The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library: Seed Stories of Skye and beyond

On Saturday 10th of October 2020 artist and activist Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, guided an online participatory event. We explored the importance of preserving an area’s seed varieties not only for food, but as a form of social and political resistance, and shared stories of seeds from Palestine, Skye and around the world.

A huge thank you to Vivien, and all those who joined and shared stories. Below is a summary of the conversation and a selection of the stories and resources shared.

00.00.01 Ainslie Roddick (ATLAS Arts Director) introduced the programme, and talked about the 14 Zine Libraries across Skye, Raasay and Lochalsh.

Through the Library we have been addressing the fact that we are many communities and lots of different people. We’ve been speaking a lot about food, food security and production in the area, and with Skye Climate Action…through the library we have started to have conversations locally about seeds, what we are growing, what grows well here, but also how that connects to our own heritage, the histories of growing, sustenance farming and crofting on Skye.”

We are really looking forward to hearing from Vivien and what she has to share, as we think about what that means on Skye, in the Scottish Highlands and in Scotland, for solidarity through action and as we learn more about where our food comes from and about the political implications and the environmental impact of our food structures. As part of this we have been speaking to many local growers, farmers and a new generation of crofters, some of whom are here today. The invitation for you, is to share stories.”

00.05.01 Vivien shared reflections on the climate and covid crises, about her practice, the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, and a few favourite seed stories.

We are all trying to find our power in these extremely dire times. and this is really the question that I had to ask myself, and the reason why I started the work I do today. It was really amazing that the power I found, was actually in a very, very tiny seed. It wasn’t what I had thought for a long time, big demonstrations, or huge flags or any of that. The reason it has been so powerful for me, is that I came to understand how my mind was so occupied by stories that were not mine, but stories by other people that told me of who I am, and how through these different seed varieties I was able to understand that first, I have access to a different story, and second that I am an agent in telling a new story. When we think about seeds, we don’t often ask how come we have them? These seeds have been developed through somebodies’ imagination, somebody had to decide that they also wanted a different vision for the future.”

When I started this work, I started to learn more about who I am, who the people were before me, and one of the most incredible things that discovered was that we are a centre for diversity for wheat and barley. Wheat and barely came out of the fertile crecent area. Somebody was crazy enough and decided that this wild grass could one day become this beautiful seed here.”

So today as I speak to you I hold this beautiful wheat variety, and I’ll tell you the story of this wheat variety, and I would love to hear your stories that we can weave together and share together.”

This wheat, is an ancient variety of wheat, very old. I call it Abu Samra, because when I was looking for it, a lot of people referred to it as Abu Samra (even though it is officially called habeh Soda). Abu Samra, in Arabic means the dark and handsome one”. People would refer to it as this thing that they loved so much, this living being that they missed. Many people talked about it how it tasted like cake, how they wished they could taste it again, especially people who were older who remember it as part of their daily bread. I started to understand how powerful the story is, because the more we told the story, the more people got excited….And people are now asking for it, which means farmers are more encouraged to grow it. And so this is one seed story that I wanted to share, and it’s one that I share often. It’s one that is really close to me because it is truly a story of falling in love, I genuinely just fell in love with this wheat variety and that drove everything else I did afterwards.”

Our work with seeds, is about creating more spaces, more tender spaces, to make life more tolerable. Not just for our species, but for other species. The ideas of ownership, ideas of nationalism become so ridiculous and futile, in the face of these huge challenges that we are facing…There is so much power in stories, especially in a time when there is a dominant world that is constantly telling us who we should be and what our stories should be. In a lot of ways these crises; economic, the pandemic and of the climate are really asking us questions as a species. Who do we want to be? What kind of ancestors do we want to be? My grandmother left this wheat. What am I going to leave behind?”

00.21.05 Vivien shared a final story and accompanying film Cistern.

At the beginning of this pandemic, we started to grow a lot of food because we were in lockdown and we wanted to make sure that we had enough food to food ourselves and our community. So I quickly started to gather all the seeds that I have, my friends came and we started planting together. But by the middle of the summer, we were out of water. We have huge restrictions around water here, we farm in very difficult circumstances, not just climate change but political reality. Israel for example, restricts the amount of water that we get as Palestinians, and so we have very little water to drink, and so farming becomes an even harder process.

And so I wanted to build a cistern that harvests rainwater, so that next summer we don’t have to suffer this difficulty of trying to save our plants. And in the process we had to dig the earth, which is something I hate doing, but we tried to do it in an area where nothing was growing. In the process we found these gorgeous rock formations, that were crystallised. They were crystallised because of the salt from millions of years ago… I was so fascinated but also kind of shook in a way. I had to think about the fact that I was a fish, before I was a human, and all of this here was a forest under the sea. For us to claim so much power and ownership became so absurd and surreal… And so I ended up making a short film for a gallery in New York called Storefront and I wanted to share it with you now, before opening up for people to share and ask questions.”

00.29.04 A story about Rye. Joss has been working with artists Ali Akbar Mehta and Vidha Saumya in Finland, of the project The Lost Utopian Meadow. As part of the project they developed a ballad about the history of food culture in Finland and invited Joss to write a response to the ballad. Joss shared the research and story about Rye.

Like Vivien talked about wheat, rye also has it’s roots in the same regions. So they grew up together, shall we say, in the same meadows. Rye is particularly interesting, as living here in Finland, it is fundamental to the food culture here…but unlike wheat, rye has a different story which is interesting in what it tells us about domestication. Rye seems so have avoided the path of domestication that wheat took. Whereas wheat very quickly became cultivated, rye had it’s own path, in the way that it transported itself from the meadows of Anatolia to Europe. It travelled there almost against the will of the farmers, the people who were moving these seeds around. Because they did not want the rye, they were interested in the wheat. But the way that they harvested the seed, the rye seed was always in amongst it. It was travelling as a passenger along with the wheat…and so the more wheat they sowed, the more rye they also sowed…there’s almost a different kind of agency here, where the rye was domesticating people.”

37.57 Sandaidh shares her stories of growing here on Skye on the land, how she eventually found, and was gifted bere barley from the Western Isles and how certain heritage crops have fallen away.

I got a piece of land a couple of years ago and became interested in heritage seeds and growing more unusual things out of interest and because I love diversity. I come from a place that is not a land of plenty, Skye has a wonderfully rich, natural diversity that only produces a small yield across the whole of the year, hunter-gatherers and foragers of the past would have got by but it would have been a hard life”

it was a lovely, human exchange and I felt welcome, he wanted to know how I was going to get on with it and gave me people to speak to. What I took away from that was the danger of institutionalising the science of growing to such an extent that it becomes unavailable to the layman that you feel ailienated from the process”

On Skye not very many cereal crops are grown, only 50 years ago people would have, as standard, grown oats and barley for themselves and their animals, now only a handful grow it for their animals, it is not harvested for human consumption at all”

One of the things that bothers me is what are we sacrificing for yield on all levels, in terms of nature, in terms of what we put into our bodies, in terms of what is being lost to species diversity?”

49.49 Dorothy has been growing Sutherland Kale – a seed she bought because of its story.

It came from a lady in West Drummy in Sutherland, she was born in 1914 and she was a crofter, then in 2003 someone that knew her sent some of these seeds to Real Seeds”

Kale was one of the very few green vegetables that crofters grew here, they had potatoes and grains but green veg was limited to cabbages, kale ( a type of cabbage) and carrots if the soil was sandy so it was pretty important for getting some green vegetables into your diet along with wild plants like nettles, seaweed and silverweed they would eat”

You grow them over winter and then in summer they bolt, they stop producing leaves but they put out flowers and that time of year, March, is a difficult time for bees as there are so few flowers, so I feel it is giving me a double benefit, not only giving me leaves over winter but giving my bees food over spring”

00.56.08 Ainslie shared the story of the Glendale Cabbage.

On the subject of brassicas, one of the things that ATLAS have been speaking about is the Glendale Cabbage, I suppose this is almost the watermelon’ of the library (a reference to Vivien’s story of the watermelon, see below). Glendale, which is an area in the north-west of Skye is known for a cabbage, the Glendale Cabbage. It’s kind of mythological, it was supposed to have grown to six feet wide, it was really huge crop…It’s really interesting because it was supposed to have been brought to Glendale from a shipwreck, a Spanish ship that was escaping from the English and then wrecked off the north coast. The people in Glendale sent their own men down the cliff to retrieve the wreckage from the ship. But then they discovered there were survivors and so they climbed down the cliff and pulled up the survivors with a complex series of ropes. And the men who came off the ship, brought these cabbage seeds with them and, according to the stories, this was the first time that cabbage came to the UK and to Scotland”

Reading from Highlands Myths and Legends by George W. McPherson, Ainslie read the seeds grew well, and into the first ever cabbages grown on Skye, they were huge cabbages, almost six foot wide in width and good for eating for both man and beast. A most welcome addition to the local diet. Some of the cabbages were allowed to go to seed to ensure their continuance and stone walls were built to replace the original turf walls. These stones walls became a permanent feature in the glen. Some can still be seen there for growing cabbages, until about the 1920’s. And so Glendale became famous for it’s cabbages.”

As Dorothy was saying brassicas, cabbages and kale grow very well here. This Glendale cabbage, I’m really interested in finding out what it is now, where, if it exists, what it’s become. It has all these stories of trade, it was really important for trade with Ireland, with the trade of potatoes, so there is something about that we would really like to find.”

Vivien responded that as Ainslie shared the story of the Glendale Cabbage, she was thinking about In a way I think we are all trying, through these plants, to not just discover who we are but also make meaning of what we are right now. And as you were reading how people described this cabbage from so many years ago, it made me think about what it means to allow ourselves to tell a new story. Even if we don’t know facts, although facts are important, but there is also space for imagination. To tell a new story, maybe you can create a new story even about this Glendale Cabbage.”

01.01.58 Vivien’s story of the watermelon.

The story of the watermelon is similar to your cabbage story, in that I was talking to people, when I was hired as a writer in the north of Palestine, to write about rural life, particularly olive growers in Palestine… The intention was to talk about the olive oil, the olive production, but always, always someone would mention this Jadui, watermelon. A lot of people didn’t even refer to it was watermelon, they would just say Jadui. Then I would meet people whose last name would be Jadui. I was trying to figure out, who is this Jadui? Eventually I started to understand that this is something that was part of everybody’s consciousness…particularly men would talk about it as a source of pride, because they looked up to their fathers, they went on trips with their fathers who would put this watermelon in trucks and take it all the way to Damascus, to Beirut, even to Turkey.”

In Palestine, people will tell you it’s a seed that knows it’s soil, it grew with zero irrigation you just had to know when to put it in the ground. When you have giant watermelons that grow with no water and they travel. So as someone who also loves to travel and explore I was fascinated by this explorer watermelon because in a way it went places that most people didn’t go. It was carved in people’s memories, not just of people eating the watermelon, but also hiding in the watermelon fields during the war, women giving birth in the watermelon fields, people hiding the watermelon under their beds, storing it to eat in the winter. These were of course important and beautiful stories, that were part of everyday culture but there was also a story of survival and sustenance. It was a main crop, economically it saved people, people depended on it. It’s disappearance was really major and traumatic for the community…and so I became really interested in it and I wanted to learn more about it, but like the cabbage I kept not finding much except from people’s memories. I realised then that, maybe I will never find it, and when I asked about it people would say you’re looking for the dinosaur, I can tell you about it but it doesn’t exist anymore” and that really broke my heart because every time someone told me I was looking for the dinosaur, that they were telling me I should surrender to the fact that a huge part of my culture, my people’s history was disappearing…and I hate to surrender to this, which is why I do what I do. And so I kept looking, and for a long time people would say, we just don’t have it. Years went by… probably six year into the search that I went to this guy, asking about different varieties and I said Have you ever heard of this watermelon called Jadui?” and he just laughed and said What you know about it?”. he had never met someone who had really wanted to talk about it. I said Yeah I’ve heard about it and I want to know about it” and suddenly he gave me his full attention and said Well I have it, but nobody wants it”. It was in that moment, it was so incredible to put them in my hand but also to hear that nobody wanted them was a heartbraking moment, but also a moment of defiance for me. Because I decided I wanted them, and I want other to want them.

So then I started to work with different farmers to bring it back…the seeds made their way to California, and just a couple of days ago my friend sent me a picture of a Guatemalan farmer who opened the first watermelon and it was full of seeds, a Jadui watermelon. So that Jadui watermelon stayed true to the tradition and has travelled…something I think my great grandmothers would not have thought about.”

01.10.41 Trish shares a story about watermelon when she was a volunteer in Eritrea years ago.

one weekend we went down to the Red Sea Coast where the temperature was over 120 degrees, we were just young volunteers and realised that we had not taken any water with us but someone had this massive watermelon and it sustained us for the whole weekend, it was a miracle product of nature”

Recommended resources, inspirational projects and readings shared by participants.

  • The Lost Utopian Meadow
  • Thus Spoke the Plant by Monica Gagliano
  • SEEDSONG BLOG by Rowan White: Weaving stories of seeds, food, culture and sacred Earth stewardship.
  • Scuola di Agriculture (2017 – ongoing), a pedagogical platform led by Luigi Coppola in Castiglione d’Otranto (Puglia, Italy) and Giardino Evolutivo’: a community project
  • Real Seeds, heirloom and traditional variety seed sellers providing information and advice.