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Pondering the Puzzlement

Uncle Jacks Beans

Jack Deatherage, Jr.

(3/1) Lately I've been trying to order my thoughts on gardening with the "heirloom" varieties of seeds I've been buying, trading, or have been gifted. Heirloom plants are Open Pollinated varieties developed at least 50 years ago. I've been planting heirlooms hoping to find something Grandfather George Cool may have grown when I was a kid. Mom thinks I've gotten close with a couple tomatoes.

There is also a bit of pleasure, perhaps pride, in collecting seeds of varieties once grown by Thomas Jefferson or documented by the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Or having varieties developed in Europe or Asia and brought here by 18th, 19th and 20th century immigrants, or even by those who arrived last week. The history of a plant variety is often interesting. Vegetables I've always taken for granted became intriguing when I learned how they had reached my plate. What a surprise some bean I enjoy had started its journey in Central America, cultivated as long as 7,000 years ago! Over time it had been traded north until natives in this place were growing it. Late in the journey were the European explorers/traders/invaders taking the seeds back to their homelands and selecting aspects of the bean more suited their climates, soils and tastes. Then they brought it back to what had become the U.S.A. where it was further "refined" until it landed on my plate! Very "I didn't know that!" but still not enough of a reason for me to hang onto seeds when there are thousands of varieties I've yet to sample.

I do keep a variety of pepper, Sinahuisa, an heirloom gifted to me by Brook Elliott of Kentucky who got his seeds from a friend in New Mexico. The variety wasn't commercially feasible so Brook and a few others are trying to save it. It is the one variety I have faithfully grown and saved seeds of since 2002.

Another aspect of heirloom seeds is one of survival. When 98% of our population lived or worked on farms there was little worry that some variety of corn would vanish from this rock. Today, with about 2% of this country's people growing their own food, there is a good chance some variety of Zea mays, or Pisum sativum, or Brassica oleracea has already vanished forever. Around this rock people are saving seeds in freezers under mountains in frozen places, or in their kitchen freezers from Washington to Florida. Many are saving plant varieties against the time when Big Agriculture fails! I just can't get fired up over that.

Nor could I get into heirlooms as "a valued possession passed down in a family through succeeding generations." My family bought new seeds or plants for each year's garden. The previous generation of gardeners spent the winter months studying seed catalogs and working out their dream gardens, just as I do today. They shared extra seeds or saved some for the next season but I'm not aware of any seed passed from grandfather Cool to his kids. I know Dad had none from grandfather Deatherage and gave none to us. I was urged by heirloom growers to seek out such seeds so I might grasp the significance of having them. They weren't available and I couldn't understand why some people felt they were so important. Sure I can appreciate one Kansas farmer's story of his Russian immigrant family coming to this place in the 1800s with seeds they had planted and used for generations. But I couldn't understand his emotional reasons for treasuring the seeds as he does.

Currently I'm caught in one of "life's little jokes," though I'm not laughing - maybe later. In mid January I visited with Uncle Don Cool as he lay drifting in and out of a pain-pill sleep. I didn't, and don't, know what the hell to say to someone waiting for a cancer to send them on. So we talked of gardens - the last one he tended and the ones I hope to plant. As I was leaving him he gave me the dried beans he grew in his last garden. He didn't think anyone else was interested in them and he didn't want his last efforts at gardening to be wasted. I told him I'd eat some and plant some. They wouldn't be wasted.

I wasn't able to tell Don one of my brothers and a sister asked for some of his bean seeds - he died the end of January. Now I understand the Kansas farmer's attachment to his family's heirloom seeds.

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