by Venice R. Williams—
It’s that time of year when it feels like time is running out. So much remains in the ground, longing to be harvested. The collards and kale, standing strong and sturdy, can wait. Acorn squash and Harvest Moon pumpkins have stolen the spotlight from the last few tomatoes that barely hang onto the vine, waiting to be plucked for one last batch of oven-roasted heirloom goodness. I have already thanked, blessed and turned over the soil in a large patch of garden where Holy Basil was growing. Gently boiled into soothing teas, it has nourished so many.
The cool autumn breeze whispers its warning: Not many days remain in this Midwest growing season. You need to put all your gardens to bed, soon. I will—after I gather the seeds.
I’ll meander through the fields, collecting seeds from dry fruited plants (okra, peas, beans, corn), as well as wet fruited crops (peppers, squash, cucumber, eggplant) that I intentionally left to over-ripen in the garden so their seeds could fully mature. Although I’ve been amassing seeds since midsummer, the final days of reaping their bounty from plantings I’ve sown feel like I am participating in a sacred ritual lived into since time’s beginning.
God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.” (Genesis 1:29)
Now it is that time of year, time to gather seeds for saving, sharing, blessing, planting. Part of my purpose in God’s creation is to be a keeper of seeds.
“Save a seed to save yourself,” I remember hearing one presenter say at a community gardening conference in California in the late 1990s. I’d already been drying and saving a small amount of seeds annually, storing them in my underwear drawer. Since I change my underwear every day, I figured that come planting time, there was no
chance I could forget where I had placed the seeds!
Save a seed to save yourself. That conference marked the first time I grasped the bigger picture of harvesting seeds. Both my grandmothers were seed-saving women, but as a child I thought it was just about saving money. I never saw purchased seed packets in my grandparents’ homes, but I recall seeing seeds carefully wrapped in taped paper towels or small white mailing envelopes, with the names scribbled on the front. My grandmothers handled their seeds as though they were precious gems. Not until I was 30-something did I come to understand how precious seeds truly are.
Save a seed to save yourself. Since the conference, I’ve heard hundreds of folks blaze that mantra. Reasons to save seeds may include saving money or growing what we like to eat from what we have already eaten. However, at this point in time, we need to reclaim this ancestral tradition and pass it on to our children and their children for an abundance of reasons—an abundance of biodiverse reasons.
You likely wouldn’t believe it if I gave you the number of plant species we have lost in the last 40 years. Since it is autumn, let’s just talk apples—2,500 different species of which are cultivated in the United States. Amazing, right? Until you hear that not too long ago, that number was 15,000. As we each enjoy our next bite of a delicious apple, maybe we should ask what happened to its 12,500 cousins. Does it matter? Should it matter?
What about bananas? There are about 1,000 types of bananas in the world, but most Americans consume one variety, the Cavendish. This wasn’t the case prior to the 1950s, when the Gros Michel was literally “the top banana” on grocery store shelves and in our homes. It was destroyed by a disease and instead of fixing the problem that birthed the disease, the world (including farmers in Hawaii and Florida) chose to just swap out species. Guess what? In August 2019, a state of emergency was declared for the Cavendish banana. Experts say it may be too late to reverse the damage because once again, we are not addressing the root cause (no pun intended): mass-planting one species of any crop in a single area. Crops thrive in the midst of diversity.
Life is best sustained when different cultures mix together. This is natural and authentic for plant life. It is true for humans, too. Nothing flourishes in a monocultural world.
Each winter, as I begin planning and mapping my gardens, I do an online search for the most-updated lists of endangered vegetable and flower varieties. It is no longer a mystery to me that threatened plant species put our entire food supply at risk. The disappearance of mass arrays of foodstuffs also puts humanity at risk. God made this unique, beautiful bounty that comes from and sustains the earth and all that lives upon it. God called us to be stewards—caretakers who treat the land and what it brings forth with reverence, not convenience. So I check that list of what is being diminished, I order seeds someone else has saved, and I will plant them in the upcoming growing season.
Fortunately, our gardens do not solely rely upon our personal seed-saving efforts. God designed many seeds to glide and spiral through the air, transported by wind, landing in unclaimed soil. Many seeds get attached to the bodies of all sorts of animals, are carried away in fur or on wings and are eventually dispersed some distance from the parent plant. There is also an explosion mechanism within the blueprint of some seed pods that cast their seeds to lie in wait until growing conditions are right. Countless times I have thought to myself, I did not plant that there! I like to think the Holy Spirit is at work in this scattering of seeds, this commingling of life. Yet as amazing as all of this is, the earth is crying out for less monolithic planting and more seed savers.
Siblings of faith, let’s focus on maintaining the biodiversity that remains. So many of us are gardeners. Our pews overflow with folks who dig in the earth and bring excess tomatoes and zucchini to church. Imagine if we created seed banks as part of our claiming sanctuary for what God has made. Imagine if we were to hold congregational, synodical and regional seed swaps as part of our ministries, our assemblies and our conventions. Wouldn’t you like to plant some new-to-you, different peppers next year, alongside your all-time favorites? Is it time for an unfamiliar bean on your dinner table? So many heirloom vegetables are on the brink of extinction. They have names, like each of us do: Red Elephant Carrot… Shetland Cabbage… Walla Walla Sweet Onion… Boothby’s Blonde Cucumber… Mrs. Fortune’s Climbing French Bean… King of the Ridge Cucumber… Jeyes Pea and many others.
When I think about how important this vocation of seed saving has become for me, I hear the voices of the children in my life singing that simple refrain: I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas. I pray that the children of the world will bounce to that tune and that truth for many generations to come.
Venice Williams is mission developer for an ELCA worshipping community called The Table. She also serves as executive director and herb farmer at Alice’s Garden Urban Farm in Milwaukee.