How can saving seeds and growing native and traditional plants promote food sovereignty and preserve community? On January 14, 2023, guests joined us in the James Watrous Gallery for an open conversation with local plant experts on the connections between saving seeds, preserving culture, and local resilience.
Moselle Singh, an art activist with a background in ethnobotany, led with a discussion of the politics of food, land, kinship, and resistance to the commodification and dilution of traditional plant cultures. Singh was joined by Dan Cornelius of Yowela Farm, founder of the Native Food Network; Jane Stevens of Four Elements Organic Herbals; Hannah Majeska, a seed librarian from Madison Public Library; and Nicholas Leete, a community gardening advocate from Rooted, who shared their perspectives on seed-saving, native plants, traditional foods, and plant medicine. We enjoyed to a robust conversation about why growing native and heirloom plants is important, and how preserving traditional foods and medicines can help to build community and bolster local resilience.
Watch post-event takeaways from presenters Moselle Singh and Joseph Mougel at the bottom of this page.
This event was hosted in conjunction with exhibitions by Richard Moninski and Joseph Mougel; Joseph Mougel was part of the conversation and shared some thoughts about his exhibition, called Herbarium. The Seeds of Resilience event was free and open to the public.
Jody Clowes: Good morning! Let's get started. I'm Jody Clowes, the gallery director here at the James Watrous Gallery. As most of you know, I hope, we're a program of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters. One of the things we try to do with our art exhibitions is find ways to connect their themes to other disciplines and other ideas. This event is an experiment in that direction, and I appreciate you all joining us to be part of that.
I want to begin by introducing each of our invited guests, and then we'll give Joseph Mougel a little time to tell us about his exhibition "Herbarium." Then we'll turn it over to Moselle Singh, who has graciously agreed to facilitate and lead the conversation.
Moselle Singh is an artist with a background in agroecology, biodiversity, and conservation. She's currently working as an activist artist here in the Midwest, collaborating with organizations like the Great Plains Action Society and the Buffalo Rebellion Coalition. I have been captivated and inspired by the conversations we've had with Moselle to get ready for this event, and I'm really pleased to have her with us.
I also want to introduce our other guests: First, Nicholas Leete, who works for Rooted as one of two garden network managers supporting community gardens and gardeners, particularly at the gardens connected to Badger Rock Urban Farm on the south side of Madison and Troy Farm on the north side. Nicholas describes his work as "management of new and struggling gardens" -- I love his phrasing --providing some technical and language assistance and bringing gardeners and organizers together from around the county to share ideas and support each other. So it's really great work. We're delighted to have you here.
Standing at the back is Jane Stevens from Four Elements Organic Herbals. Jane began specializing in herbs in the 80s, starting out with garden design, cooking, and home remedies. She began Four Elements in 1987, and today you can buy her products at many different places around Wisconsin and beyond. Jane grows and harvests all of her herbs on her farm near North Freedom, and creates this beautiful line of teas and medicines and body care products. She's brought some things to share today, which I'm really grateful for. Thank you for being here, Jane.
Dan Cornelius is a member of the Oneida Nation whose Yowela Farm is just south of here in Stoughton. Dan is a leader on the Intertribal Agricultural Council and has also been deeply involved in the Native Food Network's mobile farmers markets and their efforts to connect Indigenous farmers and communities around the country. Dan, the rest of my description came from somewhere else, so you can correct me if it's wrong: it says you're a wild rice harvester, a corn and pumpkin steward, and a rancher, and describes Yowela farm as a seed sanctuary. Is that about right?
Dan Cornelius: The bio is a little bit dated, but overall it's good enough.
Jody: And finally we have Hannah Majeska, a community engagement librarian from Madison Public Library. One of the hats she wears is seed librarian, which is an amazing job title. For those who don't know, the library has been offering vegetable and flower seeds for checkout since 2014. Last season they added a selection of native seeds as well. I just really love that project and hope it will inspire lots of community members to get out there gardening and hopefully start saving seeds and returning them to the library to keep the project going. Hannah has brought along wealth of information and books as well.
That's enough from me! Joseph, please tell us a little about your exhibition.
Joseph Mougel: Well, I am an artist that primarily works with photographic media, although I work with other mediums as well. I currently reside in Milwaukee, where I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
My HERBARIUM project is a series of tableau photographs, and it started from a shift in my practice through an opportunity I had at Iowa Lakeside Laboratory in Milford, which has a wonderful artist in residence program. While I was there, I kind of taken in by all of this equipment, all this history that they represented for looking at the natural world. And I really wanted to bring that lens into my practice and not only think about how we look at nature in a very objective way, but look into how our communities and our backgrounds kind of shape that as well.
So these sort of tableau images came into play, and I started thinking about works that were more collaborative with the environment where the environment had a direct role in making the art. And that's where we get pieces like the pedotype prints over here, which are these silhouetted prints made using a combination of a 19th century photographic process called a VanDyke Brown and the practice of using silver nitrate to test soil composition. And these prints are made by literally uprooting plants and then placing them on top of the of paper and I would get these different chemical reactions based on the soil composition.
My piece "So Goes the Ash" was spurred by my two young children and thinking about the legacy of the environment they will inherit. I wanted a title that sounds like a book you would read to your child in talking about the loss of ash trees in the Midwest. I was imagining a scenario where children are playing in a pile of ash leaves, and the father is thinking that their children will most likely not have that exact same experience. Again, this is a kind of collaboration in that some of the color you see on each ash silhouette is from the leaves themselves and a reaction with the silver nitrate that's in the paper.
And then there's another body of work made with cedar stumps that I harvested during another artist residency at a biological field stations in Nebraska called Cedar Point. And they were going to remove some cedar trees from an area and were more than happy for me to do that for them. So I removed some cedar trees as a part of my body of work called "Effortless." But I also brought some of those stumps home and I found that these little beetles were escaping their dying stump. And thinking about the stumps as, you know, a planet or an environment for them is very attractive. And so I placed the stumps on black paper for awhile, then removed them and then photographed what was left. And so if you look closely you see the trails of these beetles walking away.
For me the Effortless stump project fits underneath the umbrella of my Herbarium exhibition because it was about the human scale of this removal, or this change of the environment that one can make. And so I was, you know, removing cedar trees with basic tools, and I would take photographs periodically as I was changing the environment, thinking about what we could do as an individual, thinking about bringing this natural environment to a sort of human scale right there. And as I was making this work I was thinking like, human population now is just under 8 billion. And now when I talk about like we have crested over 8 billion and thinking about that change, we have over 8 billion people on the environment there.
So these are very much meditative pieces, and my practice has been moving me towards figuring out ways to have the environment and its own needs sort of collaborate with me, you know.
Jody: Thank you, Joseph. So you can see why having Joseph's collaboration with plants and the environment has made us think about how fundamental plants are to human culture, and how human culture is intertwined with their survival. These plants literally make up our bodies. This interaction and interplay between plants and human culture, I think is so important to who we are.
Moselle Singh: I couldn't agree with that more. I feel very lucky to be in the presence of all of you. My name is Moselle, I grew up in Iowa, and basically my whole life has been this learning of who I am and where I am and pulling from this connection I've always felt with the land.
To give you a little bit of background, I'm very lucky that both of my parents are here right now. We moved to rural Leclaire, Iowa, around my fifth birthday. When we moved to this piece of land, there was some woodland but most of it was open fields, previously farmland.
We were surrounded by corn and soy and we moved in and my parents -- we're not farmers by trade, but we have an interest in plants, a very close affinity with plants -- as soon as we moved in, we started planting. So I've always planted since I was a kid. We were planting native trees and tall grass prairie and I grew up in this environment where I had this relationship with the plants around me.
That was in stark contrast to everything else around me. Fields, monoculture fields of corn and soy where they're aerial sprayed. So we would see the planes go, you see them spray, you watch the drift, and you watch how the oak trees are affected. You see the pattern of the leaves and -- I get emotional about it -- but in a place that's your home, you start to feel a sense of family with your more than human relatives.
And there's a story that's written in the landscape. That was something that I experienced at a very young age, it was a stark contrast and a sense of loss. I also watched the decline of the amphibian species, and I was like, What happened to all my frog friends?
I read Rachel Carson in sixth grade, and I was presenting to my elementary school. I was the only person of color in my class talking about glyphosate and how it affected aquatic species in a school that was named after Buffalo Bill Cody. You know, so rural Iowa is like -- I was trying to navigate these spaces as someone who has an identity that is mixed.
So navigating multiple cultures and trying to figure out where I am in this space has been very challenging. But the belonging I felt with plants changed my life and has saved my life again and again and again. But where that relationship brought me was very interesting because that passion and connection I had with the plants brought me to Punjab, which is part of my ancestral roots.
It's where my dad is from and I've always struggled again, being somebody who's of multiple cultural identities, feeling a sense of connection when I don't actually feel that I fit in either one, I have no place. Where is my place? How do I express myself? What do I wear? What languages can I speak? Is it okay for me to wear a bindi? You know? Is it okay for me to engage in these different ways?
And it's interesting because it's a question a lot of people don't ask themselves as far as identity and lineage and connection. A lot of people approach plants as simply material mediators for human benefit, and they see them through use value frameworks, and that is completely devoid of the kinship and really deep spiritual connection that humans have always had with plants.
It comes from place. Culture was birthed from reading landscape. Knowing your water, understanding that your life is coming from the soil and water, and you know that so intimately and you feel that connection, that the soil and the water are the mother of mothers. This is the understanding that started to unfold.
And I felt I was really in a place where that wasn't how people were talking about plants around me. And so I went to India; there's a woman named Vandana Shiva, an eco activist in North India, and she has her roots in the Chipko movement. I'm not sure if any of you have heard of it, but it's a really powerful movement that took place in the seventies in northern India, where rural village women were protecting the forested areas that were at risk of being deforested.
So these are things that happen all over the world, how ecocide and genocide are absolutely one and the same. And it is the people who have the deep connection with the land who are in the frontlines. I'm sorry, the pain that you feel when you see that is undeniable. So I had read some of her books and I was just so inspired by her that I went to northern India and worked with her. She has multiple seed libraries where she conserves Indigenous seeds. It's primarily Indigenous women who are seed keepers in that region. So I was working alongside Indigenous seed keepers and we were conserving over 600 varieties of rice. Most people eat only like a couple of different varieties, right?
People are very unfamiliar with the life of that that plant. Rice has an expression, soybeans have an expression, they have a life, they have diversity. And that is only expressed with the people who understand that this is a living ancestor that we are living alongside. And it's a very different relationship than you see in the West in most cases.
So through all of this, I was able to connect with my own roots and understand that plants are not devoid of a cultural context. They're not devoid of a historical context. If you really want to respect the plants, you have to understand the history, you have to understand the lineage. You have to understand the history of colonization that happened.
Punjab is a region that spans what is both now Pakistan and India. It's a region that was ripped in half by the British partition in 1947. That initiated the largest mass migration of humans in history, and a million people were killed in that. My grandma was working as a surgical nurse on the border during the partition.
I say all of this because we need to understand the complexity of these histories and for my understanding, my own identity and who I am in these spaces, I've had to understand my ancestors and my roots. So I want everyone to understand where we are now. It is 2023. We are in Madison, Wisconsin, so called Madison, Wisconsin, which is largely Ho Chunk land. We are on the isthmus that is defined by two lakes, Mendota and Monona. The water of these lakes is absolutely affected by agricultural practices that have decimated the soils and water of Punjab because the whole world has been affected by the Green Revolution -- which actually started with Norman Borlaug in Iowa, where I'm from.
So I provide all this context because I want you all to ask yourself the question of what brought you here, not only today, but your history and your lineage and the things that you carry with you. You know, the foods you enjoy eating and what traditions you keep alive. What is your culture? What is what is it that we're going to celebrate today? And this talk of seed resilience? What is your resilience?
I just have one last point that I want to share. So again, because lineages are very complex. You know, on my mother's side, it's European ancestry. We don't really know much beyond that. My grandfather was adopted. We don't really know much more than that on my maternal side. On my paternal side, Punjab -- everyone, it's like very deep roots in Punjab. And that goes all the way back to the Indus Valley civilization. I mean, that area is so rich in history that so many people don't know about. A lot of people don't realize that the first depictions of Buddha were coming from Taxila which is an ancient site in Pakistan, and Sanghol in Punjab. There's just this amnesia and this ignorance of these places.
And so part of my roots are I'm Punjabi Sikh. Singh is a Sikh last name which means lion. And I say this because within that tradition there's this phrase Shaadi Kala, which is showing resilience and courage in the face of adversity, no matter what, no matter the darkness, no matter the genocide you face, no matter the migrations, you have to go through understanding that what we carry with us is resilience.
And that's, it's just this beautiful celebration in our culture. There's dance, there's food, there's music. And I hope that all of you can find that expression for yourself in your own way.
Jody: Thank you. So, thinking about how that comes back to seed culture, and how carrying seeds forward is part of that resilience and part of that culture, who should we invite to speak next?
Moselle: Oh my gosh, there's so many incredible people here today. Let's start with Dan Cornelius. I would love to hear from Dan.
Dan: Well, that's a tough act to follow. As I was introduced earlier, I am from the Oneida Nation, and I actually stopped working for the Intertribal Agriculture Council last year, but I did work for them for over a decade. I now work for the University of Wisconsin's Great Lakes Indigenous Law Center. I see some folks here that I worked with on campus. Really my work and my focus is more how can I, how can we, support tribes? How can I leave a better world, a better life for my son here?
What a crazy three years this has been, I will say, for the tribes. Back in September updated life expectancy numbers were released, and tribal life expectancy has dropped to 65.2, 12 years below the national average. And you know, why is that? My background's in federal Indian law, tribal law, tribal food sovereignty. Well, we could we could talk all day about the reasons and similar issues of dispossession, of land, of the seeds, continuing through to today. I was kind of reluctant to accept the invitation to speak here today. Seeds are kind of a tough topic. Over the years I've gotten lots of requests from people who want native seeds. I wouldn't share most of the seeds I'm growing with just anybody. I mean, there's got to be a relationship there. And, you know, it's kind of tough.
[gestures to the circular seating arrangement in the gallery] So I teach a couple classes on campus and one of the things that I talk about is just how does the layout of their space impact learning? How does the classroom impact learning? And a lot of my work is getting outside of a classroom. I remember I was teaching a horticulture class and I did a guest lecture for a food sovereignty class. I brought in corn and was cooking corn as I was giving this lecture, and then we ate three different types of corn at the end of it. Evan Goldman, a professor at UW, said, Do you want to teach together?, and we've taught it for the past three years. But the first class walked in and and it had desks bolted onto the ground of this classroom. How were we going to do hands-on learning with desks bolted down to the ground? And of course, clearly it was designed as a lecture hall. And, you know, it's not really what we were trying to do with that class. So we moved to a different space. But I think about it with the space we're in now, here in the gallery.
I want to talk about a couple of the seeds here that I brought. The seed right here, this is a Bear Island corn; Bear Island is an island in Leech Lake in northern Minnesota. This corn, the seed on this ear was collected by Oscar Will's Pioneer Seed Company, and it was donated to the USDA's seed library in the late 1940s. And in some ways, maybe that was a good thing, you know, a lot of the reason it is here today is because of that.
I think we can talk more on that. But this seed right here, this is a heck of a white corn. I'm just going to give a real quick background on this corn because I think that it really touches on a lot of different aspects.
I've been involved in the work of helping to get the Indigenous Seed Keepers network started. One of my close friends, Rowan White, has done a lot of that work. And we brought a lot of people together for a training, and when I started working for Intertribal Agriculture Council in 2011 we started doing food summits at Oneida, and those turned into big national food sovereignty summits. Prior to the pandemic, at the Great Lakes Intertribal Food Summit we had over 700 attendees and over 70 Native chefs, all coming together and cooking on fires. And, you know, this concept of farm to table, hopefully is how we bring them back together, native foods and chefs and growers. There is a lot to decolonize, I mean I don't use that term very often, but in the case of the events that I organized, how do we decolonize conference format? Let's get outside of the conference center. We want to be able to build the fires, cook with the seeds.
So when I started going around the region in 2011, most people were growing only what they call only white corn, Oneida white corn. It's actually Tuscarora white corn because the Tuscarora brought it when they joined the Haudenosaunee Iroquois Confederacy in the 1700s. I love growing it. When you harvest it, you're going to fill up your bag or your basket pretty quick because, you know, you got 12 inch ears on it. It's an eight row corn, it's a flour corn. It's really great for making flour. So ten years ago, that's what a lot of our of our Indigenous growers were growing because it was available. At Oneida we've had some pretty good food sovereignty efforts over the years and that was the seed that was accessible.
The thing is when you're in northern Wisconsin and northern Minnesota, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and you're trying to grow corn, that takes, you know, four months to finish. And only if you have a good year, a good season, will you get a harvest. People were having a lot of discouragement at not being able to have a successful harvest. And so I was out at Onondaga holding a seed-keeping meeting, at the capital of our Haudesaunee Confederacy. And I was talking to one of my elders, Silver Bear, and I was asking, Steve, what do you think about me crossing the Tuscarora white corn with this Manitoba white corn that's like a 73 or 72 [days to harvest]?
And he said, Well, why would you want to do that? And I said, Well, we need more short season corn. And he said, Well, how many rows is the Manitoba way? That's 10 to 12. No, absolutely do not do that. All our forms are eight rows. And so you don't want to do that. At the end of that meeting, he came up and he gave me a little of this Agora plant corn [from Italy] and and gave me instructions on, you know, to grow it.
And, you know, so I have and I've gotten that seed out here in the region because this is about a short 85 day corn and it's smaller ears. Some of them are bigger than than these ones. There's some other pretty cool things with this corn. But, you know, just within within that. And I will say one other thing of a close relation to this.
Later that same year I was up at Red Lake, we were hosting a food summit at Red Lake in northern Minnesota, and there was an elder there doing a demonstration. I'm cooking this corn. And so, you know, polenta, everyone. And I'm planting Italian food. Well, what people don't know is when Columbus and the others were collecting plants -- you know, kind of connecting with the herbarium idea, there's a really interesting history of the herbarium and collecting plants from all over the world, collecting seeds from all over the world. Well, you can't just -- you know, working with the seeds is not as simple as just put them in the ground, grow them, and save them. There's a whole set of knowledge that goes along with the seeds. And part of it is that cooking. So the challenging thing when they brought the corn seeds over to Italy, they didn't bring that knowledge about how to cook it right. And while we cook it in a lot of different ways, they didn't bring the knowledge of how to nixtamalize it with wood ash or some other sort of lime. When you do that, you're making the niacin available for your body to digest, you're adding flavor, you're adding the ability to make different kinds of foods with it.
And so that knowledge didn't go with it. But at Red Lake, there's Elder Jack, showing how to make hominy. And I just happened to be going over to Italy the next week for this big international slow food gathering, and my harvest is just finishing as I was about to go and the deer were starting to get into it all. And I got a lot of corn here and what am I going to do? Well, I got some family and friends together, we harvested it all, and I brought it up to Red Lake, we did a big husking there at Red Lake.
And that was the first time for a lot of our Indigenous people to experience a big corn husking, at that food summit. Well, back to Jack. Jack comes up to me and says, Hey, I saw that corn over there. Our white corn is mostly what we were husking, but I had a little bit of this Agora corn and he asked, you know, could I have some of that? I mean, well, I said, I don't have too much, but yeah, of course, you know. And then he comes back to me a little bit later with a handful of of his Red Lake flint corn and told me the story, how he was the only person at that point growing that corn.
It was passed down in his family. And he gave me some very specific instructions of how to grow it, to only grow half your first year, don't give any out until you build up enough. And then don't give it to these guys here at Red Lake because, you know, well that was kind of a funny thing but there's more to that as well.
We've since grown out that corn and we've gotten it out to more to more folks. But you know, who speaks for the seeds? That to me is one of the big things. And because I know Jack was not ok with, say, like, Tribal government doesn't speak for his seeds. So I think to me it's the stewards, it's the people growing it. And our biggest way to protect our seeds is having enough growers growing it and, you know, really understanding how to do so. Now, the complexity and why one is hesitant to speak here is, you know, I would not share these seeds out with just anybody. I wouldn't share most of the seeds with just anybody. I mean, there's got to be a relationship there. And for each of these seeds growing and understanding how they grow, it's building a relationship with them.
The thing I am the most excited about today are the Tribal elder food boxes we started two years ago. Now we're in 2023. But in 2020 the pandemic breaks out. As I said before, 65.2 is the average life expectancy for Native populations. I've lost close friends in the pandemic. And you know what? It comes back to health. And so there's the USDA farmers' families food boxes that launched; think back to that first wave of the pandemic, milk getting dumped, hogs getting butchered and piled up. There's a reason why Brown County was a hot spot for a pandemic outbreak and the connection there, the processing plants. And they only have still three major processing plants in Green Bay. Well, USDA responded with the farmers' families food boxes and there's limited categories of food that would go into those boxes. So we got semi-trucks of dairy that's coming rolling into our tribal communities and a lot of our elders are lactose intolerant. They're kind of like, thanks, but no thanks, you know. It really comes back to the discussions that we have been having of trying to support food sovereignty, support producers by having an outlet to be able to get our foods, and keep that within our communities. How do we expand that?
And that's what the food box project has been about. We started last year with three tribes. We've expanded this year; this past year, we have all 11 Wisconsin tribes on board. And some of my friends up at Oneida have a white corn growers group, and they never had sold their corn before; they feel like it's not right for us to sell our corn, but here we have an opportunity to get it to feed our elders and maybe have some income coming in to cover expenses.
You know, this is part of where we're really getting back to what was our traditional economy and some of the taboos against selling seeds, against commodifying corn. How do we deal with that today? And that's a lot of what we're doing now, working on expanding and forming a Great Lakes Intertribal Food Coalition.
And so that's just some a little bit of the basics with my work. But the difference is we won't sell these seeds. But, you know, there are questions like can you share some of the food that we grow off of seeds; those are some of the deeper discussions. Just to give a little bit of a taste of some of the issues and some of the cool things that are happening.
That's one of the big things that I've been a part of. I'll pass it on to our next speaker.
Moselle: Thank you so much, Dan. Let's hear from Rooted, from Nicolas. I'd love to hear your insights if you have some something to add.
Nicholas Leete: Hello, yes, I'm from Rooted, which is a community garden support organization. Rooted does a lot of things, but my job involves working with lots of gardeners, lots of farmers. I'm sharing stories from some of our gardeners; I am a gardener, adn while I'm not a very big seed saver, other gardeners we work with are very active seed savers. So you harvest the seed and keep it, and then eventually you can plant and keep it going again. The things Dan and Moselle are talking about touch on movement and the abilities and difficulties of moving seeds from one environment to another.
So there's several varieties of sticky corn which are grown in Southeast Asia, which our Hmong gardeners often have access to. And there is this challenge of that sticky corn since it is used to growing in subtropical or tropical conditions. If anyone knows more about day-length they can interrupt me here, because I might be wrong, but the sticky corn is often waiting for a signal of night length. And so growing in Wisconsin the amount of daylight is different. And so it'll just grow up and up and up and up oftentimes and not get that signal to produce seed -- winter comes and it doesn't have time to produce the seed.
Jody: So some of the gardeners who are trying to grow these traditional foods here struggle because their varieties don't mature in this climate, or this latitude?
Nicholas: Right. Another thing that comes up because of differences in climate is that a lot of Hmong crops here have to be replanted each year, dug up before winter and brought inside. So there's a lot of figuring out what will survive overwinter. Lemongrass will not survive through a winter inside. And so you need to get that from a nursery every year. There's lots of growers in Minnesota that will grow Hmong medicinal herbs; there's actually a vendor from the Twin Cities that travels around various towns in Wisconsin; people will travel to Minnesota or get things from that vendor. We are involved in a project to try to make that easier, to try to get more of that production in Minnesota happening here. That shows how of all these systems, all these connections, the transport and growing of such a huge variety of plants, shows the importance that these plants have for the Hmong community.
I also see it a lot with the Mexican-American growers in our gardens. There's a lot of what people call self-seeding, where mustard, cilantro, dill, a lot of the cabbage family, people will leave the seeds to dry naturally and drop. The phrase self-seeding suggests that people aren't involved at all, but there's a lot of management of the soil, management of the ground cover, so that the seeds will sprout. It's more involved than just putting the seeds in a box and preserving them, or leaving them to fall on their own.
Joseph: I'd love to add on to that because what you're hitting on is really important. When people hear about seed saving, there are a lot of different things that come to mind. For example, Svalbard in Norway, the doomsday seed vault, that's when you take the seeds off-site and put it in cold storage. So there are so many different kinds of seeds in this one location. It's a very centralized approach and it's a very Western approach. How do we get to them when doomsday actually happens? I don't know, do we build a canoe or something?
Moselle: Yeah. It doesn't really make the most sense when you think about how communities actually form and how people actually tend to the seeds. Because what Nicholas is talking about is actually in-vivo saving, where on-site you're having this ongoing relationship, where you're tuning into what the plants' needs are in this particular environment. It takes observation and time and attentiveness. You're caring for, tending to, stewarding in the moment.
Joseph: Yeah. This is something I think about within my own yard. It's like my grand experiment as someone who grew up on a farm, my yard in Milwaukee, like the biggest city I can tolerate. I sort of observe and think about this for some of these seeds that my father brought back with him from France or the seeds that came from Denmark, from his grandfather. And I'm growing seeds that struggle in this environment here. And I watched them change from year to year. And I think about that active relationship. That's one thing I think about with my "pedotype" prints -- that term describes a soil type that has been separated from the environment, when soil is something that is very much alive with nutrients. And its composition is based on the vegetation that grows in it, but they have to be separated when you put seeds into a seed vault.
And when we take it out of that environment, how can that seed now flourish? I think about that when I watch my four varieties of tomatoes that I grow every year slowly come together to make their own variety that, you know, changes. At harvest I mark the largest one or the one that grows the longest in the season, and I save those seeds. I think about seed vaults and how that sounds like a really great idea. But the loss of our relationship to those seeds is another sort of disconnect from the environment.
Moselle: Another thing to keep in mind is, I mean, we're experiencing climate change. So if you're taking these seeds out of their context and storing them away, it doesn't allow the seed to continue, just as you're saying, continue adapting to the changing conditions. So a seed that may have adapted certain kinds of resiliency to drought or whatever else, that's now been locked away and isn't able to adapt to changing conditions.
Another thing that we haven't yet talked about are the wild ancestors of these plants that we have domesticated. And I think that's extremely important because something like corn, something like rice, there are wild ancestors out there that have the genetic expression within them. The potential that the plants that have been domesticated to the point that they now no longer have any longer.
For example, wild varieties of rice are able to self shatter their seeds, so it's able to disperse its own seeds. That's something that was bred out. So now the plant can no longer disperse. It depends on humans to do that. So now what they're finding is with rice, it's no longer as resilient amid all these changing conditions.
So now they're like, Oh, we need to go back to the wild ancestors. But the problem is the habitat has been decimated for a lot of these plants. Something like coffee, which is extinct in the wild. It's only existing in a domesticated form. This is what's happening with all of our plants that we have domesticated because of the habitat loss, because of processes like colonization, capitalism, that end up creating large scale ecocide alongside climate change.
Dan: Yeah. I'm working with UW, and down in Oaxaca ten years or so ago researchers discovered a corn that has slime at the base that fixes nitrogen. They discovered it, got some seeds, brought it back, sequenced that everything. And I think it's a very interesting ethical dilemma as, I mean, I am surrounded by row crops and field corn. To me, it just means I adjust my planting so that I plant later, you know, that's just kind of what I do. If we had corn that didn't need to have all of those fertilizers put on, yeah, that would be pretty nice but it doesn't really get into the core issue, the core problem: Why are we even growing all this corn in the first place?
But even deeper than that, the researchers discovered this corn that has been grown, stewarded, cared for by Indigenous communities for how many generations, hundreds, at least, if not thousands. And where is that recognition? Respect? And then there are people who are advancing benefit-sharing, you know, so if you're making a profit the benefits go back to the community of origin. I don't know, that's a good thought, I suppose. But is that really what the communities where that corn came from want to see? I think there's a lot of deeper issues there, but I just wanted to raise that as an example. There's a grant application going on now trying to create space for southern and northern Indigenous growers to be able to come together to talk about some of these issues.
And you know, the USDA's grain seed, anyone can request seeds out of there. But it's for the good of humanity. As soon as though someone gets those seeds, identifies, you know, separates out, identifies particular gene patterns on there, then all of a sudden they own that. But that's for the good of humanity too, because they put the work into finding it. Even though it's coming from Indigenous communities that have stewarded it for time immemorial. You know, just posing some of these these issues. I don't know if there's a right and wrong answer. I think that it's complex, but these are some of the issues that we grapple with on a regular basis.
Moselle: That's such an important point. Biopiracy is one of the terms that's used to describe that exact process, you know, people going and getting knowledge from Indigenous communities about particular plants or locations and how that plant grows there, and then deriving these compounds. It's tied in with pharmaceutical companies and all of that. It's a huge problem all over the world. So again, it's really important that we understand the larger context and how incredibly complex and painful a lot of these processes are.
Dan: A lot of countries now do not allow seeds or genetic material to leave the country. Whole countries are doing this now. And you know, it is a discussion internally within tribes. I mean, even now, how do we avoid this? I know one tribe that I work with has a tribal law: if you claim ownership over a living being then you're banished from the tribe. Oh, yeah. And I agree. And okay, I get where you're coming from, but is this actually going to inhibit protection of some of our seeds? You know, are there other ways that we can more fully develop Tribal intellectual property laws that would a little bit more accurately incorporate Indigenous perspectives?
I've raised some of these issues with their historic tribal, historic preservation officers, like, I see where you're coming from, but how do you address it? Again, I think that there's a lot of deeper issues there.
Jody: You know, one of the one of the things that strikes me in this discussion is bringing seeds from one place to another. Like you were talking about some of the Hmong seeds being brought here and there's some other discussion about Native seeds being relocated, trying to grow them elsewhere and the knowledge lost in that process. What I'd like to know is if you're bringing those seeds from one place to another, you're growing them someplace and then you're selecting for certain characteristics. Are they really still the same seeds? To what extent does that matter?
Moselle: So the way that I understand seeds is that they are living. They are living beings, they are constantly evolving, they're dynamically changing all the time. To say that it's one seed, I think that really goes to the species concept. So the species concept is saying, oh, everything is just one constant stagnant thing and it's very identifiable and not changing.
But everything is always changing. On the perimeter, its edges, is where things are constantly evolving. So to say it's the same seed? It's related, it's absolutely related. Is it the exact same? No, because it's changing to new conditions. But I think that could be said for a lot of things. That's the paradox, yes and no at the same time.
Joseph: I think about this, the seeds, these plants, what we're growing them for; we are putting our own desires for expression on them. I'm selecting the first fruit to bear and the largest fruit. That's my desire for me, this is my lens. Whether that's a cultural lens or if it's just, you know, just a personal preference. And so all these different varieties that we have, it's market demand, something that's more about agribusiness. And that that kind of listening and paying attention to the plants, it's a difficult thing to compete with the pressures and the demands of someone from agribusiness. But also I think for me as an artist, you know, from the point of view of what looks the best in my yard, like, do I want to be that large and luxurious that I can post on Instagram versus, you know, that's something that's kind of scraggly but might be better because of its diversity or it's impact on to the soil. Like the nutrients you might pull out of the soil versus the nutrients which the plant might put back into it. I love this idea of self-seeding; that's definitely how most of my leafy greens grow in my yard. And I tried for a long time to try to control that.
But I'm also the person that goes out there to demonstrate to my neighbors that if you don't like a plant here, I'll move it to another location and here versus putting out herbicides there. So I think there is something to be said about that desire that we have.
Jody: Thanks, Joseph. I want to make sure that we have a little time for questions, and I also want to give Jane Stevens and Hannah Majeska a moment to share. Jane?
Jane Stevens: I'm really appreciative that everyone showed up and care about seeds so much to be here today. That's really wonderful. So I am UW art graduate, but in my first job out of college I was asked to put in an herb garden. That was 1981.
So I was just learning how to grow herbs. But when my son was born in 1987, he had repeated earaches. I took him to the doctor several times and they couldn't do anything for him. So I went to the library and looked in the herb books and it said mullein flowers and olive oil.
And I thought that so simple, how could that possibly be? And I went outside and the mullein were blooming, put it in the olive oil. I put a couple drops in his ear and he quit crying like immediately. And I became just so fascinated. I really feel like, you know, the herbs chose me to tend them. I love growing things. Through my 36 years now of herbalism, I have seen the herbs do so much that the pharmaceuticals can't and I think it's really important that we start to pay more attention to natural remedies because, you know, there's very few side effects. They really work with in the body really well. And I just have so many wonderful stories of how plants have healed, where, you know, the drugs just can't. And by the way, I'm not a doctor. I can't claim to treat, mitigate or cure anyone. If I say anything for something, the FDA doesn't like that because I make products. And so I'm in a certain marginalized group as an herbalist. Making products makes it harder for me; I can't make any claims.
The history of herbalism in America is so fascinating. There used to be over 100 herb schools in America in the 1800s, and it was so beautiful because the Europeans and the Natives shared their information and we had all these remedies that were taught in all of the schools. They were called eclectic because they combined all the traditions. But when Rockefeller started synthesizing oil and found minerals in it, that was about the same time Vitamin C was synthesized and they found how good it was for scurvy. So there was a big interest in making drugs through a lab. And when he found minerals in the oil, he thought, ha, I could probably make medicines with this. So he hired an unemployed high school teacher to go to all the herb schools and they were very impressed, like, "Oh, it's the Rockefeller Foundation coming to study us." And within a year they publicized how poor these herb schools were, how backcountry they were. And very soon there were 20 schools or less available for people to learn these wonderful traditions. And once the American Medical Association was formed and Rockefeller funded the School for Medicine at Northeastern and Carnegie made Johns Hopkins, they just made it so that medical students had to go through these schools and they began putting herbalists in jail. And so what I'm getting at here is it was a focused way to try to discredit herbalism and get people to distrust herbs for healing. And, you know, sometimes I'll be talking to an herbalist and I'll say, Wow, isn't that amazing how it worked? And then I'd be thinking, Wow, isn't it amazing how quickly they were able to teach everyone to not trust herbs like in, like 100 years?
You know, it's just amazing the wonderful healings that I have seen with herbs, for example. I don't know who here knows that elderberry, our native Sambucus, can shorten the duration and symptoms of a flu virus. This has been proven in double blind studies in in Israel. I think it's just kind of criminal that this wasn't in the papers with everything else during the early days of COVID.
I just feel so indebted to be able to be working with these plants. And really my mission is to get people to engage in nature and the plants, the herbal products are one way I can do that. But always my ideal was to get people to trust nature again. It's a great time to study herbs because we have the internet and we can study all different eras of herbalism and different cultures of herbalism: Vedic from India and the European tradition and Chinese medicine. So, you know, I always like to keep learning. So from horticulture to herbs to then being certified organic in 89 I've just had to throw out everything I learned in college. I recently started doing gardening by the moon, like with the Old Farmer's Almanac; I was just curious, you know, to add another layer on to my organic practices. And it's been so fascinating for me now all those decades now of planting and harvesting according to the moon phases. I make this calendar which tells you the best harvesting and planting dates. A lot of traditions around the world, a lot of cultures follow this approach.
What I'm learning is just how everything is so connected. We're all connected. It's just really so fascinating to look at things from that perspective. I think it brings it back to this kind of what you're talking about is really a kind of reclaiming of traditional knowledge that has been lost by so many of us. Right? So many of us don't have these connections with our traditional plants, with our traditional foods and so forth. That's part of what I think about when I think about the title "Seeds of Resilience" that we chose today, finding ways for those of us who don't have these connections in our lives, active in our food cultures, to make those connections again as best we can. And that's why I think projects like having the seed library here in Madison are so important as well. I want to end on a kind of hopeful note in a sense. It really makes me think, what can I do personally to develop my relationships with these plants? And maybe that's choosing a couple of plants from my tradition, my ancestral traditions, and really learning them and learning what they do here and how they grow here. I hope that there are some ways that we can individually start to rebuild connection and resilience with the plant communities. And yeah, you really do, when you grow a plant, develop a relationship with that plant.
Dan: Well, my good friend Jeff Johnson, he's got this seasonal harvest calendar; a lot of our tribes have them. Like one of my friends has said, you know, now he's gotten more into gardening for a couple of years, and he says, I just can't stop now. And I'm like, Yeah, it's kind of like growing corn, you know, once you start, it's hard to stop. It's being outside, being, you know, connected to what Western culture would call nature; you know, we look at a little bit differently. But to me, that's so important too.
Just finding those ways to be able to be outside with the seeds and also, you know, in the case of harvesting syrup, the trees, being grounded there. I'm working with my friend Elena Terry, her Wild Bearies nonprofit, and we're talking about next steps. It's giving opportunities also for our Tribal members to get outside to heal. We spend 90% of our time or more inside buildings. How do we get outside? To me, that's just one more take away from all this, you know. The seeds are one piece.
Jody: Beautiful. I think that's a really perfect segue for us to hear from Hannah, too.
Hannah Majeska: Hello, everyone. I am one of the librarians involved with the our seed library at Madison Public Library . And I think it really does connect to exactly what we've been talking about. We want to be the starting point for people to have this relationship with seeds, with plants, with going outdoors. We give seeds away for free; we used to do it by a check out process but now there's no barrier for entry. So we have five libraries now that have seed libraries. Some of the seeds are vegetable and fruit seeds purchased from different companies, that are all non-GMO. And for the past two years we have also had native prairie plants available through the seed library that are collected by local volunteers, some more independent and some affiliated with the county. So it's really one of the focuses of the library is this connection to wellness and promoting wellness within our community. And so the seed library does that in a number of ways; through the nourishment that the vegetables and fruits provide to the folks who grow them, and also through the wellness that comes from being outdoors and connecting back to the environment. It's also promoting food security within the community.
So no matter what size your dwelling is, you can still grow tomatoes in a pot, you can still do container gardening. We do have lots of areas in Madison that are food deserts. So helping folks grow their own food and improving food security in that way.
Audience: Can you tell us more about where your seeds come from?
Hannah: So for the last couple of years our vegetable seeds have come from two different companies: A.P. Whaley in Mt. Horeb and Johnny's Selected Seeds, which we've been purchasing from, I think since the seed library started, which was before my time. We also have a local naturalist on the north side, Alex Singer, who gathered all of our prairie plant seeds for the first year, and has contributed again this year. The native Wisconsin seeds are now also being collected by volunteers with the Dane County Land and Water Resources Department. I collect prairie seeds for the library every year myself.
Audience: What are the ways that people can get involved if they want to participate?
Hannah: So five of our libraries have seed libraries. There's my library on the north side, Lakeview; on the south side, Goodman South Madison Library; Sequoya Library, and Meadowbridge on the west side; and Pinney on the east side. Each of those libraries just has a set of drawers that house the seeds, and you're welcome to visit and take as many as you like. And in terms of other ways of getting involved, we will be having classes, some of them hosted by UW-Extension, to promote seed starting and things like that for first-time gardeners. We want to connect that educational component as well and you know, walk people through the life cycle of their gardens: getting started, growing through the season, seed-saving at the end of the season. We don't currently have the capacity to accept saved seeds back from the community. We're just in the process of distributing seeds, but perhaps at some point in time we will.
Moselle: How are we on time? Let's take just a few more minutes for questions.
Audience: I'm sketchy on the details, but I've heard about people bringing lawsuits on behalf of nature. For instance, a river having the right to exist and not be polluted, etc. In our earlier discussion, we were talking about how plants adapt to their local environment and sometimes that's just impossible because humans are changing the environment too rapidly. I'm not sure if anybody here has familiarity with that, but I think that would be an interesting topic.
Moselle: On the rights of nature, right? I have a little bit of experience, but I'm sure that others have things to add in. When I was working at Navdanya, which is a biodiversity conservation farm started by Vandana Shiva in northern India, one of the things that we talked about was earth democracy. And that is, essentially, rights for nature. So there was a conversation with multiple really interesting people who had powerful perspectives from that part of the world. So it was Vandana Shiva, Satish Kumar, who's a Jain monk, who is absolutely fascinating; Samdhong Rinpoche, who's the previous prime minister of Tibet; and then Saamdu Chetri, who started the GNH, or Gross National Happiness, Center in Bhutan. These are really new conversations, and it's a very complex thing. Gross National Happiness is a different way of looking at the livelihood of a country is; typically people look at GDP, how the economy is doing, money-based, right? Which is actually a measure of deficits. In Bhutan, they measure things completely differently. They actually talk to people on the ground and they have a different way of measuring what livelihood actually looks like. So it's looking at wealth in different ways. There's social welfare, you know, natural wealth; it's not just economic wealth. So it's an interesting lens to understand this through. Rights for nature absolutely need to be taken into account when you're looking at the health of a nation, the health of a country, the health of a community. We're making steps in that direction. It's a very complicated thing. Does anybody else have thoughts about this?
Dan: There was a Rights of Nature Law conference in 2018 [a Bioneers initiative to connect with Tribal leaders] and I was a little bit hesitant to take on the theme initially, but it was a really nice conference. Pretty much all the Tribal leaders opened up by saying, you know, we don't have words for nature or natural resources in our language. But most of our Indigenous communities, we would look at seeds and all of our plant and animal relatives, as relatives, you know, connected. It's about valuing what you grow, valuing what you eat; there's going to be an ethical consideration. From a legal standpoint, we've got personhood for corporations, right? There are some countries and some Tribal nations starting to adopt rights of nature as part of their tribal laws. I think it's a great question and something that could merit much further discussion at some point.
Audience: We're all looking at this through our own cultural filters, which from the Western perspective is a very reductionist one. So to even ask the question, if I move a seed from here to there will still be that same seed ... that's still, like in the Mayan language, there's no way to say that is a Mayan seed and that is something else; we can't say it, there's no way to. They don't divide it into the manmade world or the natural. It's just you know, it's all part of one thing; there's not even a division between the real world and the spirit world. Everybody's together, you say. And so this corn, this was given to me by one of my teachers who's Mayan; these seeds came from Guatemala, I've been growing it for 12 years. He said, just you take it home, keep planting it, and you'll develop a land race for your corn. And so as Ms. Singh said, it's really important for me to remember the origins of this corn. But this is no longer Guatemalan corn. This is drift. So remembering the lineage is so important. But it's so hard for me. I mean, I will never get fully out of my Western reductionist brain. But if I understand that's the filter through which I'm looking at it, that can be helpful.
Moselle: Thank you for sharing that.
Jody: This has been such an interesting conversation, and it has me thinking about these issues from many different directions. Clearly we could talk about seeds all day, but it's time to close our presentation. I'd like to thank everyone for being here, all of you. I hope you'll all go home and keep thinking about these things, and keep growing those seeds.