Every Thursday I have an afternoon seminar on Environmental Anthropology. It’s not the easiest subject for me, a natural scientist, to get my head around. Last week we were looking at “representations of nature”, and towards the end of the class we turned to symbolism and how myths formed.
At some point my brain dragged up a memory of the Brer Rabbit stories I read as a child. They were from old books, even back then. I don’t remember too much about the stories now, so I will have to renew my acquaintance at some point. The Wikipedia entry on the stories explains that they are an example of the Trickster – a figure that appears in a lot of African folklore (Anansi the spider is another example).
The reason I mention this is because I have just started researching a topic for my second essay, which involves heirloom seeds and the people who collect them. A friend pointed me in the direction of the work of Virginia Nazarea, and I borrowed a copy of Heirloom Seeds and their Keepers from the library.
I was in love with the book before I got to the end of the Preface. It’s a declaration of love for seedsavers, the gardeners and small-scale farmers throughout the world (and they exist almost universally, in every corner) who save and pass along folk varieties without any formal organization.
The first chapter explores the idea of the Trickster – a figure whose lack of acceptance of social norms and rules allows us to explore and embrace possibilities.
“…seedsavers invent their own beat and chart their own directions, in interesting and delightful ways. Thus, they are not burdened by the rebel’s ire but rather moved by a searching, creative spirit. They are not outsiders, although oftentimes they behave as if they were. They not only demonstrate an uncanny knowledge of social boundaries but also constantly stretch and test these limits.”
I have skimmed through the whole book, looking for material for my essay. I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and hope to come back to it one day when I can simply read it for pleasure and really absorb the sense of joy and wonder with which Nazarea has infused her words. It’s a scholarly work, but accessible. There are proper references at the back, and an index. There are fascinating little anecdotes from seedsavers all across the globe, including the Mende of West Africa – who tend to name their rice varieties according to where they were found. So as well as a variety called “in a palm tree” they have a whole bunch of varieties simply called “elephant dung”.
Ethnobotany is a multidisciplinary science. In the past few weeks I have waded through philosophy, touched on religion and politics, bounced through botany and the biological sciences and ended up in myth and folklore (cosmovisions – our world views). And this is a multidisciplinary book, looking at plant genetics and immigration, metaphor and cooking. It ends with a delightful roll call of all the seedsavers mentioned, together with the varieties they carry with them through time and space.
Read this book and you will never see seedsavers in the same light again. We are the Tricksters of the plant world; a thread of randomness in a homogenized modern world that brings our history into the present, and may just save us from ourselves.
Nazarea, Virginia D. 2005 Heirloom Seeds and Their Keepers: Marginality and Memory in the Conservation of Biological Diversity. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.