By Steven Martyn
All my plant relations are jumping back up now. Every spring I’m brought to tears of gratefulness when I see their beautiful faces again. Only a week ago as the moon waxed toward fullness, we thrashed bags of un-hulled bean pods for their bright coloured eyes and coaxed hard white knuckle-like kernels from fourteen inch, eight-row Onondaga flint-corn. She and three other of last year’s heritage corns that I carry, still safely hang rodent-free, from the centre rafter of our living room ceiling. We need to keep an eye out for our family and those we love.
How we select our seed is very important. I’ve grown out heritage varieties of corn and beans for over twenty five years, and kept the seed strains consistent during that time. To have done this I am thankful for many corn teachings. One of the most important teachings was passed on to Gary Nabhan by an elder in Mexico, which he’s passed on in his book “Enduring Seeds”. She “tisk-tisk’d” him as he tried to help the old woman choose seed, because he only took the best looking cobs. She told him and my practice follows, that we should always make sure we take our seed, the planting kernels, not from just one or two of the prime cobs (as a breeder would if they were trying to hybrid the plant), but to take the seed from many different cobs including the ones that don’t look so good. The lesson here is to not discriminate based on appearances! Because the twisted little one with crooked rows may contain the very genes or medicine, that the species needs to survive this time of change.
And what is true of corn is true of people. We all need to move ahead together into the future. This is a very different understanding of what makes a species strong than our “tooth and claw” “survival of the fittest” paradigm. When we protect and help those who might not look so good, we are not giving charity to perpetuate a lesser being. But rather, we are helping one who has taken on a greater burden in their life then we have. These ones, on whom the struggle shows, would quickly be cast aside by many on our assent to the future, or be accused of being dead weight and “a burden on society”. But life is full of tricks. When we look at others we are in a house of mirrors, some fat some thin and in some we see ourselves upside down and backwards. So we think we are saving them but it’s they who are saving us, by carrying our collective burden. And they may also be the very ones whose spirit of survival will save us in the future. This is why, with both corn and people, we should equally honour all. Honouring those who everyone looks up to, who’ve come through life with long strait rows, as well as those who have been led down a short twisted path.
There are great mysteries waiting to reveal themselves to us at the heart of agriculture.
When we’re laying down our bright cherished seeds (who’d be able to live as they are for many years), down into the dark earth, to die, to transfigure into a being that will become our food, we are enacting a ritual so old and central to our humanity that its importance (to our physical and spiritual culture) cannot be overestimated.
This ritual of agriculture was given to us from Divinity thousands of years ago. And while we don’t see Her anymore, She is still living all around us, in the Wild. Her gift of a staple food and its creation story was handed down from person to person, directly through the hearts and hands of hundreds of generations over thousands of years. Many seeds remain, but the stories have all but been forgotten. That its been so long and our forgetful nature is part of why we’ve lost the stories and the clear understanding that came with them, that it is this divine gift that keeps us all alive. But mostly, the stories have been forgotten because of colonization. Centuries of conquest, cultures running over one another like waves on a beach have erased the creation stories of our food like tracks in the sand.
In this time, when we have the western world’s accumulated knowledge at our fingertips, the truth is, we really have no idea where our staple food plants came from or how they were created! Some may contest, but if we did, we’d obviously use this knowledge to make more of these crops. But we can’t, because the knowledge how to do such a thing was lost with the details of the story.
While much has been lost, thankfully many seeds have not been and have come down to us through the ages of time. The orphaned children stowed away, adopted and claimed by another culture. While the seeds were saved their stories, hidden in the baskets and bedding of those past, are still floating downstream past us. If we’re quiet and lean in, we can see and hear the evidence of their creation. And the seeds themselves, like all children are waiting for us, their caretakers, to listen to their story.
So, we are still blessed to be living with and sustained by these progenitors of culture. And if we are lucky enough to find ourselves in a sublime moment, dancing with these old friends as we plant them, or as they break out through the soil, then we may be lucky enough to hear them, once again telling story of their journey from the underworld back to the Earth, back to us.
Truly, what could be more profound and miraculous than this agricultural act, which lay at the foundation of civilization and on which we are still entirely dependent. We have come to take this rebirth of our green relations for granted, but we shouldn’t. Because like all miracles, it’s far from being “a sure thing”. Every time is dicey, every time it’s a miracle.
A day may come when these plant relations, like a lover whose waited too long, may turn away from us and not show their faces anymore. And on the day we lose them, we’ll remember their true value. Because with all our technology we still can’t make even one morsel of food. As humans we can only help grow food and eat other beings that have grown. Part of what makes us human is our ability to respond and grieve, as we live out this grim truth.
No matter how you look at it, the fact is, without our shining green relations we’d starve and all the ‘achievements’ of civilization would crumble back into dust in just a few short weeks.
Like the gift of food isn’t enough, if we’re paying attention there is still another meal for us in all this, or perhaps a lavish dessert. That is, that we too must let go of our polished, protective shell of professionalism and our dense ‘seed’ form, of un-birthed spirituality. To do this, we must lay ourselves down on the dark earth and die into the milky silence of the night sky. And in our sleep, we are dreamed and transformed into the more tender and vulnerable being we really are.
Why would anyone want to die and be transformed like this?
Like our food, which we’ve been given, the answer is hanging within our grasp.
From our dark seed like, self contained cocoon, we can feel the heat and moisture of the Earth and water. As we surrender to the water we surrender to our dreams. We swell and break open our shell. It turns out what we thought we were was just a container. Through this seam that opens into reality, we labour to birth our spirit, reaching and pushing up and out through the surface of time. Like a seedling emerging from the earth. Through the process of dying and dreaming we are enabled to come into reality, to change, to grow, adapt and live authentically from moment to moment.
And we go through all these labours and transformations so – that we may become capable of bearing fruit (to feed those to come) – instead of remaining a lonely seed that can’t feed a mouse, growing increasingly dormant and unviable as the years pass.
May we be reminded again and again of our luck to be the recipients of these divine gifts. May we bend low in our thankfulness to Her for our life together and for Her teachings. And may we give our love back to those shining young plant faces that greet us everyday in the wilds and as we tend to the children of divinity that live in our garden.