Keeping Options (and Seeds) Alive: Common Ground Country Fair

When we moved to Maine full-time, I more than doubled the size of our garden. I’ve waxed poetic about it in other posts, so I’ll spare you that here.

But I want to say a few things about it in the context of having gone to the Common Ground Fair in Unity, Maine, this weekend. That fair brings together thousands of people (more than 50,000 were projected to attend, I think, this year) interested in various aspects of “country living.” That appellation doesn’t always feel like it settles well on my shoulders. I like hanging out in urban settings and am at best a country novice. But the ethos of the Fair is absolutely one I share. It’s about re-claiming our capacity to take care of ourselves well.

And that’s what I want to say in terms of the garden here. The point, for me, of growing our food is the same as that of most folks: great quality, good exercise with a delicious pay-off, local, sustainable, no fears about what is in or on our fruits and veggies.

And all that is celebrated at the fair, for sure. But it is done in the context of self-reliance, and about celebrating the fullness & richness of a self-sufficient life. When I think about self-reliance, I don’t think about it in terms of knowing how to make cheese and put up preserves. Those are fun, and can certainly be a part of a self-reliant life. But really, what I think it means, at core, is having the skills to meet life’s demands, and to do so in a way that maximizes your freedom. That’s a heady word. And I don’t mean it in a political sense; I mean it in a philosophical sense. Being free from the inability to take good care.

As that last probably suggests, I come to the Common Ground Fair and its celebration of self-reliance from a fairly cerebral rather than intuitive place. And because of that, my ideas of sufficiency have been informed not so much but what I think I need to eat or grow or wear as by what I think I need to do (or not do). And what I think I need to do, at least what I’ve thought for the last few years, is keep old seeds in production. Several years ago, I went to a talk by Gary Paul Nabhan about RAFT (Restoring America’s Food Traditions), where he gave out lists of foods that used to be prevalent in New England but that are now rare or endangered. So, I plant off that list as much as I can. (He has a downloadable copy on his website, which you can find at: http://garynabhan.com/i/place-based-foods).

For me, the intersection between the idea of taking good care and preserving old seeds is about potential. When I was growing up, my dad used to always urge me to “keep your options open.” He wanted me to be sure that when an opportunity arose, I’d be ready to assess it and take it. I’m sure he gave me lots of other advice, but that’s the bit that rings in his voice in my head. In every seed, I literally see potential, literally see an option. And if they go extinct, those options are gone forever. I don’t know what those options might mean for me, for my community, for the ecology of the region, for our foodshed as the climate changes, and so I don’t want to take the chance of losing them before we know.

Keeping them in production keeps an option open a little longer. Maybe, possibly, long enough.