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.”


  1. Shelley, I like that. Your conversation with the professor didn't open the door wider, but instead pointed to a different portal through which to enter. But tell me more: what does the new door look like? If the purpose of the project is not only to preserve cultural knowledge, then what is it?
    Persevere on sista...

  2. Anne,
    Thank you for probing.
    The new door, I think, doesn't really address any different or new content for the project, even while my post may hint at that. The new door is an understanding for me that I want to write creatively for a general audience, and I want this work to be guided by the farmers. I hope to translate it someday. I think the new door is about trusting the process and that I can't try to shove this through a threshold it won't fit into -- like imagining trying to shove it into an academic program that will inhibit the narrative voice of the work. The new door is understanding that adaptability is at core of the creative process for me, at this stage anyway, and only through accepting the changes will I be able to survive the long haul of creating. Yep. Enough of that. Let's have a cup of tea.



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