Stories as seeds
Recently I stumbled across this quotation from Ben Okri that I had written down some time ago:
‘Stories are the infinite seeds that we have brought with us through the millennia of walking the dust of the earth. They are our celestial pods. They are our alchemical cauldrons. If we listen to them right, if we read them deeply, they will guide us through the confusion of our lives, and the diffusion of our times’ - The Mystery Feast (2014)
I find beautiful symbolism in thinking of stories as seeds. Just as a seed might lie buried in rich soil, sensing for its moment to activate, many of our stories seem to churn and percolate in darkness, just beneath the light of our conscious awareness. These, says Okri, are our hidden stories, which exert an enormous yet largely unseen power over our lives, shaping the future.
‘There is a presumption in thinking that we entirely invent our stories. Rather it could be said that the stories come through us, assemble themselves out of the elements of our lives and imagination. We receive and shape them. We cannot be said to originate them. All true storytellers are modest…
Therefore to read a true story, or to listen to one, is not to experience the story of the person who wrote it, or the person who tells it. It is to read or listen to the genius of the tribe and the race. It is to listen to the genius of humanity.’
The same could be said of the actual seeds we plant in the ground, whose power and living potential our human tribe gradually learned over the millennia to select and harness, in co-creation with larger living forces, to produce our food.
Seeds likewise reflect the genius of the living world, which evolved this exquisite mechanism to replicate, adapt and evolve new generations of life continuously.
To have stumbled upon Okri’s quote, captured in some previous forgotten moment, illustrates also the time potency of seeds. They express our heritage, encapsulate our long forgotten memories, and carry selected aspects of the past into the future — both adapting to and shaping that future in their constant dance of activation and dormancy.
How do we plant the seeds today for a future world we will not live to see?
How do we discern and select those qualities that humanity has to offer and carry these forward to new generations, while letting go of those traits and adaptations that are not serving us well? How do we open ourselves to future possibilities for thriving? How to judge wisely when our actions ripple outwards far beyond the horizons of our limited perceptions?
Understanding that we cannot know the future — how do we spot those generative seeds that are germinating in the present and may enliven our possibilities tomorrow? How do we nurture those seeds?
Recently, I came across the story of Vivien Sansour, a ‘seed storyteller’ from the West Bank, who is founder of the Palestine Seed Library, and is known locally as the ‘seed queen of Palestine’.
I heard her interviewed on this episode ‘We are the People of the Beans’ of the Mothers of Invention podcast about climate change solutions with a feminist twist, hosted by Irish comedian Maeve Higgins, series producer Thimali Kodikara and former Irish President and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson. And then I watched this short documentary (see above) from Al Jazeera.
Vivien has discovered and revived ancient stories and varieties of heirloom seeds in the West Bank, activating the stories in the present, working with Palestinian farmers and preparing community meals to showcase their flavours through her Travelling Kitchen.
In this interview with curator Aaron Cesar for the Delfina Foundation prior to the 2019 Venice Biennale, she spoke about how her childhood amidst sun, soil and the homegrown food of her grandmother’s terraces (called ‘paradises’ in local parlance) planted the seed for her passion for rediscovering Palestine’s seed heritage and collaborating with farmers to revive it.
In childhood, she said:
‘… planting and eating was the only way of life. I did not know anything else, thankfully. My idea of a playground was my grandmother’s terraces and the walnut, pistachio, almond, apricot and olive trees. So I was made from and marinated in the elements of this nature: soil, sun, air, and fire.
‘I look at kids today and I feel that while they have many comforts they are missing out on the magic of learning through touch, smell, and unknown explorations in nature - on how to survive and how to own that knowledge even as a kid because you learned what not to eat or what to eat through trying things. That may have sometimes been risky, but you felt the pain and the pleasure of it and now it is part of your embodied knowledge of the earth and life you are part of. You are not separate. You don’t have to live in a boxed room. You are part of a magical planet and a biosphere that is abundant with adventurous and sparkling things and beings.’
As a lover of stories, she was drawn to the symbolic as well as the tangible, earthy powers of seed. As she describes it, the introduction of chemical agriculture in the region came hand in hand with the restriction of movement of Palestinians with new borders and hostilities.
Seeds know no borders. In wise and helping hands, they express a language of service and reciprocity, and create powerful bonds of a shared story. Vivien observes that farmers are
‘always underestimated… but not only are they feeding us, they are teaching us so much about how we can survive in the future. It’s important to keep these seeds alive because these seeds are the result of this artistic and scientific endeavour that our farmers embarked on 10,000 years ago.’
‘I’m somebody who believes in the power of story and imagination. The seeds offer a platform to imagine so many different alternatives… with each seed there’s a story that allows us to see ourselves in a whole new way...’
The revival of a forgotten local variety of watermelon, the Jadu’I, was one story seeded through Vivien’s initiatives. Near the city of Jenin, farmers once cultivated this succulent watermelon, which belonged to a tradition known as ba’al — in which crops planted at the end of the rainy season could be grown from the moisture retained in the soil during winter.1 Ba’al was the Canaanite god of fertility and destruction, beseeched for rain during years of drought. The crop varieties named for this deity were painstakingly adapted to grow in Palestine’s arid climate, a source of resilience, rooted in a particular place and culture.
As Vivien recounted on the Mothers of Invention podcast:
It is a story about how story can start something new. So many elders shared with me the story of this watermelon. I was living in Jenin, in the north. They were so proud to talk about their heritage as one that offered the whole region a delicious, succulent fruit that grows by the way with no irrigation.
This is why the seeds are so important. We have a whole series of varieties that our ancestors developed that grow with zero irrigation. They didn’t try to force nature to do anything for them, they actually surrendered to nature and to the microclimate, and so they are seeds that live off the moisture retained in the soil from the rainy season.’
Men would be so proud, telling me how they used to go on trucks with their fathers to Damascus, to Lebanon to deliver these fruits.
For me, the loss of this watermelon felt like the loss of who we are.
One of her farmer friends had been saving Jedu’I seeds, and she convinced him to give her some of them and allow local farmers to plant them. She recalls:
He opened his drawers full of screwdrivers, papers, and he started to take out these seeds. He said you want the jedu’i, take it, nobody wants it…
It was a major moment for me, because what does it mean to not want who you are?
I took them and started working with farmers. I wanted to put them with different farms. They were old, I wasn’t sure how viable they were and who I could trust to be a good guardian of the seed.
To be honest, most of our efforts failed except for one really successful effort in Jenin…
And of course the growth of one seed is all it takes to build the resilience, diversity and future possibilities of food and stories alike.
As the food writer Carolyn Steel observes in her wonderful book Sitopia:
‘Of the estimated 300,000 edible species on earth, just seventeen now provide 90 per cent of all our food2. Without agriculture, we wouldn’t have sandwiches, cities or seedless grapes, but as we enter the urban age, all our past weeding and breeding is coming back to haunt us. Our food system is streamlined, efficient — and vulnerable. Our grandmothers would have called it putting all our eggs in one basket.’
This week I am thinking of all the different stories and seeds I have been planting and tending, receiving and shaping (as Ben Okri put it) — both symbolic and literal, in my all-too-often neglected garden at home, out in the world-at-large, within myself. What about you? What are the stories and seeds of your life? What fruits do you hope they will bear? What might be the future possibilities they will shape, far beyond our capacities to imagine them? We cannot possibly know, but it is delicious to wonder.
P.S. You may have noticed — I skipped a week (oops), so you are receiving this now instead of last week. For the next few months I am going to be a little bit more fluid in the timing of these missives. I may send a new one out every 2 weeks, or 3 or 4 weeks depending — life is pretty full on now, and I don’t want to force a rhythm onto this, but rather to keep it fresh and joyful! In the meantime, please share widely with others who you think will enjoy these letters. Thank you!