Pueblo Semilla: Pilsen Mobile Seed Library
Interview with Victoria Thurmond
August 13, 2013
By Liana Li
L: What is Pueblo Semilla?
V: Pueblo Semilla is a seed library in Pilsen. A seed library is like any other regular library where people are expected to return what they take out. When you check out a seed, you take only what you need. You grow them out throughout the season, and then you bring them back once you save the seed. However, because that information is not very known nowadays, seed saving is a lost practice. Even within organic farmers, many people don’t save seed or save seed regularly. Usually it is bought. There are a lot of places where seeds are grown out in a different climate region. It’s only a few places throughout the US where you can get organic heirloom seeds. But they are only heirloom to that region, unless you save your own seed. The reason for saving seed locally is because it acclimates to the climate that you’re in. If there’s a drought season in Chicago, then that plant acclimates to the drought and if that’s the one that does best and you save seed from that, then you have a potentially drought-resistant seed. Or if there’s a heat wave, like there was this summer and last summer, and you save seed from that crop, you have potentially a heat-resistant crop. Growing out seeds in your hyper-local environment holds all of that history and that root system.
L: Why Pilsen?
V: Everything is transient in the city. I’ve seen more and more gardens that will go for a year, or maybe 5 years, and then be ripped up for some reason. Sometimes it’s development, or it was an empty lot that people were using and then something gets built on it, or people move on and move. And that doesn’t allow for the same root system or plants to re-seed themselves. So in a plant life-cycle you have the seed, and then it sprouts, it grows, you harvest. But to save seeds you have to go the next step, which means you have to leave it on there for the entire season and let it grow, get old, and start drying out. And then the seed produces, and it will disseminate itself. That’s the way plants work. That’s why they’re designed that way. They fall to the ground and re-seed, so they can grow the next year, even if it’s an annual plant. But in Pilsen, the soil is toxic. It’s filled with lead or other chemicals that have been laid down by hundreds of years of industry. You can’t just grow directly in the soil. Which is another reason why gardens are transient. The soil is usually brought in from somewhere else. Also in a city environment there is the added context that people have lost the practice of growing in general. A lot of kids in the city that we’ve talked to don’t even know that their food comes from the ground. They think that food comes from a grocery store and that’s where the line ends. There’s no idea of the whole system when you’re in the city and you’re not surrounded by this kind of thing. Even though Chicago is surrounded by agriculture, it’s not something that is known to people growing up in the city. In Pilsen, people are primarily Mexican immigrants. A lot of people coming from Mexico do come from agricultural backgrounds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that knowledge transfers through generations, and from what I’ve seen it doesn’t. So there’re so many parts to the seed library that need to come before explaining seeds. There’s the soil, the industry, the growing practices, the cultural divide of what grows here and doesn’t. How things grow is very different according to region, and coming from a hot climate to a mid-western climate is very different for the way that you grow.
L: You mentioned that seed saving is an uncommon practice. How did you recognize this as something that needs to happen?
V: So like anybody else, there have been a bunch of basic ideas that I’ve gathered over the years to understand a more complex idea. I don’t come from an agricultural background. I didn’t come to this with any of that kind of knowledge. I’ve only started actually gardening this past year, and the only previous knowledge that I’ve had is an interest in sustainability and an involvement with environmental justice and activism. That brought me to the smaller actions because I’ve moved from this larger-action mindset of thinking that all of our problems are sourced from government policy and all of these issues are systemic, which they are, but that doesn’t mean that big actions are the only ways to address them. And I’ve seen smaller changes happening in communities be just as successful or more successful. Gardening is a way to produce for people what has become a scarcity, which is good healthy food. You know where it came from. Know there’s no crazy chemical or hormone additives or genetic issues or homogenization of crops, which is what our culture has become. So bringing that to an environmental justice standpoint in a community that is working-class, minimum wage, growing your own food is like growing your own resources and capital to some extent. The logical next step is to have the very base of that, which are seeds. Plants are amazing. They produce so many seeds at the end of every season. Like 4 second-year beets that we’ve let over-winter and grow the next year produce enough seed that we can give everybody beets in the neighborhood, or at least it seems that way. So seeds are something that diverts the capitalist system. They’re something that can be given to anyone because of need, regardless of what they do for them, or pay for them. They just produce like crazy, and if everyone had that knowledge then you have a system of economy there.
L: In your project, do you see seeds as a practical resource, or is it symbolic for those reasons?
V: I would say they are both. For the project there are so many things that need to be addressed. I see seeds as the base value of all these things because they hold so much information. They hold what was in the soil. They hold what happened to the climate that year. They hold changes; such as the amount of times you watered them. They hold all that information; it’s just a matter of disseminating that.
L: What is the importance of keeping the network in Pilsen? If the soil that is safe for growing is being imported into the neighborhood, then it’s not actually representing what was already in the ground. What do you think about that?
V: Yeah. If this was a Chicago seed library, it would make a difference, but not a huge difference because it is the same climate and same environment. The reason for it to be in Pilsen is for it to connect things that are already here. There are already lots of community gardens and people talking about these issues. And there are also lots of people who aren’t. But to take hold of those systems that are already in place and connect people who are not already connected to gain a local knowledge that is already there and disseminating it, just like plants disseminate seeds. It’s easier to do it within a neighborhood, and I think it’s more successful to do it within a neighborhood that’s already an established community, rather than spreading it across borders. It’s not the only way, but there are pros and cons to that. Each neighborhood is different. There are different things that need to be addressed and ways of communicating and things that are important to them. Bridgeport, Little Village, and Pilsen are right next to each other and have similar issues going on environmentally, but they each have their own battles to fight. In Pilsen we can address one thing, while in Bridgeport we are able to address another. And we can keep those connections and those larger issues in mind, but having a sustained local community project that is connected to other projects is different than having something that spans a whole city..
L: You said that you didn’t have a lot of knowledge prior to this project, and there are people in the community who already have inherent knowledge from an agricultural background. How have you been learning from the community?
V: Because it’s something that has been a lost knowledge, I see myself learning with people. I had the idea to start saving seeds last year at the end of the season and then brought it to another community garden in the neighborhood as an idea and now everybody is starting to do it regardless of the fact that they have no prior knowledge of doing it. It’s more of an intuition, and there’s a lot to learn technically about it but there’s a lot that we can learn together. It’s a different way of approaching something than coming as a bearer of knowledge. It’s not a hierarchical system when everybody is learning. For example, at Roots and Rays community garden, we created a seed bed and have plants growing out just for seeds, and now people know that’s the way plants work, and people are learning by doing with each other. It’s not even my project there anymore. People are doing it, and I don’t want it to be my project.. Rather than saying “I know, and you don’t, so I’m going to teach you,” it’s more of an action of finding what’s already there and learning together.
L: Do you see this as art or social practice, and what is the connection for you?
V: I guess the art part, if there is an art part – everyone talks about an art part. I think the whole thing is art because I think living can be art, but not in the big A Art sense. I think the art part is seeing those connections and the things that are already there and drawing connections in my mind and bring that into a conversation. And designing something so that it can be understood and spread out between people. It’s a skill that’s learned or a design that works, and that can be passed on.
L: Who are some of the people that you are collaborating with, and are they other artists?
V: I don’t think anybody that has been in the project has identified as being an artist. Veronica Buitron identifies herself as a designer, and she very much is a designer. There’s people from Roots and Rays, specifically Patricia Bon. She’s a city planner. Jerry Mead-Lucero, who is an activist. And Stephanie Dunn who is an activist and educator. Right now it’s just connecting people who are already in the neighborhood, and who are already taking lead doing this kind of work.
L: Do you see a difference in your roles and do you think it’s even important to distinguish any difference?
V: I think there is a difference in people’s roles. When I say Veronica is definitely a designer it’s because she has those skills and that interest in making things able to be interpreted aesthetically and design them. While Patricia is very good at talking to people and figuring out how things work within a system. I think that’s her take on city planning, is doing that and figuring out what is there and what can be connected. Jerry is an activist, and is versed in everything specific to this neighborhood that is environmentally problematic, and organizing people to make changes in a bigger way. All the community gardeners who are a part of this to some extent are people who are interested in gardening, and they all have different things that they do. Everybody has different skills and everybody has different knowledge. And even if it’s knowledge of the same thing, everyone has a different take on the same thing, which is all important to know and understand.
L: How is the projecting moving forward?
V: We’ve already had all these workshops and seed swaps and going door to door as a mobile seed library. We just started doing very quickly and trying to make it happen very quickly, and that’s not really how it works because we noticed all these things that needed to be addressed beforehand. Part of this is because we got a grant, so we wanted to start making and having it happen, but without connecting the people who are already here it’s not going to work. So we’re going to start having design building workshops and what we’re calling cross-pollination dinners. Hopefully we can create a system that we think can work for all these people who are in the neighborhood and are doing and want to do this work. Things that already exist and add to it. Creating a set of ideas that we think are important to share within the neighborhood. All these issues that we brought up that need to be addressed before seeds are talked about. So creating somewhat of a curriculum that people can take and do with what they will, and have their own events and own workshops. And having little hubs around the neighborhood that house seeds that are safe from that place. People can share their seeds because you can never use as many seeds as the plants produce.
L: Ultimately, why do you want to get other people to start saving seeds. Why is it not enough to just do it yourself?
V: On a large scale, the industrial agricultural system has wiped out the diversity of seeds that exist when you grow seeds for yourself, as well as change the genetic makeup of seeds and patent them to be some kind of capitalist growth resource. But if we do it on our own and in our local communities, then we have access to that wealth of knowledge and also of good healthy food that we know was grown from us and that we took care of and know exactly where it came from and who grew it. Like this is Sally’s roma tomato, because it’s going to be different from Tom’s roma tomato down the street. You know exactly who grew it where it was. Ultimately, on a larger scale it’s a subversive activist socialist action. But really it’s just seeds.