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Gathering Seeds for a Livable Future

After a dry and fiery summer, the birds are now migrating, and the rains have returned here in the Canadian Pacific Northwest. The challenge I set myself this summer was teaching myself seed saving…leaving one plant of a crop to go to seed, drying, then storing. Not only am I trying to avoid reliance on commercial seeds, given the pandemic shortage, it is an act of cultural knowledge restoration.

Seed Saving

I never saw anyone save seeds or even what some plants look like when they go to seed. So, imagine my surprise when my carrot plant grew into a sizeable shrub and the edible root turned tough and fibrous. One carrot produced maybe 25 domed seed heads all holding the minute seeds. Thankfully, bean seeds are straight forward, especially as they are self-pollinating. My resistance to throwing them into a pot of baked beans, however, is weak. The dill did not dry enough to get seeds before the weather turned…so now I have a gardener’s note “let an earlier plant go to seed” instead of drying all the fronds for my spice rack. The effort seems modest, given the few seed packets I produce, but I can hear the reverberations across my ancestral line.

Ancestral Reverberations

This reverberation started years ago when I started preserving food. The beautiful, colorful jars all lined up on my cold storage shelves, invoked my mother and especially my grandmothers who had very few food alternatives, (i.e. no supermarkets). Especially for my rural paternal grandmother, what they produced in the garden, on the cropland, and in the animal pens, was all they had between them and hunger. They never went hungry though. While my Dad’s family hunted and my Mom’s family fished, to augment farming, it was never a mainstay. Such a self-reliant life is a life of dignity and resilience, even in tough times.

Out of this, the strong message in my family has been: owning land is key to self reliance. After the 1930s crash, it was clear that money in the bank was not fool-proof protection. Self-reliance for them was three things: land; the skills to grow and process most of what they needed; and good neighbours, often extended family, for working together and trading goods and services. Money for other items, such as sugar, salt, and cloth, came from selling excess production, like eggs, cream, or firewood. Even rural professionals like doctors, pastors and teachers were often paid in food, maybe a bedroom, or in other kinds of services such as blacksmithing, as money was scarce. This may come to pass again.

My Dad talks about his mother going down into the dugout basement under the house to snap off the potato sprouts, hoping to get a few more months out of them before the spring garden was producing again. One time, as I picked apples with my mother and my two little girls, I could feel all my grandmother ancestors milling around as I learned skills in the art of self-sufficiency. Years on, I hope they are proud of me. This year, I picked at least 60 pounds of apples from my tree, freezing pie filling, jarring apple butter, serving apple crisp, and storing the rest as eating apples. It is a very faint echo of how they provided for themselves. Being honest, I am the first to admit we cannot feed ourselves for even a month let alone a year. Yet, our many pounds of “clean” onions, garlic, leeks, potatoes, broccoli, cabbage, beets, turnips, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, beans etc. with lots of greens, certainly augment what we purchase with money over three seasons, which is very satisfying.

Designing a New Way of Living

We are at the cusp of a historical shift, where we need to look backward in these ways and relearn survival knowledge. But we also need to look forward using all the new technology and materials available to us. It feels like humanity is squandering this precious moment, to avert the harsh scenarios painted by thousands of scientists. We know we need to make significant shifts by 2030 and develop a profoundly different way of living by 2050.