At the International Seed Library Forum in May of 2015, I heard Bill McDorman of the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance present about old seed-saving traditions. He told us about a conversation he’d once had with a Hopi elder, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, who showed Bill his cornfield. Leigh’s field might be one of the oldest continuously cultivated fields on the North American continent. In this desert field, huge corn plants, each with many tillers, grew several feet apart. Leigh told Bill that he had grown corn in that field for sixty years, and that it was his grandfather’s field, and that they believed corn had been grown there for a thousand years, growing corn in the same field every year. Astonished, Bill asked what kind of fertilizer or compost they used. Leigh said, “We don’t.” Bill asked how they irrigated; Leigh said, “We don’t.” Bill thought this went against everything he had been taught about agriculture, and thought the Hopi people’s success growing corn in such a climate must be the result of something about the kind of seeds they were planting. So he asked how they bred their corn, what they selected for when choosing which kernels to plant; Leigh said, “We don’t,” and followed up by saying, of the corn, “These are our children.” Bill also recounts how Leigh told him that the Hopi people learn how to follow their spiritual path by growing their corn. Bill has also recounted this story in an interview that you can listen to here.
“The older the genetics, the greater the nutrition.” This was how a respected elderly seed-saver and plant breeder summed up one of the principles of how he looked at his work. (I think it was Alan Kapuler who said this, but I wish I could remember for sure. It might have been Munk Bergen.) We were at a small, informal gathering just after the 2016 Organic Seed Growers Conference in Corvallis, Oregon.
I wonder how many people would say that it’s just not possible for nutritional content to have anything more than a coincidental relation to how old a crop variety is. I wonder how many people would say the correlation must be limited to the effects of modern breeding programs that have bred for shelf life instead of taste. I wonder how many plant breeders would see it as a reason to bring as many ancient heirloom varieties as possible into modern breeding programs.
I have a different hypothesis. Perhaps each seed carries some sort of record of the ways its ancestors have been treated, the ways they have been cared for. Perhaps seeds carry these records in a way that is held in their genetics, or is otherwise associated with their genetics.
Lessons From Indigenous People About Seeds
Across the globe, indigenous people have referred to plants that they have stewarded and eaten as their relatives. As Rowen White puts it, “We all descend from people who held seed as part of their familial constellation… They came into agreements a long time ago to care for each other in this beautiful reciprocal dance of stewardship.”
When modern Westerners hear that, I think many of us have a hard time picturing what it could mean, even though we often refer to our pets as part of our families. When seeds and plants are stewarded by people who think of them as family, how does that change what those seeds and plants give us? Perhaps they nourish us more than seeds and plants that are stewarded by people who think of them as property. Perhaps they nourish us in more different ways.
In February 2020, at the Organic Seed Growers Conference (OSGC) in Corvallis, Oregon, I heard several statements about Native American disapprovals and objections to the sale of seeds. I began to gain an understanding of where these objections are coming from. I came to have some level of agreement with them. These are mostly objections to the sale of seed varieties that have been stewarded for decades or centuries by Native Americans. But I felt that the logic of these objections could be applied to other seeds as well, perhaps to all seeds.
Noah Schlager of Native Seeds/ SEARCH stated in a panel discussion that no company should be selling Native American ceremonial tobaccos. I knew this included the Midewiwan tobacco that Southern Exposure sold.
At that point in early 2020, we at Southern Exposure were selling it as Midewiwan Ceremonial Tobacco, and were stating on our website, “We used to sell this variety as Midewiwan Sacred Tobacco, but when we asked folks at the Center for Cherokee Plants about it, their input was that when something’s for sale, it shouldn’t be called sacred.” Later that year, we stopped selling Midewiwan Tobacco seed.
Also at the 2020 OSGC, Dan Cornelius of the Intertribal Agricultural Council spoke about right relationship with corn, and about stories associated with particular varieties of corn. He referenced a conversation with an elder, about a certain traditional variety of corn with eight rows of kernels on each cob. The question at hand was whether it was sensible to cross this corn with another particular variety. The elder asked if the other variety had more than eight rows. It did have more than eight rows, so the elder said they shouldn’t be crossed.
At the seed swap at that conference (in photos below) , the booth that got the most attention was also the one where the person who had brought the seeds was asking those who took them not to commercialize them. He had dozens of seed packets of beans, squashes, and other crops. There were handwritten names and descriptions on the packets. In most or all cases, the names indicated that these seeds were not available anywhere for sale, and in most cases, the descriptions included stories of Native American origin. At the other 20 or so booths, seeds were scooped into packets and passed from hand to hand with no exchange of money, and no commitment to doing anything with them at any point, but with lots of conversation about seed varieties being exchanged. At this one booth, it was different. Conference attendees who had experience in saving seed were encouraged to take a packet, or a few, make a donation of about $5 per packet, plant the seed, harvest seeds from those plants, send a significant portion of their seed harvests back to him, and keep the rest of their seed harvests.
At first, I was excited. I saw an opportunity to help keep a few of these rare, storied varieties alive, and assess them for qualities including flavor, texture, yield, and disease resistance, and make the ones that did well in those respects available to the public through Southern Exposure. But that was before I heard clearly that commercializing these varieties would not align with the terms on which he had acquired these seeds from countless families. It was not only that the first generation of seeds harvested by the people who took these seed packets was not to be sold. It was also that later generations of their harvests of these varieties were also not to be sold. I was saddened, because it meant I could not in good conscience take any of these seeds home with me. I was not in a position to help steward this collection.
The 2020 Organic Seed Growers Conference included some of the first widely visible results of the Organic Seed Alliance’s efforts to address the extreme whiteness, as a group, of the people who grow and sell seeds in the United States. There was a lot of very apparent effort to bring more perspectives of non-white people into the discussions about growing and selling organic seeds. Ricardo Salvador of the Union of Concerned Scientists gave a keynote address about how this country’s food system has historically oppressed, and continues to oppress, people of color. I thought it was one of the best presentations I’d ever seen. You can find some of the ideas he presented on his blog.
And yet I can tell, based largely on what I’ve heard in terms of feedback from people of color at that Conference, that the Organic Seed Alliance still had, and has, a lot to learn about how to go about bringing in these perspectives. And so do almost all of us. Proceedings of the conference can still be found here, but, written ahead of the conference itself, they don’t include the double sessions that I found most valuable. But the lists of speakers in those double sessions are included here.
Paying Attention To Non-Human Lives
Here are some things I have heard Christina Pratt, founder of the Last Mask Center for Shamanic Healing, say, in teaching about ways of doing ritual: That one should ask the place if it wants the ritual to happen there. That usually it does, but that there are exceptions, some of them due to the place taking care of young beings – babies of one species or another. That one should ask the objects that will be part of the ritual, such as stones, whether they want to be part of the ritual. That different stones want different things, much like different people, or different entities of other kinds, want different things. That one should only use objects that want to be part of the ritual, and only do it on land that wants the ritual to happen there.
I wonder how many people these days converse with non-humans. Our society seems to have lost most, but not all, of its ability to do so.
I would estimate that a large majority of old, non-Abrahamic spiritual traditions recognize an enormous array of creatures as beings, with emotions, memory, agency, and points of view. I think this recognition is not as common within Abrahamic traditions and scientific institutions, but it still can be found. (By Abrahamic traditions, I mean the many branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) I believe that when we let our attention and senses rest on a landscape or another being, such as a bird of prey, an enormous redwood, or a corn seedling, we absorb a little bit of its wisdom.
In some sense, it is wrong to consider oneself to own the life of another being. Of course, when and if we measure lives and compare them to each other, we do not consider non-human lives equal to human lives, nor do we consider non-human lives equal to other kinds of non-human lives. Yet it is undeniable that in the most literal sense, each Southern Exposure packet of tomato seeds (for example) contains between 40 and 83 tiny, dormant, vegetal lives.
When we exchange money in order to also exchange control over something, the use of money has some effect on how we feel about our rights to do whatever we like with that something, or that someone, or that someone’s time. We are more likely to think we can do whatever we like with it. If it is a seed, we are more likely to think we have the right to plant it whenever and wherever we choose, without even trying to ask it for its perspective.
In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of seeds.
But not all sales of seeds are equal. I still consider the sale of regionally adapted, open-pollinated seeds grown by small farmers, in resistance to the consolidation of the seed industry, to be one of the most honorable ways of making a living. There are a lot of small seed companies that do this, including the companies on this list. This is part, but not all, of how we, at Southern Exposure, make our living. We also sell seeds that we get from large wholesalers.
And I am not opposed to us continuing to get seeds from wholesalers. Even the seeds from wholesalers help create alternatives to the conventional food system. Even the sale of seeds from wholesalers helps us help our customers to resist destructions such as following:
I don’t think anyone would deny that humanity is covering enormous amounts of land with agricultural monocultures, such as most modern cornfields. And on each acre of that land, previous biological communities included enormous amounts of diversity. I don’t think anyone would deny that humanity is spreading many chemicals across enormous acreages — with the purpose, and the result, of killing broad spectra of organisms, so as to completely cover those spaces with one plant species at a time.
I wonder if anyone would deny that pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and disinfectants created by humans kill non-target species as well as target species.I don’t think anyone would deny that for nearly all wild species, human activity has decreased the amount of suitable habitat. According to the 2019 Global Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, nearly one million species are at risk of extinction because of human activity. Some estimates say that one plant species is lost per day.
The various species that inhabit the Earth, including those that humans are tending, and including those that humanity is driving to extinction, are not only different collections of genes and chemistries. They are also communities made up of countless individual lives. They are also different, even vastly different, ways of seeing, and of knowing, and of living.
In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of land.
And yet, it is the communal land ownership models of Native peoples and other people of color that have, throughout history, been getting overtaken by more capitalist models.
Heirs property is an ownership model that has suffered in the hands of US institutions, with far-reaching effects. It is a model of land ownership common among Black American families. In terms of clarity of titles, heirs property often does not satisfy the expectations of the American real estate system. Heirs property has been a key factor in how Black families have lost huge amounts of land.
In some sense, the earth, the air, the fire, the water, are all alive. In some sense all things are alive. My heart concurs with Leon Rosselson when he sings, in The World Turned Upside Down, “The sin of property…”
In an ideal world, perhaps there would be no sale of anything.
I am not trying to deny the immense utility of money. Like anyone in our modern society, I can’t imagine living without it. But we can take smaller steps.
Even in the modern United States, even when it runs counter to our education, most of us maintain some aspects of looking at land and non-human beings as more than just property. This shows up in how, when transplanting seedlings, we don’t want to waste them, even if they cost us much less than the other inputs that it will take to grow them to full size. It shows up in how we hang bird feeders and birdhouses. It shows up in discussions about old-growth forests.
Some Ways To Start To Decommercialize Seeds, and Other Beings
The world we are living in is so far from ideal. I think it would be crazy, on at least a few levels, to argue for an end to all sale of seeds, or of land, or of objects. There are many more achievable ways, of altering our methods of buying and selling, and our other methods of exchanging, to remember, and clarify, what good stewardship is. Below, I have a few words to say about places we can start, related to the work I’m involved in:
- We can start, maintain, and use seed libraries.
- We can listen to, and talk to, non-humans that live in the same areas of land we live in — even if we feel like we aren’t exchanging real messages, or if we don’t know whether we are.
- I have sung to the seeds in the room where our many tens of thousands of seed packets are stored, containing many millions of tiny, dormant, vegetal lives. But I have not managed to make a habit of singing to them.
- Fedco Seeds is listing their Abenaki Calais Flint Corn without a price. Instead, customers decide how much to pay per ounce as well as how many ounces to buy. Their reasoning for starting to offer seed without a price, is a lot like my reasoning for writing this blog post.
- We can create cooperative models of ownership, and we can work to make those models more “normal” than the conventional hyper-capitalist models. The co-op movement is growing. The US Federation of Worker Cooperatives is a great resource for people starting cooperatives and for converting existing businesses to cooperatives.
- Perhaps I should do everything in my power to reduce the chance of our land, or our seed inventory, being owned by people who manage it more for their own material benefits than for the effects it can have of increasing the relative sustainability of our food systems. Perhaps I should do everything in my power to increase the chance of our land, and our seed inventory, being managed by people who view other beings, including seeds, not purely as capital, but also as allies in creating a more sustainable world.
- Sierra Seeds, founded by Mohawk seedkeeper Rowen White, looks in some ways like a seed company. But Sierra Seeds does not actually sell seeds. It sells, and otherwise offers, education. I’ve just started taking the Seed Seva training that Rowen offers through Sierra Seeds. Its modules and discussions are full of points and stories like those included in this post. One of my main goals in taking the Seed Seva course is to explore, more intensively than I have explored in the past few years, the ways that people can decommercialize seeds. And especially the ways that we, of the various small seed companies that consider it part of our mission to resist consolidation in the seed industry, can work to decommercialize seed – without giving up our ability to make a living.
I have many times heard questions like, If you only had one hour left to live, what would you do? I have written this essay as the result of vague analogous questions, not about death, but about other forms of change that may lead us into worlds we cannot predict.