Thursday, February 26, 2009

Adaptability by Shelley Gillespie

Almost every day I think about Seed Scripts, the working title for the book I want to write; a book that will use interviews and research to document the stories of farmers who are preserving native food crops of the Americas. Crops like maize, beans, squash, grains like quinoa and amaranth. Recently, I created a rough draft project proposal and decided I wanted to consult with people who through their own research and personal passions might offer insight into the direction of Seed Scripts. After thinking about it obsessively and telling all of my friends about it, traveling to Mexico and Central America for preliminary research, it’s time to take Seed Scripts out of my mind and my intimate conversations and open its door a little wider.

For quite some time, longer than I like to admit, my daily thinking about Seed Scripts has been centered on what program or within which academic discipline can I place this project? During its early inception, I thought Folklore. Later Anthropology. Perhaps an MFA program. Or UC Santa Cruz’s Social Documentation program. Where can I find a program that will encourage the poetic, the use of dialogue, the shifting point of view, the narrative arc while fostering research both in books and in the field? Yearning structure and mentoring, seeking a place where creativity meets research, longing access to funding and support. A daily yearning, seeking, inquiring, longing. Yeah, I can hear you saying, Damn, just sit down and start writing. I can hear our friend Amy Selena quoting Yoda, “Do or do not…there is no try.”

Last week, I met with a professor with this in mind. She has done extensive research in Oaxaca on maize variety diversity and its use in a traditional beverage, as well as the affects of migration on these maize growing communities. I read her publications online before our meeting. While her subject matter was truly fascinating, the writing followed the standard academic journal style. After all, she is writing for her peers and not a general audience. This is not the kind of writing I want to do.

Through the windows of her office, the campus spread out behind her from the fourth floor vantage. Throughout our conversation, her bracelets jangling, this is what she asked (and I paraphrase): Have you asked the farmers what they’d want to document? If one of their grandchildren moved to the city, and then wanted to plant this native maize, what would they want to know? How will this work benefit the communities that you’ll be interviewing in? Why do this work?

I left her office, crossed the street, and sat on a bench on a cliff overlooking the ocean. This is a campus setting to either inspire educational endeavors or one to offer every possible outdoor reason to avoid studying all together. I watched pelicans become black dots on the blue horizon as they dove toward the sea. I wanted to take Seed Scripts, every last thing about it, and toss it off the cliff. Why do this work? Yes, why? I wanted to give up.

After sitting on the cliff and imagining tossing Seed Scripts into the sea, I spent the next several hours embodying the thought. Not all ideas deserve fruition. How could my documentation of farmers’ stories really make a positive contribution? I’ve imagined that much of my work for Seed Scripts would require field research in Latin America and yes, I intend to write in English. Does this then set up the dynamic that I as the outsider come in to steal stories and send them into the world without these people ever knowing how their lives have been shared? In no way do I intend to mimic an extractive, exploitive relationship. Ethics are extremely important to me. This work will not make people suddenly care about genetic biodiversity or its guardians. It is doubtful that it could influence agricultural policy. Would it really be used as a resource for future farmers? I don’t imagine writing that kind of text. I let it go, my dear beloved babied project. For a few hours, anyway.

Before this afternoon on the cliff, I’d assumed the purpose of my project was to preserve cultural knowledge (while in no way making any grand assumptions about the scope of my work). My logic, based on first hand witnessing, has gone like this: if biodiversity is endangered through ecological depravation and the realities of neoliberal economics that force people to immigrate away from farming isn’t farmer knowledge of native food crops equally endangered? If we maintain seed banks to preserve genetic resources, why not preserve the cultural knowledge that accompanies the seeds?

This professor’s questions didn’t really open the door wider on the direction of this project but demanded that I rethink which door to enter through. And in rethinking that to bring in the perspective of the people I’m writing about to guide this. I see now that what I was tossing off the cliff was my pre-conceived notion of what Seed Scripts had become. In order to excavate down to the core of what I want to communicate I have to let go. Forcing my commitment and reconnection to the creative process; a process that can be so horribly uncomfortable in its uncontrollable nature.

Farmers and plants, the ones that survive, are adaptable. Climate demands this. Soil types demand this. Life demands this. And so does the creative process. The creative process demands adaptability and dedication. Trust the process and it will give reason enough to continue even when sometimes I want to give up.

I must remember the words of the farmer I am currently writing about, don Gregorio Vazquez Vazquez of Intibuc√°, Honduras. Working from five in the morning until five in the evening to build his farm on which he plants a maize he’s been growing for sixty years, the maize that feeds his family year after year as he plants it year after year, don Gregorio said, “You have to persevere with what you propose to do in this life.”

Friday, February 13, 2009

Remember, rethink, replenish, replan, reseed...

What is most important?


Come, listen, the world wants to change you

May You Be Happy

Offering Courage

Harvest Intention

Zucchini Sisters

Been a little quiet out there so I thought I'd post this lovely image to spice things up, not to mention procrastinate from doing mentally challenging work on this lovely Friday afternoon. The lady on the right is our dear friend Amy whom we have invited to begin posting to our site and to share a few photos of her sculptures soon... stay tuned. She is a fellow heart radical sister, in on our crazed laughter, annual (we aspire) writing and meditation retreats, not to mention our Zucchinis for Peace installation.

For those of you who may have missed its brief appearance in Fremont (by Adobe, in that open area with the rock sculpture and steps to the trail) one fine day a couple years ago, this is how the project evolved: Shelley was working on a farm and had access to a lot of overgrown zucchinis. Gathering them in the trunk of her car, she brought them over to my house one evening and a bunch of us (Betsy, not pictured here, included) set out to carve messages into their soft white flesh. We debated where to leave them-- somewhere people would see them, but where no one would see us laying them out. For whatever reason, (it was getting late, we didn't feel like going downtown, nor here, nor there...) we decided on this space in Fremont. Parking our car, we snuck quietly to the concrete space while carrying armloads of zucchinis, conjuring feelings of doing something illicit, like sneaking out at night as a thirteen-year-old or running from the cops after a high school keg. Anyway, traumatic memories aside, we moved quickly, each intuitively finding the right spot for our creations-- on the bench, on the steps, near the rocks-- then crept off giddy into the night. Mission accomplished!

The next day we returned to photograph our installation. I heard a woman call her friend on her lunch break, "Someone must have had a lot of extra zucchini." We watched as a group of older tourist-looking types curiously circled the squash. We tried to act surprised or nonchalant as if we were just stumbling upon them ourselves.

I hear they were gone by the next day. The next year we did it again, in Olympia this time, with pumpkins as well. Shelley then left the farm life and we have not had access to so many zucchinis anymore. Well this is a fascinating story and I suppose I'll have to post a few of the pictures now to prove how amazing it truly was.


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