“The seed, the seed, the seed….for what is it but a continuation of ourselves? Aren’t we all seeds?" – Vivien Sansour
Vivien Sansour is a seed finder, seed keeper and seed disperser. In 2014 she founded the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library.
In this our final conversation in our Seed Change series, we are joined by Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library – a dynamic living seed library working to re-find and re-share and regrow beloved seeds of the ancient and storied Palestinian landscape and culture.
I spoke with Vivien from her home in Palestine a little earlier this year and throughout our conversation you can hear the busy bustle of Palestinian life behind her – we took breaks for Friday night fireworks celebrating someone’s marriage, for announcements coming from the minaret announcing updates on Covid and the passing of a citizen due to the Covid. (She said to me at the time, "that's one way you can tell a real Palestinian when they can differentiate between gunfire and fireworks!")
Throughout it all, Vivien’s passion and humor come through.
"For me the journey of starting to look for seeds and seed stories was also a really very personal journey trying to tell myself a new story about myself and where I come from and who I am…..so from being asked as a girl [who just emigrated to the US in middle school] 'Since you're Arab, do you have a tail?' Now I can say, “Oh, I am Arab alright, and I have these amazing watermelons!... In fact through the survival and knowledge held in these kinds of seeds - like this Ba'al watermelon - my grandparents and parents and great-grandparents of 10,000 years ago offered us and the world a knowledge and a seed heritage that did not require violence towards the earth.”
Vivien Sansour, Palestine Heirloom Seed Library
In our conversation, Vivien takes us on her journey of finding and meeting this watermelon, of finding and meeting a believed to be extinct fragrant cucumber, and a wheat known as "the dark and handsome one" - one of the 100s of varieties of wheat that used to be cultivated in Palestine - a seat of wheat biodiversity in the world.
All of this leads her to understand not only the integral importance of seed to culture, but of the parallels between how we talk about our cultural plant relationships and how we think about ourselves.
By Vivien's own admission, the seed library has taken on a whole life of its own - which she loves. She loves the freedom these seeds have to continue co-evolving. The work has has taken her into the art world many times, because she loves the energy and friction of the art of these stories, the architecture of this vast narrative of growth, destruction, loss, grief, rediscovery and regrowth - the transformational cycle that seeds offer to her over and over again.
In 2019 she participated with an exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Biennial at the Chicago Cultural Center. Up for 6 months, Vivien’s exhibition was a replication seed library which talked of how landscape is transformed through colonization and violence; how the North American prairies were destroyed and lost and the flora altered and the peoples severed from their food sources just as the valleys of Palestine have been over centuries. How her people lost their Baal watermelon just as the Indigenous cultures of North America had so much of their bio heritage appropriated or destroyed. This is a global experience.
Another endeavor sprouted out of this seed work in the form of Vivien’s Traveling Kitchen. Through feedback from farmers, she came to understand that to save the seed and share it forward was not enough. The farmers shared with her that while they too loved these old varieties, to build demand an appreciation for them, people needed to be taught again how to cook with them, how to prepare and share delicious food with them. And so the Traveling kitchen was born and it allows Vivien to not lecture people on why they should love these varieties, but rather to create an experience - “an invitation to share food and story over delicious food and thereby a door to fall in love with them” the way Vivien herself had done. An ingenious pop-up construction designed and crafted by her artist friend Aya Darafay, the traveling kitchen fits in her car and Vivien will spontaneously set it up in villages she travels to and prepare meals for strangers who become familiar friends. “We have conversation - elders engage, children engage” and in this intergenerational mix we all learn something new.
Additionally, Vivien has collaborated with singers and songwriters to create songs to these seeds, she has collaborated with painters and of course she is always in collaboration with the many seeds and seed people she meets and shares forward in this world.
You can follow Vivien’s work at viviensansour.com, on Instagram and Facebook under the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library page and the Al Bir Arts and Seed page. At these sites you can learn more about her work, where to source some of the seeds, and you can support Vivien’s work including the goal of creating a fruit and flower/flour farm.
Let's end with the traditional Palestinian prayer that Vivien shares with us:
“May we eat and be able to feed others. It’s up to God and it depends on our service - our service to the plant, our service to the soil.”
Join us again next week when we kick off December with flourish in conversation with Teresa Sabankaya of the Santa Cruz based Bonny Doon Flower Company and author of "The Posy Book – garden inspired bouquets that tell a story" - just in time for seasonal winter festivities.
RELATED EPISODES INCLUDE:
THINKING OUT LOUD this week..
This conversation with Vivien, which certainly recalls the powerful and precise cultural work of Ira Wallace, of Rowen White and others – brings up some of the variations in approach in our seed world. Seed banks, which store seed away as insurance of sorts for later use, and living seed saving and sharing – which is clear in the importance of seed remaining in the evolutionary cyclical process of being grown out on the land and in weather and by caring hands of people – so that the seed continues to carry the knowledge of the past and continues to adapt to the present conditions in order to ensure a future.
Like the pine, and oak and alders here where I am right now extravagantly offering out their seeds to the world – there is wisdom, generosity and strategy in abundance and redundancy. Something to think about. In a later exchange, Vivien noted to me that one of the best ways to support her work is to sow and grow and save and share seeds yourself – to become a person in relationship with the seeds and cycles and nature of your place.
Please know that in this week, as we enter this season of thanks tending into the Winter Solstice in just about a month – I am deeply thankful for my garden, for you all out there with me as gardener citizens, and for the many opportunities we have right now and always to re-seed our world with our words, our actions, our daily choices.
I couldn't grow this without you.
All photos used courtesy of The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library. All rights reserved.
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