- Jennifer Jewell
THE PALESTINE HEIRLOOM SEED LIBRARY, VIVIEN SANSOUR: BEST OF
In this first month of the new year, I once again offer out the hope of Vivien Sansour's work and the hope of seeds – to bind us more closely to one another and to the land that we live on. To own up to our collective pasts honestly and kindly and live into our collective future generously and tenderly reconnecting people and places.
Vivien Sansour is a seed finder, seed keeper and seed disperser. In 2014 she founded the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library.
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 in early 2020 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.
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.”
- Palestinian Blessing, shared by Vivien Sansour
You can follow Vivien's work online at viviensansour.com, or on Instagram @vivien.sansour and on 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.
IF YOU LIKE THIS PROGAM,
you might also enjoy these Best of CP programs in our archive:
True Love Seeds, with Owen Smith Taylor and Chris Boldem-Newsome
Seed Banking a Floristic Province, Naomi Fraga
Kinship - Belonging in a World of Relations, Rowen White & Gavin Van Horn
JOIN US again next week, when we catch up with seedswoman Judith Larner Lowry of Larner Seeds - seeds of the California Landscape based in Bolinas, California.
Cultivating Place is made possible in part by listeners like you and by generous support from the California Native Plant Society, on a mission to save California’s native plants and places using both head and heart. CNPS brings together science, education, conservation, and gardening to power the native plant movement. California is a biodiversity hotspot and CNPS is working to save the plants that make it so.
For more information on their programs and membership, please visit https://www.cnps.org/
Thinking out loud this week:
IN the midst of this month of good seed around the country and the world, one of the themes that really resonated with me in re-visting this conversation with Vivien was her acknowledging that one of the lessons she had learned from her own life and cultural heritage but also from deep work with seed was that of surrender, of not only not having control but of leaning into the idea and faith in transformation always in process. I like that theme – I like the work of leaning into that acceptance. Not that we stop trying, but that we keep trying hard as we can to grow the gardens and the communities and the world we believe in, but that we also never lose faith in a transformative process out of our control.
all Photos of Vivien's past and present courtesy of VivienSansour.com
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