seed freedom

seed packets

I am packing up seeds today. One envelope contains too many for me so I am posting a few to my mum. We will smile when the seedlings poke through the earth in a few weeks’ time, each thinking of the other witnessing the same everyday miracle, connected through the shared act of growing food from the same source, even though at the moment we live far apart.

This sharing works horizontally as I post the little packages to her at the other end of the country. It is also a vertical process, connecting me to the past as I remember the way she taught me to sow: lay a bamboo cane on the soil; twist it a bit to make a groove; water the groove; sow the seed sparingly; cover with soil; do not water on top. A mantra she learnt from her mother and who knows when it began in our family?

This year my daughters, both of them facing the challenge of living well on a student budget, also want to grow food. If they move into their new homes in time, I will help each of them prepare a vegetable patch. I will take a bamboo cane and fast-growing salad seeds: mizuna, rocket, lettuce, land cress. I will show them how to twist a groove in the soil. I will remind them: water before you sow and not after.

This practice of passing on skills from generation to generation is as old as the human race. It goes hand in hand with the sharing of seed. It is part of the complex web of ways in which we nurture ourselves from one year to the next, exchanging recipes, comparing growing notes, meeting around tables for our rites of passage: birthdays, weddings, baptisms, wakes.

You could say it is part of what it means to be human.

seeds

The preciousness of seed is written into ancient stories from all parts of the world. Right at the beginning of the Bible, for example, we are told that God gave seed as a gift to every living thing:

Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.

Genesis 1: 29-30

Seed is sacred.

The sharing and spreading of seed, the saving of it from one harvest as an investment in the next – these practices are a gift from God that bind us to the land and to one another.

That is why I believe the huge corporations that patent seeds so that it is actually illegal to save and share them are committing a terrible profanity.

It is why I think the bureaucrats who want to dictate which seeds we can and cannot use are, at best, a paradigm for the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. And people who are ruled by fools do not have much to look forward to.

But I am worried that most of us who will be affected by this are asleep.

In our little corner of history we have decided we prefer the hard work of food production to take place where we cannot see it. As a result we are ignorant in ways that would be unbelievable for most people at most times, in most places.

How do we think we will eat if we allow a few corporations to increase their already tight control of food production? What do we imagine we will grow when the legislators have abolished our heritage seeds, the very ones that might help us adjust to the challenges of a changing climate?

What do we think will happen to our relationships to one another and the earth if seed is no longer freely available but yet another commodity to ration, market, hoard and fight over?

We should be scared but instead we are sleepwalking.

We need to recognise seed patenting and seed banning for what they are: acts of sacrilege, attacks on our freedom and autonomy, a kind of war against humanity by the inhuman corporations and bureaucracies who want to trick us into thinking that ordinary people do not have the ability to feed one another.

And we need to fight back. I think we should be linking arms, mother to daughter, father to son, all the growers and the beekeepers, everyone who wants to know how to make food happen, all the people who still understand that the right attitude towards seeds is one of reverence.

For many of us the counter-offensive must begin in acknowledging our ignorance, whether that is ignorance of food production or lack of information about the way corporations are taking control of the global food supply.

Then we must resolve to learn.

The film Seed Freedom from the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network is a good start. It’s only about 25 minutes long.

So is simply growing something, even it’s just a few pea shoots on the windowsill. 

And if you live in the EU, please, please contact your commissioner about this potentially catastrophic law they will be considering on 6 May.

a happy interruption

The last thing you need when you’re up against a deadline and you feel like there will never, ever be enough hours in the day is an interruption.

Unless it’s an interruption like this.

Sixty weeny but perfect plugs of organic salad plants.

The instructions said to plant straight away.  The autumn sun was shining in the garden, there was fresh compost waiting to go in the raised beds – how could I refuse?

Well, I could have argued that this semester’s module in Victorian Literature is eating up all my time. Dickens, Gaskell, Eliot – I love you all but why did you have to write such long books?

Or I could have protested that I was behind on a major writing project that is currently earning me about sixpence halfpenny an hour and needs to be sorted out if the Dobson family is going to eat next year.

Nope, none of this was worth the sacrifice of these gorgeous little promises of winter greenery. In just an hour or so I had cleared the miserable looking courgettes (oh 2012, what a dreadful growing season you were) and the overgrown rocket, dug in the latest lot of crumbly, chocolatey compost from our bin and planted everything out.

Now we can look forward to winter purslane, corn salad, land cress and wild rocket to cheer up our winter meals. There were also two varieties of lettuce – ‘Winter Density’ and ‘Arctic King’ – that I am assured will be able to cope with the worst of the Sheffield snow, although I might tuck them up in a bit of fleece if it looks like being particularly harsh.

It’s amazing what an hour of sun and soil can do for one’s energy levels. Last week the new economics foundation recommended that we should all work shorter hours and spend the extra time in the garden. Judging from my experience today, if we took their advice we might actually end up being more productive, not less. Not to mention healthier and better equipped to cope with soaring food prices.

Incidentally, my plugs came from Organic Plants. I’ve not used them before but so far the service has been brilliant.

a world on your doorstep

Last week I met a young man who is an expert in South American tree frogs. He used to take tourists around a remote part of the Ecuadorean rainforest, identifying all kinds of wildlife for them, but especially his beloved frogs.

I was a bit in awe of this guy, of his knowledge and of his experience of the world. He lived for six months in that isolated spot in Ecuador, an hour’s plane ride away from what you might call civilisation. He worked with tribal elders, helping them to work out how to make a living without damaging the forest.

But then he said something that changed everything for me. ‘I used to think that nature was far away and out there,’ he said. ‘I thought you had to travel for miles and get away from everything to find it. But then I realised it is on your doorstep.’

We were talking at his home in west Yorkshire, an apparently ordinary house in a seemingly average street. But when you look more closely you see that Mike’s home is anything but run of the mill. Instead of a hedge in the front garden, there’s a rustic fence made of the trunks and branches from the Leylandii he chopped down when he moved in. The rest of his plot is being slowly developed as a forest garden, a way of growing edible plants that imitates the ecosystems found in woodland. There’s a ground covering of strawberries, then a layer of bushes – in this case currants and gooseberries – then a planting of nut trees. This is just the beginning: eventually the whole plot will be a low maintenance, sustainable source of food for Mike’s family.

I was struck by the whole concept of gardening in this way, but even more by the richness that Mike was discovering simply by being attentive to the nature on his doorstep. When I got back to Sheffield it made me look at our lovely valley in a new way. As luck would have it, when I took one of my regular walks up to the top of the stream, it was just after one of the heaviest rainfalls of this incredibly wet summer.

Often in summer the water just trickles through this valley but on this day it was in full spate, fiercer and stronger than I have ever seen it. It was surging down towards the parks at the bottom, pleating and plaiting as it dropped more than three hundred metres through a series of weirs and millponds, relics of the days when it drove more than 20 mills used in the manufacture of cutlery and hand tools.

After rainfall like last week the iron deposits that have shaped this valley’s history churn up to the surface, shading the water through ochre and dark ginger to a kind of luminous rust colour. From a distance you could think it was flowing over a succession of underwater lights. As I made my way along a path made sticky with mud and sodden leaves I was thinking of our daughter currently hundreds of miles away, planting trees in a remote corner of Madagascar. I’d been a little envious of this trip of a lifetime, but today the unfamiliar roar of a stream in spate and the memory of Mike’s fascination with his garden were giving me a new perspective.

Here I was, a few hundred metres from our front door, surrounded by ancient woodland, torrential water and a long, rich history that I knew disgracefully little about. I know even less of the wildlife that inhabits this wonderful spot. Thanks to my parents’ fascination with ornithology I’m not too bad at identifying the birds – I’ve seen nuthatches, woodpeckers, dippers and even a kingfisher on my walks but I know almost nothing of the mammals that live round here and still less about the insects and reptiles, not to mention the fungi, the trees, the plants and what you can do with them.

The truth of what Mike said about nature being on our doorstep came home to me on this walk. I realised too that I didn’t even need to come this short way to find it. It’s in my tiny garden, too, a whole ecosystem that I am barely aware of.

The pond in our garden at frog-mating time

Back in the eighties, when AIDS was first identified, there was a health campaign with the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance’. With the world now facing unprecedented food shortages, spiralling transport costs and weather patterns that are both unpredictable and potentially devastating, it seems our ignorance about the world in front of our noses may be at least as big a threat.

Mike is a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to the natural world. He knows what weeds you can eat, what to plant to fix nitrogen in your soil, how to manage ponds so that they sustain the widest possible range of beneficial wildlife. It’s a knowledge acquired over years and it flourishes within a deep appreciation and respect for the world on the doorstep.

I think it’s time to do something about my ignorance.

shifting focus

Almost as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house I take a walk around the garden. Of all places on earth, this is the one I associate most with my mother. Gardening, and especially vegetable growing, has been her joy and passion for fifty years or more. Like many people, she had a brief fling with roses and herbaceous borders in the seventies, but with a growing family to feed she was always most focused on edible plants.

Ungrateful teenager that I was, I really did not appreciate the privilege of having fresh, seasonal food at every meal. I took it all for granted, the bowls of organic raspberries, the rhubarb crumbles, the apparently unlimited supply of French beans, salad and peas.

During the harvesting season, Mum hardly moved beyond the garden and the kitchen, sometimes falling into bed at one or two in the morning after hours of blanching veg for the freezer. I remember when she had three freezers in the garage and every one was full of square Tupperware containers packed with fruit and vegetables, neatly stacked and meticulously labelled. That was probably a legacy of the war and of growing up with rationing. She was like a squirrel who couldn’t rest until there was an abundant store of food.

Things are different now though and for the first time in my life I do not see my mother outside in the garden. Aged 77 and suffering from a horrible degeneration of her spine, she mostly sits in what we call her ‘nest’, a space on the sofa where she is surrounded by piles of gardening and cookery magazines, her glasses, her phone and her medicines all within reach.

In theory I know this must have affected the garden; in practice I am not fully prepared for what I find.

The sun shines and I take my camera into the garden again and again. After weeks of cloud and rain in Sheffield, I am fascinated by the way the light changes, how the shadows shift across the grass and how every few minutes a different plant is lit up by sunshine.

I take shot after shot of the roses growing around the arch by the shed. They have been there for years: deep pink ones beaded with dew in the early morning, and some velvety crimson ones that have flopped off their supporting arch towards some self-seeded foxgloves. You would think the colours would clash, but in fact they blend to give an impression of majestic, imperial purple. From the window my mum points out how they complement the reddish buds of the Belgian honeysuckle.

Someone is coming later to mow the grass but for now drifts of speedwell sweep across it. The bed Mum planted specifically for pollinators is a riot of ox-eye daisies; later in the day I watch the bees dance to and fro between them and the intensely blue borage flowers.

The arch into the vegetable garden is smothered with jasmine, literally hundreds of tiny pink flowers. I pass beneath it and catch my breath. I take in the raised beds choked with bindweed, the empty compost bins, the gooseberries that will rot on the bush if nobody picks them soon.

It seems wrong to linger here, like an intrusion. Instead I turn around and go back towards the house, taking more pictures of the roses, the foxgloves, the honeysuckle. I keep focusing on these, adjusting the lens of the camera over and over again as the light moves.

Later I sit with my mum and try to get her to talk about how life is with my dad in hospital and her problems with mobility. She doesn’t try to deny that it can be hard, but she focuses mainly on the good things: their many friends, the television programmes she enjoys, the pleasure of texting her grandchildren. She is a profoundly spiritual person; when we talk together she makes me think of deep rivers and of a steel blade, shining, strong and unbreakable.

We do not like to talk about ageing much in our culture and like most people I fear it, all the loss and the letting go. But sitting with my mum I realise that however much she has had to give up – and she has given up a lot – she is no way diminished as a person. It is a privilege to sit there, peaceful, with the sun streaming through the window and a song thrush calling noisily from the garden.

alone with a lobster

After I read about Barbara Diggle’s amazing granny, the woman who knew how to use every scrap of a sheep’s head to feed her family (blogged here), I came across another bit of food history that couldn’t have been more of a contrast. We rented a holiday cottage that had an Aga in it and, gloriously, the instruction booklet dated back to at least the early seventies. I know this because at one point it mentions the cost of fuel as being ‘about 3/- or 15 New Pence’ and decimalisation came in in February 1971.

The Aga was introduced to England in 1929 and by the early 1970s it was clearly a considerable status symbol.

This aspirational tone is everywhere in the booklet, but especially in the illustrations. Take this for example:

This lucky lady in her pristine white dress has not only produced meringues, jam tarts and a couple of roast chickens from her spotless, shining Aga, she also has a lobster. A lobster. I asked my mum, who never had an Aga but who was very busy cooking meals for her growing family in the 1970s, if she could remember how common it was for people to eat lobster and she replied tartly that it would have been ‘far too expensive for schoolmasters’, a reference to the job my dad did all his life.

Now I’ve nothing against people who own Agas, although I’ve never had one myself. My point in writing about this gem of a booklet is that I think it contains some important clues as to how and why we severed so many of our connections with that most basic of processes – the journey from plant to plate and all the growing and cooking knowledge that goes along with it. I’m pretty sure many other food-related publications of the time would contain similar messages.

In the world of the Aga catalogue, that most basic of cooking implements – an oven – become a sign of your status, but even worse than that is the insidious suggestion that cooking is all about performance. ‘Why do good cooks love the Aga?’ demands the first page of the booklet. ‘And why do people who thought they weren’t good cooks, suddenly discover that they are?’ The sort of thing a good cook does is, again, suggested by the illustrations. Here’s another Aga lady, dreamily admiring the fruits of her labours.

Elaborate pastry, a whole Dundee cake, more jam tarts, glazed ham, lashings of butter … hang on, this is impossible for one person to do in a day, Aga or no Aga.

And here’s a third picture demonstrating something else that is impossible.

Sorry, but you cannot feed a family on cream-filled meringues and Victoria sponge (not to mention those jam tarts again) and still have hipbones that show through your dress.

These women are so isolated. Apart from the little boy in the last picture, they are always alone in their kitchen. Early in the booklet the reader is told that ‘the slow oven is perfect for keeping plates warm, or meals hot for tardy husbands or football-crazy sons’.  In other words, while the male of the species is out working, socialising or enjoying sport, the female is home alone, sweetly ensuring that he has a hot meal to come back to. And cooking food that she cannot possibly eat herself if she is to keep her Twiggy-style figure.

It all adds up to a grotesque contrast with the memories you can read about on the history section of the Incredible Edible Todmorden website. In these interviews, people celebrate the connections they made around food – the fishmonger who kept a good herring back for granny, the children who spent whole days picking bilberries together – and express a real pride in genuine cooking skills, such as knowing how to turn stale bread into crumbs to make a cake.

I’m really not advocating a return to the days when ordinary people couldn’t even afford meat at Christmas. But I do think a lot of people were robbed when an increasingly affluent and consumerist society made food into something that isolated and excluded, rather than a source of connection and celebration.

And I know I sing the praises of Todmorden a lot on this blog, but the incredible edible project is doing a wonderful job of restoring food to its rightful place as something that builds relationships as well as sustaining our bodies, and of making sure that as many as people as possible can reclaim the satisfaction of growing and cooking their own meals.

The world of the Aga booklet is one of impossible standards and a constant struggle to outdo your neighbours. The ‘fairer, kinder, greener’ world of Todmorden is one of renewed connections, from person to person and between people, the land and the food it produces. I know which one I’d rather live in.