To Reciprocate All They Freely Offer
by Mercedes Webb
Bees shimmy into apple blossoms, their wings making music with the petals. Ants crawl on peonies, so their petals, now tightly wrapped, may shortly bloom. Basil left uneaten, basil gone to flower, to seed, with one more gift to offer: a promise of future sustenance. These are my relations, and the relationships I want. Let the mycorrhizal net be our connection while we tend to our gardens, across space and generations. Here, I will take the time to learn what these relations can teach and what they need to thrive. I want to reciprocate all they freely offer.
On Instagram, I take screenshots of Indigenous friends’ stories identifying plant relatives as a way to learn. Mediated by a screen, for now I keep myself at a distance as a means to alleviate anxieties that stem from alienation from ancestral knowledges. I wonder: how do I reframe my ways of learning to be hands-on, experiential, and communal? How do I do this amid a revolution and pandemic? I believe revitalization and reclamation work asserts futurities and a “returning to ourselves,”1 but I struggle with starting. I want to learn more about medicines, about how plants support other-than-human beings, protecting, cooperating, sharing knowledge, gathering, and passing down through generations a lineage of this land and the lands they have dispersed from, stories held within their seeds. Christina Battle’s ongoing and itinerant project seeds are meant to disperse (2015–) encourages reconnection with our other-than-human relations, through a methodology that employs seed saving, sharing, and trading as an anti-capitalist strategy for food sovereignty. Battle’s project encourages us to become literate in the language of our other-than-human relations who make our persistence possible. For the past five years, the artist has approached this project with tenderness and sincerity; what has resulted is an accessible DIY aesthetic. Seeds are dispersed to friends, family, and participants, some through barter and trade. Some, still, are kept so Battle can grow her own plants and save seeds for the next year. All of this is part of a “survival kit for the future— a future that [Battle hopes] has shed the cruelty and inequality resulting from capitalism for an alternative that is more humane.”2 seeds are meant to disperse is an effort to shift the recipients’ relationship with seeds: from a commodity-based exchange, store-bought, to something more generous, something that feeds a hunger for anti-capitalist nutrition.
Seed saving is nothing new, but the practice is imperative for a sustainable future. After 20 years away (some spent in much more humid climates), Battle moved back to Amiskwacîwâskahikan / Edmonton, and her gardening practice had to adapt to the sunny and arid climate; she had to relearn her role in the ecology she grew up in. To garden is to directly interact with how other-than-human relations persist. In some ways, to engage with the territory you’re living on through gardening is to learn what it needs in return to sustain you. What is the quality of the soil where you are? How long is the season? Who are the pollinators and what do they crave? And how has colonization forced certain unnatural ideals onto the natural spaces we occupy?
Seeds saved by Battle are packaged with an appropriately honest disclaimer that reads “I don’t always follow the rules & sometimes am kinda lazy (seeds are not guaranteed to produce)” that further underscores a feeling of wanting to eschew capitalism and its iterative demands of professionalism while also speaking to the agency of the seeds themselves; they have a life of their own. Like us, seeds are beholden to others in our shared world. Interspecies conversations can happen at frequencies to which we are not attuned: the hormones given off by trees, the dipping bee populations, the new inhabitants of a warmer north, the results of climate change. The packages are adorned with four interlocked hexagons, one of them solid black and containing the project’s title; the plant’s English and Latin names live in the bottom right corner. On the back, a single black hexagon reads “HEX SEED PACKS” and below is information on the seeds and the year they’re from. Battle intends these packs as a hexing of capitalism, a hopeful ending to this world. Fitting, then, that seeds are meant to disperse was initially titled seeds for the end of the world. The shift from world ending to dispersing was to attenuate a misreading that evokes apocalyptic end-times imagery when it referred to the end of this world—infested with capitalism and white supremacy. This new name reflects an acknowledgement of our current and ongoing resistance and generosity that emboldens the hexing of capitalism, its demise a hopeful, ongoing beginning.
Battle’s DIY form of seed saving demonstrates that you don’t need vast spaces and resources, like those required for more fastidious seed-saving processes—think seed banks or corporate seed selling—that mitigate cross-pollination and otherwise intervene in the natural course of things. seeds are meant to disperse is an unrulier endeavour, one that summons the whims of seeds outside of the auspices of human control. In Battle’s zine seeds for the end of the world (2018) she says, “Saving your own seeds and sharing them with others operates in direct opposition to the industry standard of copyrighting and restricting seeds while ensuring a wide range of varieties remain viable.”3 In a recent iteration of Art From Here, a collaborative project that showcases new work by Amiskwacîwâskahikan artists, hosted by Latitude 53, The Mitchell Art Gallery, Ociciwan Contemporary Art Collective, and SNAP Gallery, Battle described her excitement for the surprises—changes in taste, colour, physical qualities, fertility, and resiliencies—that may show up in her saved seeds, the wayward results of not mitigating cross-pollination and plant proximity. These changes are passed on through continued seed saving and participant engagement, emergent lineages held within each seed, storying its connections.
Most recently, Battle has been collaborating with the South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) on their long-term, multifaceted project called Ishtar’s International Network of Feral Gardens, which extends many of the ideas inherent in seeds are meant to disperse and involves numerous other other artists. The namesake is fertility goddess Ishtar—“Lady of the Date Clusters, Inanna, Aphrodite, or Venus”—a befitting namesake given that the program considers reproductive justice, climate care, and psychic resilience through experimental food sovereignty initiatives.4 Dispatches are released through Ishtar on the state of race, food security, and anti-capitalist forms of exchange in the time of the pandemic. Each provides information on how capitalist food systems disenfranchise BIPOC communities, as well as resources to empower these communities to resist.
Ishtar’s International Network of Feral Gardens marks a commitment to facilitating the cultivation of feral gardens around the world, to open new food economies. Here, as in seeds are meant to disperse, Battle sends seed packs to participants, and the labour of growing is divvied up among all the recipients—a form of gathering through shared action, while physically, geographically distant. With each seasonal change, Battle releases a chapter through Ishtar’s website that will eventually culminate as a guidebook. Chapters are designed to be viewed on a phone while sitting with your plants, providing prompts for engaging with your garden like “Sit in your space at three different times of the day and take note of how the sun passes,”5 and “Listen to what your plants are telling you,” with suggestions on how to accomplish this.6 Chapters also provide information on gardening, and other writing. This project creates a network of intergenerational knowledge-sharing and exchange that overflows well beyond Battles’ practice.
The new connections made with other-than-human relatives through the feral gardens may end up spanning forthcoming generations and perhaps repair ancestral rifts resulting from the ongoing machinations of white supremacist colonialism, machinations that have asserted genocidal and ecocidal ideologies that “we know better,” despite other-than-human realities existing far beyond the narrow individualism of colonized temporality. Early settlers embarked on an unnecessary reckoning with the ecologies of so-called North America by manufacturing wilderness (read: national parks) as a false binary with civilization—a white supremacist fallacy used to justify genocidal projects. To create a feral garden is to move beyond the colonial binary of wilderness/civilization; here, our stifled curiosity is nurtured by engaging with the feral possibilities of Battle’s project. To be feral, after all, is to be liberated from domestication. What comes after the feral, the liberation from binaries? Untold possibilities.
As becomes obvious through iterations like Ishtar’s International Network of Feral Gardens, Battle’s project lives outside of formal beginnings, outside colonial notions of time as a linear march of progress. Instead, there’s a cycle, a continuation of the practice of gardening passed down to her by her grandmother and mother, an intergenerational practice not unlike the lineage of land-based knowledge plants pass down through their seeds. Battle has continued this other-than-colonial form of care in that seeds are meant to disperse brings people together across distances through learning, together, how we can relate to our other-than-human relations by acknowledging their ongoing presence in our lives, whether we are able to sense them or not. We can learn how to support them, we can gather with them by tending to them, sharing their fruits with our communities, being grateful that we get to share space with them. Congregating in this way—ancestral, generational, spatial—collapses past, present, and future across climates and expanses of land, expanses that abound with relations ready to freely offer their other than-capitalist teachings to those willing to gather with them. To come together with plants is also to gather with all of those who have been and who still are tending to these lands and all that compose them, fighting for them, protecting them—ancestors past and future.