exquisite shades…people swap stories, plants, food, ideas, inspiration, hope, recipes, and inspire a whole new season of earth-in-hand prayers.
“When we must pay the true price for the depletion of nature’s gifts, materials will become more precious to us, and economic logic will reinforce, and not contradict, our heart’s desire to treat the world with reverence and, when we receive nature’s gifts, to use them well.”
? Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition
Through these celebrations of life, these seed swaps become one of the most potent forms of social activism against the growing corporate control over our seed resources. In the spirit of Ghandi, they are the Seed Satyagraha ( civil disobedience) against unjust laws that try and restrict human rights to save, steward, swap and trade seeds.
“Satyagraha against this corporate rule, civil disobedience of fabricated, unjust laws, being forced on all citizens, across all cultures, in all societies, has become a moral and survival imperative. Whenever and wherever citizens and movements have organized against unjust seed and food laws, the corporations have had to retreat. This has happened with seed related laws in India, Europe, Columbia, Chile, Brazil and the struggle for Seed Freedom and Food Freedom continues all over the world. Through Satyagraha and Civil Disobedience we can end Seed Slavery and Food Dictatorship and build alternatives that protect and nourish the planet and people.” -Vandana Shiva
The real power is in making the system irrelevant. By stewarding seeds we restore power into the hands of the people. Food and seed sovereignty is our right, we accept the gifts that the earth so readily gives to us, and we protect them as best we know how. By using these seeds in our kitchens, sharing their stories with our children, by sharing them with others for safe-keeping.
If you live locally in the Yuba-Bear Watershed, please join us on Feb. 27th at the Banner Grange from 1-4pm for our Annual Seed Swap! Please come to stand in solidarity with all the Seed Keepers and farmers of the world, who are courageously standing up to defend our seed freedom and basic human rights to share, swap, and steward seeds.
Come on out to the Seed Swap Celebration and exercise our rights to take care of the seeds….Local seeds are at the foundation of any truly local food system. We should not be leaving the job of stewarding them to corporations who do not hold our interests in mind, and who do not care for the seeds with integrity. Please come on out and join the PEACEFUL revolution to reclaim the seeds as a public common and precious collective inheritance!!
To all those who are working towards a new guiding narrative that reflects the innate generosity of Life and the true Wealth of the gifts of the Earth; I will leave you with a pledge authored by the Seed Keepers of Navdanya, and the Seed Freedom Movement.
Seed Satyagraha PLEDGE: “We have reverence for seeds we have received from nature and centuries of farmers’ breeding. We do not recognise seed to be a corporate invention, therefore, we do not recognise patents on seed and life. We will support our local seed libraries as sources of fertile and open source seed. We do not recognise any laws, created by corporate interests, that interfere in our duty to save and share good seed so that the generations to come are as fortunate as we have been in receiving these gifts of diversity and nourishment. We will not obey, or recognise any law that criminalises our time-tested seeds. This is our Seed Satyagraha From good seed comes good food. We do not recognise tasteless, nutritionally-empty, toxic commodities as food. For us food is, as it has always been, natural, organic, nourishing, healthy and safe, We refuse to accept an agriculture system based on poisons as safe. We refuse to let another bee die. We do not recognise the unscientific fallacy of “Substantial Equivalence” of Genetically Modified food with non GMO food. We refuse to accept Industrial Agriculture as a solution to the climate crisis because we know it is one of the causes. We also know that Organic Farming and living soils hold the key to solving the Climate Crisis. We will grow organic food everywhere-on our farms, our gardens, our balconies, our terraces. We will eat organic, in our kitchens, our cafeterias, our schools and offices. Our Gardens will be sites of Satyagraha.” –Seed Freedom: