Seed Stories: a Seedy Saturday webinar with Vivien Sansour

Seedy Sunday Chair, Kate Harrison, gives us an elegant review of guest speaker’s talk on the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library

Seedy Saturday Lewes and Seedy Sunday Brighton and Hove came together at the end of January to host a webinar as a way of keeping the conversations about seed saving and swapping going during lockdown. I realised that what I’ve always seen as a very local act of sharing seeds has a global and political dimension.  Thanks to the Seedy Saturday team, we were lucky to host Vivien Sansour, an artist, storyteller, researcher and conservationist from Palestine. Vivien uses image, sketch, film, soil, seeds, and plants to enliven old cultural tales in contemporary presentations and to advocate for seed conservation and the protection of agrobiodiversity as a cultural/political act. Vivien founded the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library as part of this work with local farmers.

Vivien told us her passion for growing and seeds began 20 years ago when she met a Palestinian woman who was living as a refugee, and despite her home having been destroyed, was growing the most abundant and  delicious spinach in the ruins. Vivien thought “If she can do it, none of us has any excuse.” Vivien had learned about agriculture in her childhood from her grandmother but had become disconnected as she grew up and went to the city. As she learned about seeds, she became more fascinated by the seeds themselves, like a ‘little astronaut, exploring a new planet’. The image of the Palestinian spinach seed amazed her – it’s a ‘spiky cosmic cluster so different from the commercial smooth seeds’. She loved the images and the magic and wonder of something so tiny creating food for yourself and others.

Vivien started to learn about her own seed heritage as a Palestinian, with all the challenges of identity and heritage, yet with a seed culture which goes back millennia. She told us about amazing crops which can grow with no artificial irrigation if they’re planted in well prepared ground at the right time, despite the dry Mediterranean climate. She went to look for a famous watermelon called Jadu’l which people said no longer existed.  She met a man who still saved the Jadu’l seeds and gave them to her saying nobody wanted them – a defining moment for Vivien, as she realised the wealth of experience contained in old seed varieties. She began her work to ‘replant history’ and realised the importance of collecting the stories along with the seeds. “To understand who we want to be, we need to understand who we were”.

Vivien also told us about the ‘beloved cauliflower’ zahara baladi which takes nine months to grow, is drought and disease resistant, tasty and enormous! She shared the story of the ancient wheat variety Abu Samra – which means ‘dark and handsome’ due to the lovely dark awns or whiskers. Vivien worked hard to bring it back to being cultivated and harvested again, including working with a local songwriter to write a love song about it. This led to many young people asking to taste this old variety of wheat, making it worthwhile for a local farmer to grow.  Along with revitalising seeds and their stories, Vivien also set up a traveling kitchen to cook and share the food with her fellow Palestinians, helping to create a greater appreciation and love for their traditions.

I found this webinar so inspiring. At a moment when we are all stuck at home in ‘lockdown’, it was a chance to think beyond the here and now, and to remember our ancestors in the Fertile Crescent who have been saving the best seeds for millennia.

You can watch Vivien’s webinar and the discussion that followed on YouTube here, or read this great article about her work and philosophy here.

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