Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver by Diane Ott Whealy


This is the story of one strain of the national movement to preserve our plant heritage. In this case a couple who were drawn to living close to the land expanded their reverence for the vegetables of their elders to working to preserve the vitality of that heritage. Shortly after Diane and Kent were married and living near her parents in Iowa, he asked her grandfather for seeds from the morning  glories that her great-grandparents had brought to Iowa from Bavaria. The author grew up in Festina, IA.

By the 1970s the traditional seed catalog offerings had begun to diminish and were replaced by hybrids whose seeds could not be used reliably. Awareness of the dangers of losing genetic diversity was growing. The Whealys began their work by compiling a list of like-minded people and in 1975 there were 29 gardeners who sent 25 cents and an envelope to receive the True Seed Exchange, a list of seeds others were willing to share. Now, according to the Seed Savers Exchange website the organization maintains a collection of over 20,000 heirloom plants and 13,000 members share seeds with one another. They have one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the US. The non-profit is headquartered on a 890-acre farm six miles from Decorah, Iowa.

I heard about this book from Dorothy, who loaned it to me after I told her Jennifer lives in Decorah. And what a treat it has been to read. Knowing Decorah as I do, it's fun to encounter it this way. The Whealy kids were enthusiastic about moving there, drawn by Mabe's Pizza and the wonderfully-named Whippy Dip. And I was excited to learn that the Food Co-op where I have shopped countless times had its monthly potluck suppers at the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, where Jen and family attend, a half-block from their house. I did go to Seed Savers once, but because my gardening involves flowers and herbs that arrive with roots attached, I was only an admirer of their work.

Aside from the Decorah connection, I found the book held my interest much more than I would have guessed. One method of increasing the interest and connection of seed savers all over the country was to have annual camp-out weekends which began with a dozen people when the Whealys were living in Missouri. Those involved at the outset were dedicated and their continuing contributions were recounted. When they began to have more success and land and buildings needed to be paid for, there were stories of attracting funding. When barns were to be saved or new buildings constructed, the old-fashioned methods were detailed. Still, my interest did not wane! The various undertakings described in the book brought back the 1970s, as did the sumptuous, carefully chosen illustrations in the book.

At the end of the book the author recounts the end of their marriage and the dramatically changed connection the two ultimately had to the enterprise. She describes an article she read about founders of mom-and-pop operations that grow to organizations beyond those founders' control. A person who makes so many sacrifices for an organization finds it hard to let go.

Diane Ott Whealy, Gathering:  Memoir of a Seed Saver, Wilsted & Taylor Publishing Services, 2011, 231 pages. Available from Amazon.

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