Seed Money, Part III
Employing an ancient human technology to reinvigorate agricultural biodiversity
The Sacred Science of Seed Saving
“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”
― Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow
Estancia, New Mexico, April 2016
“Let ’em dance,” says Greg Schoen. “That’s what you’re going to want to do with all of that squash in the collection.”
It’s a cold April Sunday morning at the seed temple in Estancia, New Mexico. I awoke an hour ago in an unheated Airstream to an inch of snow blanketing the arid landscape, and immediately warmed myself with a cup of tea in the hogan, the most habitable building on the property.
Schoen is one of the temple’s three volunteer seed keepers, each of them traveling periodically from their faraway homes to expand and tend the collection. The temple property is operated by Grandmother Flordemayo who, following through on a series of visionary callings to preserve heirloom varieties of seeds for future generations, bought the property and built a seed vault on it in 2012.
Schoen is here this morning to discuss a curious and vast collection of seeds that finds its temporary home here at the seed temple. The collection is believed to be the life’s work of mid-century plant breeder Dr. Donald W. Denna; a vast seed collection abandoned 40 years ago and now in the accidental care of my travel companion Penn Parmenter.
Schoen arrived late last night. “He just blew in the front door out of the darkness,” Penn Parmenter says of his entry into the hogan where she and her husband Cord slept.
The “dance” Greg Schoen refers to is the cross-pollination that will allow the best squashes to emerge from the Denna collection. There are so many squash seeds, yet so few of any specific cross, and even fewer that will germinate. They are so closely related, Schoen believes it will be most beneficial to just grow them out in close proximity and “let the bees have fun.” This will build robustness and vigor back into them. Something lacking because they’re so inbred. “And then you start to select out of it again.”
He sips coffee and looks across the surface of the wooden table as he speaks, infrequently adding eye contact to the communication. The different crosses Denna made from the same original are likely to be similar, but “different enough.” Something will be missing from the full deck of genetic information. “You get three of these together, though, and ‘Oh gosh, the jack of diamonds is back in the mix!’”
At 59 Schoen is fit yet weathered. Red-blonde hair, freshly wetted, is flattened across the top of his head. He wears a grey American Eagle faux army shirt and a grey Carhartt jacket.
Schoen sees seeds as knowledge vessels that have co-evolved with humans. Corn is particularly tied to human evolution, he says. He talks of native cultures being revitalized as heritage corn varieties are returned to their fields. “Right now, as we speak — and it’s happening all over — simultaneous with people rebuilding their languages, they’re rebuilding their old seed.” He speaks of a codex in the corn. “Some of the people are actually saying, ‘If we’d lost this corn we would have lost our language.’”
Schoen believes this co-creation — through prayer and ceremony — is not accidental. He compares it to Egyptian architecture in which architects encoded the building designs through harmonic proportions and patterns. “And now we’re unwinding all of that,” he says. Similarly, he believes native elders in ancient times may have embedded wisdom into seed, “an intentional writing in of knowledge in the seed in some hidden form.” It’s abstract, he admits, but it’s possible they impressed information into the seed, knowing their culture would be compromised until a future time.
“And that time is happening right now,” he says. “It’s coming out, the corn is coming back, reading back all that knowledge that it carried for 500 or 600 years.”
Impatient to be with the seeds, Penn cajoles us to the vault where she begins to unpack the bins.
The Denna seeds are now catalogued mostly in large ziplocks, each labeled with a transcription of what was written on each drawer. Smaller ziplocks are held in shallow bins stacked in the larger tubs. Penn is gratified to see that the collection’s organization at Sawtooth Botanical Garden in Ketchum, Idaho, was done expertly. The seeds had been held there until its seed bank’s cooling system failed, prompting the collections move here.
Most of the packets are plain mini manila envelopes with modest handwritten notations and numbering. There are some seeds in mailing pouches addressed to D.W. Denna — likely the source of the assumption that these are Denna’s seeds. There are seed packets from seed companies around the west, many dated 1961, the year before Denna started at Colorado State University. Some seeds are from the Ukraine. “There’re 15 types of cauliflower in there that I’ve never heard of!” Penn says.
Schoen and I return to the hogan for an interview. “The scientist,” as Penn refers to him, is a label Schoen sloughs off, though he does hold degrees in botany and horticulture. “I’m just a basic gardener,” he says, referring to his academic achievements as being “from another lifetime.” More than humility, this view allows his scientific understanding to cohabitate with a breadth of relationships with seed.
“Seed saving has within it the tenets of every major spiritual path. It’s all in there. It’s just embodied in it,” he says. “The action of working with the seed is a way to physically ground principals like sharing, unconditionality and bridging differences between people. It can be very transcendent in that way.”
“Seed saving has within it the tenets of every major spiritual path. It’s all in there. It’s just embodied in it. The action of working with the seed is a way to physically ground principals like sharing, unconditionality and bridging differences between people. It can be very transcendent in that way.” — Greg Schoen
Seed is also currency, he says. “And what you have is an opportunity, because inherent in it is the whole of all the principles of how to do an alternative economy.”
By recognizing seed as currency, we engage the basis of a barter economy, an alternative world that is out of reach, he says, because we’re entrenched in industrial society’s machinations. Seed swapping, then, is like training wheels. “You can practice it to the point at which, if the system were to go through some jiggety-jaggety’s — and I’m putting that lightly — you’d be able to step into those kinds of alternatives in a bigger way because you’ve practiced it in one area. The seed itself is a medium of information exchange and there’s no money being passed back and forth.”
In agriculture, diversity allows for adaptation to a multitude of conditions, Schoen says, expanding on the ‘jiggety-jaggety’s.’ “When agri-industry has its way, our crops are only adapted to industrial farming methods.” The agricultural industrial complex and its methods to produce commodities, he says, has favored crop genetics that complement a mechanical world. “If that system — which is based on the petroleum industry — would falter, a lot of those crops just wouldn’t make it.
“It’s like if you had a whole library and you said: well we’re going to take out all the books except this many, that’s all you need,” he says, gesturing a few inches between hands. “You take the richness out and you take out the possibility for adaptation to a whole lot of conditions. You’re dumbing it down is what you’re doing. You’re making life itself stupid.”
Penn comes rushing through the door with an armload of seed bags, eager to show me what she’s found. In a large ziplock with a dozen packets, written in her hand, transcribed from the drawer from which they came, are the words, “Fenny’s crosses.” “I didn’t know what that meant when I wrote it down four years ago,” she says, eyes alight with a mad scientist’s passion, “but now we know these are Denna’s seeds.”
“So, why do we want to save seeds?” Schoen continues, unaffected by the interruption. “I mean, it’s a big question. Maybe it is. Maybe it’s just a big question and it just stays there as a big question.”
* * *
Grandmother Flordemayo — all of five-feet-tall — sits in a wooden chair in the hogan, robed in a black linen gown with a brightly embroidered bodice. Her face glows with a complexion belying her nearly 70 years.
“Because it’s our obligation,” she starts in response to my question: Why is it important to save seeds? Long hair, equal strands of black and grey, flows behind her. She lays a firm gaze upon me through square-frame black glasses.
“We have messed up so bad as the human race, we have been irresponsible, we have done nothing but trash the planet. We have a responsibility to the future generations.” — Grandmother Flordemayo
“We have messed up so bad as the human race, we have been irresponsible, we have done nothing but trash the planet. We have a responsibility to the future generations,” she says. “I’ve traveled in the four directions of the globe, I have witnessed what can happen in a lifetime. We are the only species living on this earth that has the consciousness to be directly ignorant and be totally irresponsible. We have an obligation to everything that is living and breathing that is part of us.”
The obligation, she says, extends to seeds: “living, breathing, sleeping life that cannot be ignored.” She invokes the Mayan wisdom of the Eleventh Hour. “We are in a state of crisis and we cannot ignore it anymore. Everything is talking to us. Everything. Anybody that’s sensitive: you can hear the water talking to you, the wind talking to you. The earth is talking to you, the trees are talking to you. The animals are talking to us and we’re ignoring it. We have a responsibility.”
US Highway 285, May 2016
It’s dark as we cross the Colorado border. Penn and Cord are taking turns belting out story songs: Cord singing Bob Dylan and Elton John, Penn favoring Harry Chapin. The dark night rolls by out the window. I’ll sleep on their extra bed again, and head back home tomorrow.
In the next few months the Denna seeds will again be packed into a car and driven back to Ketchum, from where it will be disbursed out to growers by the Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance.
Penn shows me an RMSA newsletter announcing the alliance’s “Mother Seed Vault” still being developed in Ketchum’s Sawtooth Botanical Garden. The vault, it says, “will provide backup seed storage for communities in the Rocky Mountain West. The first deposit will be the priceless 40-year-old Denna Collection, a treasure chest of locally-adapted seeds from Colorado recently entrusted to RMSA.”
Months ago, I asked Bill McDorman about his statement that it would cost millions of dollars to manage the seeds. “So much of how we think about things like this is as modern creatures,” the RMSA executive director explained. “You and I are both the products, in some ways, of this industrial food system. It’s allowed us to live lifestyles completely apart from the soil, from where we live, from the people that grow our food … and what that’s done is limit our perceptual ability to really understand what’s going on. So, when I say it’s going to take millions of dollars, that’s within the context of an industrial food system.”
He laughed. “Now if you get back outside of that, you realize how limited that industrial view is. It’s been really powerful in some ways, but it’s really limited in others. And by that, I mean: the only way the Denna collection will be taken care of is really the only way seeds have ever been taken care of. It’s the way we produced all the diversity we’ve squandered, and that is by crowdsourcing it. It’s by getting everybody involved in it a little bit.”
“It’s never looked darker,” he said. “I mean we’ve got three companies owning 72 percent of the world’s seeds. Literally. You’ve got to go back to Carnegie and Rockefeller to find monopolies like that. This is really a dark, scary time. On the other hand, there’s never been more potential for people to wake up and go, ‘Whoa my god, I could be successful here, and it’s better food and it’s better for all of us and we’re saving diversity.’”
Over the next few years the Denna seeds will be germinated, distributed, grown out, assessed, catalogued and shared. Will there be a rare gem in the collection, or will this just prove to be an exercise in seed spirit and seed economy? It seems not to matter to those handling the seeds. Current biodiversity is likely to be broadened — at least a little bit — as these seeds return to the soil, and possibly return a few items to the genetic card deck.
Epilogue: December, 2020
The fate of the Denna seeds remains uncertain. The seed temple has struggled for lack of funds (inspired readers can donate here) and Sawtooth Botanical Garden in Ketchum, Idaho, abandoned its plan to build the state-of-the-art seed vault that would, among other things, house and disseminate the Denna collection.
Bill McDorman and RMSA offered to distribute the Denna seeds to anyone who cared to grow them, but Penn declined the proposal noting that 50-, 60-, 70-year-old seed would need special coaxing and patience. “It will take skill to germ this seed,” Penn wrote in a 2018 email. “A beginner might try to germ it and, if it doesn’t pop up, ditch it and lose the seed altogether.”
At the end of 2017, just after completing the building of a seed room in “the Mothership,” the largest of the Parmenter’s signature all-season, zero-input greenhouses they’ve built on their property, Penn drove down to Estancia to collect the seeds.
“A guy named Two-Bears was there and helped me load up in 15 minutes,” Penn wrote. “I asked him what bird I was hearing and he said, ‘It’s the Sandhill Cranes.’ I looked around and said, ‘Where are they, I don’t see them.’ He said, ‘Look up.’ They were circling in a huge whirlwind-like funnel right over the Seed Temple.”
Penn continues to work the tomatoes and has added a few varieties to what she sells and trades. One variety from the Denna chest, a store-bought packet from 1969, is called Sunset which “changes every shade of color before it turns scarlet,” she says.
Penn recently connected with Joseph Lofthouse, an amateur breeder and landrace maker (“which means he promiscuously crosses them then selects from that”), who found tomato crosses from Denna’s collection that he believes will aid in his ongoing work. But only if he can wake them up, which is proving difficult.
Ultimately, though, this story is not about Denna’s seeds. It’s about the passion to collaborate with nature. It’s about a technology so basic and so ancient that nearly anyone can participate. It’s about agrobiodiversity and gardening and seed saving and seed sharing.
The pandemic brought an upsurge in hobby gardening. The next-tier opportunity is to save and share seeds, thereby engaging the principles of a gift economy and maintaining robustness in the food we depend on.
But Penn insists this is about Denna’s work and Denna’s seeds. “These seeds have waited a long time,” she tells me by phone on a snowy December day in 2020, still as excited by and obliged to the collection as she was a decade ago. “They’ve been cared for all these years — by accident and then by me,” she says.
“That’s a life in them that’s touching us all.”
Seed Money in its entirety, sans epilogue, was a nonfiction finalist in the 2017 Iowa Review Awards.