January 29, 2016 § Leave a comment
Lovely night at the Cathedral with passionate gardeners talking about seeds: old seeds, heirloom seeds, seeds as inspiration, freedom, art; as child you watch over and as parent that feeds you. They spoke of colleagues whose grandparents started saving seeds in the 1930s, freezing them in baby food bottles. They told stories of rare plants, plant diseases, the taste of okra, the Black labor that picked the cotton and the prisoners who pick it now. They asked people’s opinions of what the phrase “keeping seeds” connotes versus the more prosaic “saving seeds.”
“Protection” “Cherish” “Caring,” said audience members. Keepsake, I thought. For keeps. Stronghold.
They spoke as part of The Value of Food art exhibition (through April 3rd in all the bays and chapels of the Cathedral) to an audience of seventy or so people who want to grow food in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Philadelphia, New Jersey, upstate. The veteran city gardener Karen Washington, who successfully faced off against Giuliani in the 90s, organized the event with panelists Owen Taylor, Ken Greene, Onika Abraham, Chris Bolden Newsome, and Kirtrina Baxter. These are the people who are rescuing what’s left of America’s once-amazing diversity of fruits and vegetables, squandered by industry in the last seventy-five years. “When I teach, I ask people: do you come from a farm family?” said the African American Chris Bolden Newsome. “If they say no, I say, ‘go back a little further.’ That’s what all our families were doing a hundred years ago.” And further than that—“All of us. That’s what most people do in the world.”
I thought about the house in the country I used to have, where we planted mostly flowers, but also herbs. Where the laden apple and pear trees were treasures for the squirrels and deer, who must have passed their seeds on, though I don’t know if any offspring grew wild in the woods that went up the flank of the mountain. I remembered the smell of dirt in the sun, the resistance of weeds, the persistence of mint, the hardy thyme and insect-laced basil. I ran the numbers: should we buy another house in the county? Abandon Manhattan? Spend more time with plants?
I’d like to. I’d also like to stay here, with the theaters, museums and cathedrals. With the people who enliven me (though plants enliven me too, especially trees). I decided to apply to a few country writers’ colonies for the summer and bought a pack of catnip seeds to plant in a pot in the window. Charles is doubtful they will thrive. With all that we have to do and don’t get done—our messy, on the edge of uncontrollable lives—he’s not sure growing catnip is a necessary endeavor. Our beasts like the stuff we buy at Whiskers just fine. But he wasn’t there. He didn’t hear all the people raising their hands, wanting to know how they can get started growing their own food, saving seeds, avoiding “the seed industrial complex.” Saving the world, one fragile stalk at a time.
Here’s a poem of mine from my chapbook, it all stayed open, Red Glass Press, 2011.
Where I Left Her
Under my lilac
white and grainy as cement dust
two pounds of woman.
I mixed her into the earth
kneeling in light rain.
She loved this tree
would leave me on the porch to walk around it.
When I could glimpse her
only through the slender
much more was visible.
May again, bloom time.
I’m busy writing love poems.
But on the bus home
to the city there are women
carrying the harvest, armfuls
and the whole packed crew of us
ride in fragrance.
My lover makes me radiant
friends say—I tremble
like a purple cone of tiny flowers—
and makes me suffer. What I most desire
is to hide my heart
where it can never be recovered.