Seeds are vital everywhere. They transcend that imaginary boundary we erect between the natural world and the
human world, appearing so regularly in our daily lives, in so many forms, that we hardly recognise how utterly
dependent we are upon them. Telling their story reminds us of our fundamental connection to nature-to plants,
animals, soil, seasons and the process of evolution itself.
Thor Hanson, The Triumph of Seeds
In 2017 I embarked on a self-directed expedition residency to Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic ocean. Seeds are vital everywhere. They transcend that imaginary boundary we erect between the natural world and the human world, appearing so regularly in our daily lives, in so many forms, that we hardly recognise how utterly dependent we are upon them. Telling their story reminds us of our fundamental connection to nature-to plants, animals, soil, seasons and the process of evolution itself.
Situated north of mainland Europe, midway between continental Norway and the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secured storage facility carved into the solid rock of the Plateau Mountain; a permafrost mountain located in the northernmost town of Longyearbyen. The vault, which houses the world’s largest seed collection is a key component of global efforts to safeguard agricultural diversity in the face of natural or man-made disasters. Climate scientists predict that the effects of climate change will place unprecedented pressures on our ability to grow the food we require to sustain an increasing population and recognize that crop diversity is central to food security and environmental health. The Global Crop Diversity Trust highlights the importance of genetic diversity to safeguard potentially vital traits in seed varieties, in
order to adapt agriculture to resist future environmental and climate challenges.
Heirloom is a research project in early development stage. The project explores the concept of seeds as archives of cultural memory. Inrecentweeks,I initiated a dialogue with Jennifer McConnell, manager at Irish Seed Savers Association and Madeline McKeever, founder of Brown Envelope Seeds. During my initial conversation with Madeline she shared the story of the Crimson Flowered Broadbean with me. The first mention of cultivation of this particular variety of bean was in 1778. Two centuries later, the variety was thought to have gone extinct until a woman named Rhoda Cutbush, an avid gardener and seed saver stumbled upon a tin in the back of her shed that contained just three Crimson Flowered Broad Beans. Understanding the importance of her discovery, she immediately sent the Beans to Lawrence Hills, founder of the Heritage Seed Library, who undertook the task of rescuing the bean from extinction.
I found this story to be a profound and empowering metaphor representing an act of heroism by a single ordinary individual. Every seed has a story to tell, stories that connect us to nature, which is inherently bound together with the histories of human cultures. The term ‘Cultural Memory Banking’ was coined by anthropologist Virginia Nazerea. It recognises ‘the inextricable link between crop diversity and human cultures and refers to the integration of cultural information associated with seeds conserved in seed banks’ (Nazarea, V. (2006). Local knowledge and memory in biodiversity conservation. Annual Review of Anthropology, 35, 317–35.) Irish Seed Savers collect seed stories, stewardship histories, origins, and community ties associated with the heirloom varieties in their collection.
Madeline Mc Keever of Brown Envelope Seeds invited me to her home and business, where she selected and generously donated five seeds of interest, encouraging me to delve into their inspiring journeys. One of these seeds was The was carried from North Carolina to Oklahoma during the forced march of the Cherokee Nation during the winter of 1838–39. Thousand’s of Cherokees died on what is known as the ‘Trail of Tears’; the bean has become a potent symbol of their struggle for survival and identity. The Irish Green Pea, a variety of pea native to Ireland, was Cherokee Black Bean, otherwise called the ‘Trail of Tears’. This seed repatriated from the Vavilov Gene Bank in the 1980’s. Nikolai Vavilov was a botanist and geneticist born in the late 1800’s. He collected plant species from all over the world and created the world's first official seed bank in St Petersburg in 1926. The vault survived World War II's Siege of Leningrad, and the legacy of his accomplishments against overwhelming odds is commemorated in the global efforts to conserve crop genetic diversity today. Madeline also has her own seed origin theories, speaking of Bere Barley, a rare and ancient grain she hypothesizes a link to Bere Island or Castletownbere, although there is no historical account of the grain ever being cultivated in Ireland.