How Gardeners Save a Small Piece of the World

Please enjoy this encore post on gardening and history, originally published April 2016 as part of And Related Subjects.

When people think of gardeners, many of them tend to picture little old ladies in straw hats with bright green gloves, pottering among the roses.

When people think of gardeners who are also children’s book authors, they go straight to Beatrix Potter and assume that not only are these little old ladies in straw hats pottering among the roses, but they are also greeting the friendly woodland creatures by name—“Hello, Mister Robin! You’re looking very feathery today!” “Why, Missus Tiggywinkle, how have you been?” “Oh dear, that naughty little cottontail has been at my lettuces again!”

Well, I am a gardener and a children’s book author. I am also under forty, tattooed, and the owner of a mostly black wardrobe, and when I greet a happy woodland creature by name, there is an excellent chance that the sentence will end with “touch that and I will end you.”

Also, I wear men’s mechanic gloves, because the crappy little green ones they sell for women shred the instant you try to root out blackberry brambles with them.

Also, while we’re on the topic, Beatrix Potter was hardcore. She was a botanical illustrator and she started doing children’s books after nobody would take a woman seriously as a scientific authority on mushroom taxonomy.

You see, the gardening world is not nice. Glorious and strange, full of explorers, heroes, villains, histories dark and terrible, grim invasions and brave last stands—but rarely nice.

When I got into heirloom vegetables, I had no idea that I was finding not just a meal, but a whole new way to experience history.

Take, for example, the I’itoi onion. This little shallot was brought to North America from Spain by Jesuit missionaries in 1699. You can’t grow it from seeds very easily, so it is propagated by dividing bulbs. The Jesuits brought it to the Tohono O’odham people, who named it after the god I’itoi, Elder Brother, the Man in the Maze, a creator god who brings enlightenment—and also onions.

When I dig my hands into the dirt and divide the bulbs, I am the latest in a long unbroken chain of hands belonging to O’odham gardeners, Jesuit priests, and Spanish monks, stretching back more than three hundred years. These bulbs are clones of the same bulbs that survived desert heat and shipboard journeys. They have seen things.

But lest we begin to feel that this is overly… well… nice, I grow them in the same bed as a small black bean called Trail of Tears. It was brought by the Cherokee people when they were dragged along that terrible road over the Smokey Mountains in 1838. It grows in Oklahoma and in North Carolina and I believe it would probably grow on the surface of Mars as well. It is as sturdy a plant as I have ever grown.

This is the thing about heirloom vegetables. They have history. They are stories, in seed form. And often the history is not a kind one. It is a story of seeds brought from homelands by people who never expect to see those homelands again. It is a story of immigrants and refugees, who brought with them the greatest wealth that someone can have—the power to feed themselves in an unknown land.

When I grow the Sea Island Red Pea, I am growing a cowpea that came from Africa with the slave trade, that became part of the Gullah culture in the South Carolina low country—a plant that nearly vanished, as farmers left their plots of land.

This is the other thing about heirloom vegetables. It is a story of quiet heroics. It is a story of things saved from the brink. Some of these plants exist today because a single person saved them. Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills drove around the back country of South Carolina until he found a stand of Carolina Gourdseed corn in a bootlegger’s field and managed to raise a field of his own. The Noble Bean was saved from a bag of water-damaged seeds handed down by somebody’s grand-uncle, of which a single bean sprouted … and the gardener harvested a hundred seeds, handed them out to fellow experts and the woman who had provided the bag of seeds to begin with, and single handedly brought it back from extinction.

These are stories of discovery. In the great age of exploration, when people took off out of Europe to newly acknowledged continents, plants were worth more than gold. I have never known why these plant hunters were so neglected in fantasy and alternate history—it seems like a natural! People slogged over mountains and sweated through malaria to find rare plants. When they say that traders set sail in search of spices, those spices did not come in little bottles from McCormick!

And then there’s the potato.

Oh, the potato.

As a writer and illustrator, I get invited to conventions fairly regularly, and I happened to be out at a convention in Denver as an artist GoH. I was on a panel called “Guest of Honor Remarks.”

I asked one of the concom about it, and she said “You have to talk for ten minutes about something you’re passionate about.” It could be anything, she went on to say—politics, books, anything, but I had to talk for at least ten minutes, because the artist GoH had a bad habit of saying “I’ve had a great time, thanks!” and then saying nothing for the rest of the panel, so they’d instituted a minimum.

I panicked a little. But then I thought about something I was passionate about, something which I could talk about with the fire and brimstone enthusiasm of a old time preacher… and that, dear reader, is how I did ten minute speech about Incan potato varieties, while all the other GoHs talked about what fandom meant to them. (Except Kevin Hearne, who kept talking to me about potatoes, and setting me off again. Kevin Hearne is a bad man, and you should read his books.)

So the ancient Incas had something like 4000 varieties of potato. They had potatoes for every possible climate and growing condition, potatoes of a thousand colors and flavors. They even had a method of freeze-drying potatoes that predates anything in the West by a good seven centuries. (How cool is that?!)

Sadly, many of those varieties are lost. From 4000 we’ve got… oh, maybe twenty or thirty that you can find easily. Maybe a hundred or two if you really hunt. Now we spend all our time drugging dirt into submission so that it’ll grow the Russet Burbank, which can be turned into a perfect McDonald’s French fry and has no other merit. (I have lots of Thoughts about this, but space is limited. Also, buy me a drink at a con and ask me about the Irish Potato Famine and monoculture and you’ll hear it all anyway.)

So what does all this mean, for a writer? Well, it may not be holding the bridge at Thermopylae, but I keep coming back to how many gardeners end up saving a small piece of the world. Whether it’s a food from a lost homeland or a cultivar that is about to vanish from the earth, so often it comes down to one person who kept something small but important from being lost forever.

And I find myself writing more and more books where the heroes are saving one small but important thing.

The world is maybe too large for any one person to save, but a seed… or a small, rundown castle… or a hydra egg… or a friend… this is the scale of things I can comprehend. When I am out in the garden in the morning, before writing, with my hands full of weeds, these are the stakes I understand the best.

Top image by Beatrix Potter.

Ursula Vernon is a full-time author and illustrator whose work has won a Hugo Award and been nominated for an Eisner. She is the author of the hit series Dragonbreath, the critically-acclaimed series Hamster Princess, and the standalone novel Castle Hangnail. She loves birding, gardening, and spunky heroines, and thinks she would make a terrible princess. Ursula lives with her husband in Pittsboro, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter at @UrsulaV.

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