“Re-establishing a Seed Commons through Oral History Methodology: Capturing the Story of Seed ” is a research project that provides a venue for preserving knowledge of the nearly lost art of saving seed while grounding students in an epistemology of hope as they document change-makers who are charting a course forward into the great uncertainty of the Anthropocene. It highlights storytelling and mindful listening as a means of transferring knowledge from one generation to the next, and engages students in a high-impact pedagogy within a community of practice.
In fall of 2019, Beth Bridgeman, assistant professor of cooperative education, offered “Seed Sovereignty and Citizen Action”, an advanced level eleven-week course into which this project was incorporated.
When we save seed, we are saving the important germplasm, or genetic material, within that seed. But it is critical also, to save the story of that seed. Who are those working at the forefront of seed sovereignty today? How are they saving seed, and why? What are their stories? Why do they save this particular seed? Where did it come from? Was it passed down through their family? Which ancestor passed it down? What mattered to those ancestors? What did they hope for? For how many generations has it been saved? How far back can the seed be traced? What are the memories associated with the saving of this seed?
Students identified, interviewed and archived the stories of seed-savers and those who are working to re-establish a new seed commons, thereby utilizing oral history and experiential methodology in their own learning, and making available to the public these impactful strategies of seed mentors and seed elders who are “fighting the good fight”.
“[But] someone needs to keep up an old method if it’s not to be lost; some young person needs to get interested and begin the life’s work of mastering the craft; be it botanical art or baking salt-raising bread or making saddles. Like lifeforms themselves, human crafts must be continually renewed, regrown inside a living person, or they become obsolete, extinct, within a generation”.[i]
[i] Howsare, Erika. “The Magnificence of Seeing.” Taproot, 14 Nov. 2017.
Listen to the Student Interviews:
With uncertainty over health insurance coverage and out-of-control medical costs, including pharmaceuticals, there is a renewed interest today in taking control of one’s own health care and in relearning about herbal medicines and folk remedies. Herbal and plant medicines have been documented back to 5000 years. Until the mid 20th century, natural cures and herbs were common among many Americans. Many doctors utilized these older remedies, and today, a number of modern prescription drugs in the Global North are still directly plant-based.
In this hands-on course taught by Antioch faculty member Beth Bridgeman, students made teas, tinctures, balms, vinegars, tonics, syrups, salves and poultices for treating many common ailments and gained a basic understanding of the four major herbal-medicine traditions; Chinese, Ayurvedic, European and Native American, and commonalities of each. They explored the role that women have played in healing traditions throughout history; who, from ancient times and still today, provide much of the world’s primary care. The course also covered the history of medical plants, from aromatic magic to mainstream medicine, from Hildegaard of Bingen to Nicholas Culpepper, from the 19th Century Ohio Eclectics to the current work of the Ohio United Plant Savers, and walk away with a variety of remedies made from common plants.
This is a course, in the words of David Foster Wallace, about “adjusting our default setting”; using reskilling as a tool for mindfulness and community-building. One of the consequences of increasing specialization and monetization of the economy is that skills that were once common among the general population, skills that by their nature contributed to a sense of community, skills that could not be accomplished without thought and intention, are now shared by few.
What is reskilling and why is it important? Phillip Barnes describes it as “the acquisition of skills essential to satisfy basic needs in a localized and carbon-constrained future… Reskilling is a process, ongoing and never-ending, that evolves as conditions change and contexts change. It is first and foremost a community-oriented method….While one can learn reskilling by watching a video or reading a book, it is the face-to-face interactions that build community….where a talented and knowledgeable individual or group teaches other people what they know.”[i]
Together with essays and reflections on the nature of home-based work, presentations by innovators tackling difficult problems we face as we move in to a time of uncertainty, and hands on skill-building in each session, this course offered tools for increasing awareness, self-agency and community-building. Skills learned included herbal medicines, acorn bread, soap-making, canning, mending, basic wiring, felting/repurposing wool. Other skills were determined by the interests of the classroom community awere student-taught. These included bagel-making, knitting, fire-starting, atole, walnut ink, making cordage from nettle, and potato candy.
[i] Barnes, Phillip, “What is Reskilling Anyway?” Transition US. Web. October 13, 2014. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2014-10-13/reskilling-as-mastery-of-appropriate-technology/
Students in Beth Bridgeman’s Global Seminar spent spring of 2017 learning about biochar, wildcrafting, beekeeping, goatmilking, regenerative agriculture, horsedrawn plowing, culture and the power of food memories, culminating in an all day cooking session and feast.
Beth Bridgeman was the invited guest speaker at the Ohio Governor’s Residence and Heritage Garden on August 23 where she spoke on the history of U.S. seed patent legislation since 1930, gene trait and utility patent law and seed sovereignty. She is an invited speaker at the Ohio School Garden conference on October 13 and a panelist on “Community Efforts and Environmentalism” at the Chatham College Food and Climate Change conference October 14. On October 21, she is co-presenting at the InFACT Seed to Sustainability Workshop at Antioch College with Dr David Francis, geneticist and tomato plant breeder from the Ohio Agriculture and Research Development Center. Second in a series of four statewide workshops, the InFACT series provides professional training for seedsavers, grower and plant breeders. Bridgeman and Francis will speak on seed policy law for small-scale commercial seed production.
Reskilling and Resilience
One of the consequences of increasing specialization and monetization of the economy is that skills that were once common among the general population are now shared by few. This course introduced students to multiple arts and crafts of daily living and resilience practices that can reduce their footprint. With hands on skill-building in each session, Reskilling and Resilience offered tools for increasing student agency and confidence to become artists of their own lives. Skills include urine-diverted compost toilet, basic wiring, home maintenance and repair, seed-saving, spinning, warmth on the homestead, basic tools, felting/repurposing wool, wildcrafting/herbal medicines, soap-making, canning, sewing and mending, living on a very small budget, and baking.