Empire of Seeds
Illustration: Sinae Park
Photos: Maria Bell
Words: Ruby Tandoh
The seeds would arrive in envelopes, their names scrawled in ballpoint pen across the back. ‘Giant Hubbard,’ read one packet, the seeds for the heavy, dense-fleshed squash landing in Wiltshire in England’s rural south-west. A package of squash and corn seeds found its way to a village perched on Senegal’s coast, just south of the nation’s capital, Dakar. In Cypress, southern California, a similar parcel arrived. Inside the crumpled paper was a jumble of seeds for rhubarb and beautiful, mosaic-like glass gem corn, each kernel shimmering a different colour.
It was an operation as vast as it was ramshackle. Old envelopes that once delivered bank statements or utility bills were torn open, filled with seeds, taped back together and sent back out into the world, given new, green life. Sometimes seeds were carefully divided and labelled, keeping white zucchini separate from beetroot and scotch bonnet pepper. Other times, they were crammed into one packet, beans nestled alongside tiny lettuce seeds or dried corn kernels. One package to southern Germany contained eight varieties of squash alone. Hundreds of envelopes, containing thousands of seeds, were scattered across five continents, missing only those far reaches of Australia and the frozen expanse of Antarctica.
This empire of seeds tells an unlikely story. Trace its sprawling roots back to their source and you will find that they converge in Croydon, a town on the southern edge of London, tucked just inside the capital’s roaring orbital motorway. It’s a normal place, arguably too normal: in the UK it has become famously, if unfairly, a kind of shorthand for all-English suburban monotony. It is where the noughties cult favourite TV series Peep Show was set — moments of mortification playing out against an interminable landscape of office drudgery, tower blocks and overcast skies. The jokes don’t do justice to the diversity of the suburb and the thriving immigrant populations that live there, yet still, the judgements stick.
But plant roots can crack and buckle even concrete slabs. It was from one man’s ordinary family home in this undervalued corner of London that those thousands of organic, homegrown, heirloom seeds were sent. The plants from which the seeds were harvested scrambled up garden fences, sprouted up from plastic grocery bags filled with soil and even grew in makeshift planters on the roof of an abandoned car park. They grew on the balcony of an apartment with no outdoor space. They grew in tiny plots of land in public allotment sites. From between the cracks, they sprung forth. And from these plants came a bounty of seeds that would migrate halfway across the world.
There are two versions of Esiah Levy’s story, depending on who you talk to. The easy one goes something like this: Esiah Levy was raised with one foot planted firm in the soil. In the garden of their family home in Thornton Heath, South London, his father John tended squash, pumpkin and tomatoes, coaxing meagre seeds into a harvest. From patches of scrubby soil, armfuls of callaloo were marched into the kitchen. Ears of corn fattened in rare moments of English sun. There were times that the bounty would have to be offloaded to neighbours, family, friends and colleagues, so abundant were the fruits of John’s toil.
In this version of the story, those formative years on the fringes of John’s gardening life led directly to the man that Esiah would become. He was a cute kid, always curious, always absorbing the world. Family photos from back then captured him at his most awkwardly cherubic — an aura that would cling to him long after he grew tall and left home. They snapped round cheeks framing a toothy grin, ears standing preposterously out from his head. This was Esiah before he was Esiah. At the time, he was Rodney: John and Odette’s second child, and their first son; Syreeta’s younger brother. Soon, he’d become Camilla and Gavin’s older brother, too. One day, he too would fall in love with the seeds and soil, and become a father to two sons of his own. He would go to horticultural college and tend the land, and teach his children those skills his own father taught him. But this story cuts past the knotted truth.
Desire paths are where the grass is worn thin between the places we find ourselves and the places we would like to be. They’re the lines that cut across footpaths and slice the tip off the arc, trodden into the earth by footsteps taking the shortest route from here to there. They are the paths we would like to be true and paths that eventually become true, slowly eroded by our will. There is a desire path that cuts straight from John’s horticultural zeal to the place that Esiah would end up. From father to son, and father to son, this is the patrilineal passage of wisdom. But like any story worth telling, Esiah’s journey into gardening was long and circuitous, tied up in its own contradictions. “Everything depends on what, if anything, we find interesting — on what we are encouraged and educated to find interesting,” writes psychotherapist Adam Phillips in his book, Attention Seeking, “and what we find ourselves being interested in despite ourselves.”
For the Levy children, the family garden in Thornton Heath wasn’t a warm initiation into a family tradition. When I talked to Syreeta, she remembered the garden feeling like a forbidden place. It was John’s domain: somewhere plants were tenderly coaxed into bloom but children were shooed away, or worse. “Sometimes me and [Esiah] would play football together in the garden. But if the balls went into the plants, then it was game over for both of us.” Having arrived in the UK from Jamaica when he was only a child, John would spend much of his adult life this way: turning the earth, awaiting the seasons, sowing familiar seeds in strange soil. In the garden, he was magnanimous. When it came to tending to his own flesh and blood — unruly, talkative, inquisitive — he was less merciful.
Marked by that difficult relationship, Rodney found himself pulled into a kind of oppositional orbit around his father: whatever John was, he would never be; whatever mistakes John had made in his heavy-handed approach to parenting, he was determined not to repeat. On his back, he had “Still Standing” tattooed in huge, cursive script stretching from shoulder to shoulder. At age 24, he changed his name Rodney to Esiah, a chance to be determined by no-one but himself.
Esiah was always most himself when he was absorbed in something: some toy, a football game, an idea that had seized his imagination. Even as a preschool child, his eyebrows would set in a frown as he zoomed in on some tiny detail of the world around him — poking, probing and pondering it until it began to make sense. As he grew up, this curiosity would metabolise into a kind of flightiness that would both delight and infuriate those around him. He always changed his clothing style. He hoarded trainers, never quite sure of who he might want to be from one day to the next. He would even switch football team allegiances depending on who was leading the Premier League that season. (For a long time, he hid a cerulean Manchester City football scarf in his office in the knowledge that his wife Kealy, a lifelong Manchester United supporter and de facto sworn rival of City, would never allow it in the house.) He was restless and fickle, but within his constant hustling was a sense of urgency that betrayed what he was running from as much as what he was striving for.
At school, Kealy had been drawn to the enigmatic guy in the year above with the long hair and Converse sneakers. She liked his swagger, his cool detachment from the messy politics of school life. “Everyone in college used to call him Snoop,” she told me in the living room of their family home in Purley, South London, while breastfeeding their young son Hakeem. Their older son Mekhi was at primary school just a few streets away, and cartoons were playing on the television. Even amidst the furniture of family life, and some fourteen years after those awkward first dates, Kealy was still shy talking about Esiah.
After they first started dating, the next few years went by in a blur. The couple moved in together, got married, bought a home, started building the foundations of their own family unit. Esiah began working at Transport for London and Kealy got a job at banking group NatWest. From working class roots, they fought hard to lay down roots and to find stability in a precarious economy. But these achievements barely seemed to register with Esiah. “He didn’t stand still to enjoy it,” Kealy remembered. “He was always striving for the next thing.”
At Transport for London, Esiah worked hard supporting engineers on the London Underground. The job was fiddly, enshrined in layers of protocol and precaution that ran counter to his usual freewheeling approach to things. He had to keep his databases scrupulously updated, tracking the path of maintenance equipment as it passed from hand to hand, coordinating the engineers and planning for every conceivable eventuality in this system that transports five million people through the city’s depths every day. But Esiah was good at what he did, and nearly every working day of his adult life he dutifully clocked in, hunkered down and clocked out, occasionally pushing back against the bureaucracy of the job but most of the time simply keeping the cogs of the machine well oiled.
Through all these years, from their first date to the humdrum rhythms of married life, gardening barely registered on Esiah’s radar. So, when Esiah started talking to Kealy about plants one day, it was a bolt from the blue. Suddenly he was immersed in his makeshift garden space, throwing himself into learning about the green world with a ferocity that few could muster. Kealy used to call the garden his mistress. “When he wasn’t with me,” she would sigh, “he was in the garden.”
Esiah stacked makeshift trellises against the garden fence, up which squashes in all shapes, sizes and colours would clamber. There was a cherry tree, conference pears, jewel-like redcurrants and even potatoes sprouting in soil packed into a reusable shopping bag. Having researched “no-dig” styles of gardening, Esiah quickly became a devotee of the method, refusing to turn the soil, pull out old plants or buy fertiliser or compost. Instead, he turned the family kitchen into the locus of his experiments in homemade mulching materials. Banana peels, coffee grounds and eggshells would be dried out in the oven and layered with cardboard over the soil. Kealy complained of the smell that would linger in the oven, lamenting the oven tray all but lost to these experiments, but the results were undeniable. Weeds would struggle to pierce through the rich mulching layer. What’s more, as the material broke down, it would contribute valuable nutrients to the earth. Every scrap was repurposed, every precious inch of space made fertile, everything fodder for growth.
It was impossible to avoid being swept up in Esiah’s green-fingered evangelism. “Like this,” Kealy showed me, pulling lightly at the end of one of her long locs, rubbing the hair between her fingers, “it’s about to fall out. [Esiah] would use it to pollinate the flowers.” He had been inspired by Edmond Albius, a man born into slavery in 1829 on the French island teritory of Réunion. When he was only 12 years old, Albius revolutionised vanilla cultivation with a clever method for hand-pollination using only his hands and a blade of grass. Two centuries and a whole continent away from Albius’ innovations, Esiah would move from flower to flower with hair clasped between thumb and forefinger, brushing the pollen from one plant to the next. “You see here,” he explained in one video he posted online, bending to examine the delicate pastel blossoms of a crab apple tree, “if it’s successful the petals will drop off and it’ll start to bulge at the bottom. It’ll start to fruit.” He dabs at the flowers, almost forgetting the camera trained on him, buzzing eagerly between the blooms.
This was no desire path straight to Eden from that family garden in Thornton Heath: this was entirely Esiah, as defiant and as curious as ever, taking the road less travelled. Where John had tended a conventional garden, Esiah experimented with ways to grow food in old Bags for Life, on windowsills and in whatever stolen patches of land he could find. Where John turned the soil and pulled weeds, Esiah mulched, letting the earth replenish itself. Where John had sequestered the land for himself, Esiah insisted on sharing every part of the growing process online and with his sons. This is the beginning of Esiah’s origin story as he liked to tell it: a long story, a winding path, a seed that might have been sown all those years ago, but that only reached towards the sun because Esiah made it so.
When, after years of estrangement, he started sharing an allotment with his father, Esiah returned to a place of hurt with newfound power: as a man, now a father himself, arguably more knowledgeable about the land than the man who had sown — and suppressed — those first seeds of interest. “He was not scared to put his hand inna dirt,” John explained in an interview about his son’s work. “I feel proud of him, but I don’t say it to him. I keep it to myself.”
Oral histories tell that rice from West Africa was transplanted to the Americas by enslaved women, the seeds braided into their hair to smuggle the staple crop across the notorious Middle Passage. Many years later, enslaved men in Georgia would be freed and granted land by the British in exchange for their service in the 1812 war. What they took with them to Trinidad, and into a new, free life, were grains of red rice, descended from African varieties like those brought to North America by their forebears. Inscribed in the seed is not only the potential for new growth, for food and for development, but also the histories of places travelled and climates weathered.
The story of seeds is, quite often, the story of human survival: of migration, preservation, flourishing and ruin. It is a struggle over who owns the rights to seeds and, by extension, who has the right to grow food, to harness nature’s reproductive power freely and without artificial constraints. It was in plain brown envelopes that free seeds were distributed to farmers first by the agricultural wing of the U.S. Patent Office and then, from 1862, by the newly-founded USDA. This free seed program was an attempt to support farmers and improve and diversify crops grown in what was, at the time, an overwhelmingly rural society. By 1900, over one billion packets of seed had been sent to farmers across the USA, laying the foundations for a kind of agricultural development rooted in free exchange of resources and in individual creativity on the part of farmers, who worked hard to breed the best-yielding, most resilient and most tasteful plants to yield cultivars such as Red Fyfe wheat and Rough Purple Chili potato.
But with the formation of the American Seed Trade Association in 1883, a backlash to the program began to swell, seed companies rallying together to protect their financial and intellectual interests against what they perceived to be a threat to entrepreneurship. Farmers weren’t protected in their breeding developments, with other growers able to take those painstakingly cultivated varieties and claim them as their own. Without intellectual protection, profitability from breeding developments was low and investment poor. After several decades of fervent lobbying, the seed program was disbanded by Congress in 1923.
What happened over the next few decades has been widely publicised and frequently condemned. Seed companies began to focus their capital and energy on hybrid seeds, which are infertile after the first generation, meaning that farmers are often compelled to buy new seed every growing season, no longer able to hold back a handful of seed in a bag or a box someplace, ready to be resurrected next year. These seeds are called terminator seeds thanks to their ingrained finality, as if each tiny grain is a decisive full stop.
Slowly, seed companies merged and were bought out, a diverse cast of growers and breeders funnelled into an increasingly narrow gene pool. Today, as Dan Barber has reported, four multinational agrochemical firms control over 60% of global seed sales. And with this power is the freedom to channel money into genetic developments in agriculture that take the seed out of the common grasp and plant it in the realm of the commodity, the intellectual property of a multinational company. A landmark US lawsuit in 1980, Diamond v. Chakrabarty, laid the groundwork for this commodification of seeds, when the court ruled that patents could be obtained for living organisms. These patents, as they began to be handed out to the seed firms, prohibited the seeds from being freely distributed, even for research purposes.
There is, of course, a promise implicit in these seeds — a claim that tempts agriculturalists even as it denies them their old freedoms. The seeds that farmers are sold by multinational seed companies have behind them the weight of cutting-edge agricultural research, technology and thinking. The claim is that these seeds will be high-yielding, efficient, pest-resistant and hardy, and that they will provide a more consistent product. These are, we might be led to believe, precisely the kind of cultivars that we might need to feed a rapidly growing, hungry global population. This was the founding ideology for the so-called green revolution: a kind of agricultural modernism that would drag farmers out of the time-old furrows they have ploughed and into a bigger, better, more bountiful way of farming, an agriculture in step with the rhythms of the 21st century.
One problem for many farmers, growers and environmentalists is that even when these commercial seeds deliver on their promises, they do so at the expense of the environments in which they’re sown. When commercial seed companies skew their research towards the success of monoculture crops — huge plantations of a single crop on industrial scale, often of staple crops like corn, wheat or soy — they insist on an ecology that flattens biodiversity and eliminates natural variation. As Michael Pollan has noted: if potato monocultures risk being devastated by Colorado potato beetles, the solution, in the eyes of the seed industry, is to eliminate that beetle via pesticides, via selective breeding of the potato cultivars and even through genetic modification of the potato, introducing genes from a bacterial strain that produces a natural insecticide. The solution is seldom, if ever, to question the efficacy of vast, densely-packed landscapes comprised exclusively of that beetle’s favourite food.
Eighty percent of Europe’s biodiversity has been lost over the last century, in no small part thanks to the suffocating patchwork of large-scale, monoculture crops that carpet our countryside. Where biodiversity is allowed to flourish, ecological niches have a way of regulating themselves. This process isn’t always particularly efficient, nor is it failsafe in the way that top-down interventions such as genetic engineering might claim to be. But where no space is left for accident — or variety, mishap, mutation or happenstance — to pierce through, crops are left vulnerable. When the genepool is narrow and the planting dense, one disease has the potential to obliterate a harvest. When the intricate web of an entire ecosystem is stripped down to only its ‘useful’ or ‘productive’ elements, the natural system of checks and balances, predators and prey, is erased. In a world subject to such rapid, even unprecedented environmental change, this rigidity should give us cause for concern: when your cultivar has been painstakingly optimised for the minutiae of the here and now, what happens when circumstances, and climates, change?
With biodiversity being eroded and with farming technologies monopolised by an increasingly powerful few, the matter of saving seeds is not just about safeguarding the future of global food supplies — it is also about saving an endangered past. In the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, artist Vivien Sansour collects, saves, plants and shares seeds that are on the brink of being lost. She has revived the jadu’i, an ancient variety of watermelon prized for its sweetness and flavour. There are courgettes that can survive with barely any rain through the arid Palestinian summers and an almost lost wheat cultivar known as Abu Samara — the dark and handsome one. As Palestinian farmers come under increasing pressure to yield to modern farming practices, the art of seed-saving becomes an act of resistance and cultural preservation. As Sansour notes, “agriculture is truly comprised of both “agri” (traditional farming practices) + “culture” (the associated lifestyle/livelihood traditions essential to a community’s identity).”
There are times when saving seeds means extracting them from our flawed systems, keeping them safe from the power of markets and industry and out of reach of environmental disaster. This is where seed banks make their fantastical entrance. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in the Arctic circle is home to nearly 1,000,000 seed varieties from around the world. Sometimes referred to as a ‘doomsday vault’, its scale and seclusion speaks to the Biblical proportions of the task at hand: if the world is on the verge of climate chaos, a frozen seed repository near the North Pole becomes a kind of modern day Noah’s ark. It’s here that Cherokee Nation have recently banked seeds that are culturally and ecologically precious to them, including corn, beans and squash. They join potatoes deposited by indigenous Andean communities, 500 specimens of each variety frozen in hope of a bright new start after the storm.
Not all seed-saving efforts are so momentous: the seed resistance is as multifaceted as the diversity it seeks to protect. To save a seed, the impulse might be to hold this tiny capsule static, keeping it in a state of suspended potential. But what happens when organisms are preserved not by being frozen in time but by being rooted in the here and now, by being planted? One seed creates a hundred more, each generation enacting a kind of living, in vivo, conservation, while continuing to evolve and adapt. This is the kind of seed sharing and saving that happens in growers’ networks, in public seed libraries and in the old-fashioned practice of setting aside this year’s seed for next year’s crops. These seeds are preserved by being planted and talked about, shared, germinated, cooked, eaten: kept alive not in isolation, but in conversation with the (agri)cultures of which they necessarily form a part. This is the central paradox of the seed: it is when a seed is abandoned to the soil, allowed to break free of its own neat form and transform into something very different, that it is most itself.
It was this kind of preservation this Esiah had in mind when he started to think about seeds. It was never an abstract idea for Esiah, or some ideological project — it is necessarily and inextricably bound up with the way we eat today. “Growing food is every person’s right,” he wrote on his LinkedIn resume in late 2016, setting out his mission to help other gardeners take steps towards food sovereignty. He wanted to show that growing food is possible even in the city with a full-time job and two young sons. The question of food sovereignty — the right of communities to healthy, sustainable food systems crafted by, rather than for, them — is a difficult one. The aims of legislators, producers and consumers too often pull in different directions, while in urban environments such as Esiah’s native London, communities may be disconnected from these food systems altogether by a system that allows food to appear as if by magic on supermarket shelves. Esiah knew that change would need resources and action, not just talk. No resource could be more valuable, or symbol more potent, than the seed. As environmental activist Vandana Shiva has written in her seed sharing manifesto: “Control over seed means a control over our lives, our food and our freedom.”
“I started seed saving because I wanted to do something different,” Esiah shared in a video for the Gaia Foundation. “I wanna be using what nature provides.” He didn’t trust garden centres or seed companies, and — always committed to doing things his own way — approached every piece of received garden wisdom as a rule to be broken. So when he discovered that he could collect 360 seeds from a Crown Prince squash, his interest was piqued. “I decided to share those seeds with gardeners in the UK, in Europe, around the world… and beyond.”
“Our official curiosity is a form of obedience, an indebtedness to the authorities,” writes Adam Phillips in Attention Seeking. Our unofficial curiosity, however, is a reckless, dreamy place. This is where the real magic happens. “It is the difference between knowing what we are doing, and following our eyes.” Esiah hatched a plan.
The produce he grew in his little garden — dense, sweet terracotta squash flesh, stalks of blushing rhubarb, the striped heirloom tomatoes — would be cooked and eaten, filling the bellies of Esiah and his young family. Meanwhile, seeds from those plants would be fastidiously dried, stored and labelled. Esiah would then send the seeds free of charge to whoever wanted them. All recipients had to do was to cover the cost of postage and to share the fruit of their labours with friends and family, passing on their own seeds, letting others know how easy it could be. In December 2016, Esiah settled on a name for the project, and SeedsShare was born.
Things didn’t get off to the smoothest start. From her little garden in the south of France, near the bay of Saint-Tropez, Dorinda Sweales was eagerly awaiting a shipment of Esiah’s seeds. She had come across his work through an article she’d read about gardeners doing great things in tiny spaces. Looking at the pictures of Esiah’s lush, green space — barely 15 by 9 feet, but packed with an astonishing 23 trees — Dorinda knew straight away that she had chanced upon someone worth getting to know. She followed him on Twitter, he followed back, and they quickly struck up a rapport. “We seemed to have the same ideas on growing food even in small spaces,” she shared, “and that seeds should be shared so that everyone could have the opportunity to grow diverse food types.”
So when Esiah started SeedsShare, Dorinda leapt at the opportunity to get her hands on some of the borage seed that he’d advertised. Borage grows wild in the south of France, its blue-purple blooms peppering the countryside with colour, but Dorinda hadn’t been able to find seeds sold anywhere. The plant, also known as starflower, is a favourite with bees and other pollinators. It has leaves which, when they’re young, can be eaten in salads, adding a mild, fresh cucumber flavour. As the leaves grow older, larger and more bristly, they can be cooked as you might spinach leaves. Dorinda was looking forward to all of this when, sometime in the autumn of 2017, she received a recycled brown envelope filled with the long-awaited seed. “When the seeds arrived, he’d accidentally sent me dill.”
It’s worth noting that at the same as Esiah was getting SeedsShare off the ground, he was still working full-time at Transport for London. His oldest son Mekhi was just 3 at the time. His prolific Instagramming testifies to the chaos that ensued: scruffily labelled pouches of seeds filled the fruit and vegetable drawer at the bottom of the family fridge; the kitchen work surface became the site where he would painstakingly dissect and deseed four different varieties of squash at once; the dining table was scattered with envelopes, scraps of paper and piles of seed, as Esiah worked early in the morning and late at night to fulfil the orders that had begun to roll in.
But any teething problems were short-lived, and SeedsShare began to knit into the fabric of Esiah’s daily life. He quickly made right with Dorinda, sending seeds for two varieties of borage — common borage and a white variety. And as the months went by, there would be huauzontle (an edible plant native to Mexico whose spindly stems resemble baby broccoli), yellow pear tomato and callaloo seeds, too. One day, Esiah sent a piece of live comfrey, a favourite among gardeners for fertilising the soil. Dorinda had mentioned that she couldn’t find the plant, with its broad, deep green leaves and long roots, anywhere near her, neither in garden centres or in the soil. So Esiah took it upon himself to send a piece all the way from Croydon to the Côte d’Azur, wrapped in a damp paper towel. That comfrey still thrives in Dorinda’s garden, tucked happily away in a shady spot.
The way Dorinda saw it, there were endless good reasons to get her seed this way — through networks of other growers, from palm to palm or, indeed, in battered brown envelopes. “Everyone should have the opportunity and the right to grow, safe, healthy food for themselves and those around them.”
There was the matter of fertility, too. When seeds are open-pollinated, bees, the wind, animals or indeed humans are responsible for “naturally” pollinating plants, and so allowing them to develop seeds. This stands in contrast to hybrid seeds, which are seeds created by the mixing of different varieties or species of plant. From hybridised seeds grow plants with “genetically unstable” seed — seed that cannot be grown from. Whilst this hybridisation does occur in nature, it is rife in the world of commercial seed, where the resulting infertility is a guarantee of repeat custom: hybrid seed must be bought again, the line started from scratch, every growing season. But when growers like Esiah share open-pollinated seeds, one plant can fracture into countless different stories over many generations. It was in this constant, creative momentum that Esiah’s seeds began to spread.
Dorinda was used to saving seeds, having done so since she was a child when she grew on a tiny patch in her father’s vegetable garden. So when she started receiving seeds from Esiah, her thoughts quickly turned to what she might be able to give back. “I sent Esiah some Calendula seeds from plants I first saved seed from about 12 years ago. I’ve used the seed constantly since.” That Calendula seed found its way into the SeedsShare machine, as did Hidalgo chilli pepper from a grower in Germany and the remarkably named Cherokee Trail of Tears beans from a garden in South Lincolnshire. From Esiah’s kitchen table, these seeds scattered outward across countries, time zones and entire continents.
But even as SeedsShare grew, the human connection was never lost to the transaction. “So many people would look at it from a profit point of view and not as a way of giving, sharing and helping others. This made Esiah stand out from the crowd,” Dorinda shared with me. “I still think of him often when I’m taking cuttings, sowing or harvesting seeds, and he brings a smile.”
The village of Toubab Dialaw sits on the sweeping Atlantic coast, barely 60km from the westernmost point in mainland Africa. It clings on at the very edge of a country that itself perches on the edge of the continent, but it is planting its interests, and its voice, at the heart of the seed debate.
There is push-back across West Africa at what many perceive to be the government-backed introduction of GMO seeds into farming systems that have long functioned without such corporate interference. What these new seeds would displace are semences paysannes, or “peasant seeds”: those unpatented, fertile, heirloom cultivars which have flourished in their own quiet and biodiverse niches for generations. In Ghana, there have been marches against seed behemoth Monsanto through the capital, Accra. In August, nineteen agricultural organisations across West Africa representing the interests of peasant farmers co-signed an open letter in protest at proposed regulations which, they argue, would endanger peasant seeds. “The peasant seeds are the pillar of food security and food sovereignty,” they wrote. “By their contribution to the biodiversity renewal, the peasants have rendered an immense service to all the inhabitants of our planet.”
Afidi Towo works in Toubab Dialaw for a charitable arts organisation, Djarama. In its own words, the organisation’s aim is “to design an alternative lifestyle for the community by integrating organic agriculture, food self-sufficiency, alternative energy and personal development through art and culture.” Indeed, the word “culture” stems from the Latin colere, which means to tend or cultivate. Afidi had seen first hand the impact of the seed firms’ encroachment into rural agricultural markets, and plays an active role in sharing and safeguarding local farming expertise, specialty crops and traditions. She wanted to make a difference.
“Last year I participated in the creation of an organic market in Toubab Dialaw to promote organic producers, putting in touch producers, reformers and consumers,” she told me over email. With the help of community leaders, she created a collective called BioDialaw, a group space that she hopes might become another forum for the free exchange of the peasant seeds. One vital part of the work of Djarama has been the founding of a school in Toubab Dialaw. It’s here that the foundations are laid for a new generation to learn the principles of organic farming. Alongside the usual roster of reading, writing and arithmetic, the children tend to a garden where they nurture tomatoes, haricot beans, turnips and more.
Afidi proudly documents the garden’s progress, taking regular photos to chart the children’s learning and the growth of the plant. In the photos she sent me, children jostle around plastic tubs packed with soil, fighting to pour from the watering can. They crowd to pat down the soil around freshly sown seeds, hang fine nets over the crops to protect them from the birds and they pluck green beans for a meal they will eat together. “The children learn the cycle of life,” Afidi shares, “the planting of the seed, seeing the plant grow, harvesting the vegetables and eating them. They learn that to take care of the earth is to take care of their own health.”
This is one of the founding tenets of permaculture: that caring for people is intricately enmeshed with the question of caring for the environment. To share seed is not simply to share a resource, but to enact a kind of agricultural resistance that puts individual acts of kindness and consideration at its core. Each handful of seed is small, each seed even smaller, but the cumulative effect is the construction of a vibrant, diverse human ‘ecosystem’, as rich and valuable as the environments they tend and of which they form a vital part.
In one of the photos she sent me, Afidi sits on a white garden chair in the shadow of a porch crowded with plant pots. She is smiling, looking shyly off to one side, gray hair held sensibly back with a tie-dye headband. She holds a broad wicker basket filled with brown envelopes — heirloom seeds donated to help cultivate Djarama’s ecological mission. On every seed-filled envelope was a small sticker, no larger than an inch and a half square. Each sticker bore a drawing of a young, black man dressed in a blue jacket, short locs crowning his head. From Senegal, Esiah Levy’s image stared down the camera lens. Wherever his seeds went, so did he.
Within two years of SeedsShare’s inception, Esiah had posted seeds across much of the world. Lots landed close to home: his tomato seeds grew on his sister Syreeta’s balcony in West London, springing upward on hairy stems. His potatoes laid down roots on a Croydon rooftop. Corn kernels arrived in the gardens of Company Drinks, a social enterprise in East London. Beans, corn and squash seeds travelled with Esiah to community food project Squash in Liverpool, where he showed visitors how to save their own seeds from the crops they grew.
Further afield, seed-filled envelopes began to land on the doormats of households from Japan to Atlanta, Georgia. Kale, swede, onion and tomato seeds were sent to Ghana. Seeds for the rare Yugoslavian finger squash landed in a mailbox in the city of Oujda, northern Morocco. Pea beans, mottled red-brown and bright white, went to Germany. Esiah even planned to take his growing expertise to Jamaica, where he would practise his permacultural methods on the land in which his own family had roots. From one meal came hundreds more, and ripples became waves.
Then, on Monday 21st January 2019, Esiah Levy died. He had been exhausted in the days prior, sick with a portentous feeling that his heart was broken. When he collapsed that day and was rushed into hospital, his family thought his bedside goodbyes were melodramatic — another set piece from a man who liked to play with people’s expectations. But within hours, he had died. The post-mortem would show that Esiah had suffered the unexplainable, Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (often known as Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, or SADS). He was 32 years old.
By the time he died, Esiah’s campaign of radical sharing had touched hundreds of gardeners and seed sharers. What spurred him on was always the thought of a curious kid who might not yet know that the garden was a space where they, too, could thrive. In an Instagram post from late 2018, just a few weeks before he died, Esiah sits at his kitchen table with seed packets strewn in front of him. Locs tied back from his face, he sorts through the packets with a quiet focus. “A big shout out to those who are now sharing seeds themselves,” he wrote in the photo’s caption. “Its a radical movement… Sharing seeds is to encourage food growing amongst the most important population we have THE YOUTH.”
I meet Ian Solomon-Kawall in South London on a bright summer day, barely six months after Esiah’s death. In Merton, the second greenest borough in London, I expect May Project Gardens to be on one of the many playing fields, public parks or patches of scrubby grassland that I walk past, but my smartphone map leads me to a dead-end: a residential cul-de-sac of post-war social housing. It’s not until Ian strides out in bare feet to meet me that I know I’ve found the right place.
Around the side of an unassuming semi-detached house is the garden project that Ian has cultivated for the last twelve years. This was the house where his mother had lived and where he had been a carer for her. When she died, Ian wanted to find a way to “compost” that experience. “So you have something tragic, like a waste material, like shit, and you turn it into something really beautiful,” he explains. “This place is the perfect example of that. It’s not perfect, but it exists, and it helps a lot of people.” He talks rapidly and passionately, reclining on a mat laid out in the dappled shade under the apple tree, occasionally leaning forward conspiratorially to warn me when he is about to make a particularly good point.
May Project Gardens has, in its own way, turned upside-down the tradition, closedness and whiteness of the old-fashioned English garden. There is a regular Hip Hop Garden session providing a safe space for young people to process their experiences through growing and music. There are open days and events like apple-pressing, where Ian cranks the garden’s windfall apples through a manual press, turning the harvest into some of the best juice that the tasters have ever tried. Some Sundays, locals can explore the crowded garden with its plum trees, greenhouse and sprawling blackcurrant bushes. Even the house is an open book, the principles of permaculture daubed in bright paint on the hallway walls.
When Ian found out that there was a gardener — a fellow South Londoner, another black man — who lived only a few miles away in Croydon, he was desperate to make contact. “I emailed him, I phoned him, because when I saw what he was doing I was like “This is the shit!”” Esiah gave Ian some seeds: corn, his beloved pumpkins, a bunch of beans. The two stayed in touch. “For me to have a black male in the UK, a grower that’s as passionate as he was, it was just so inspiring,” Ian recalled, “Like fuck everything else, he didn’t care about anything but growing, that was it.”
It’s a sentiment that resonates across London’s black gardening communities. In North London’s Kilburn, in the gardens of the Granville Community Centre, red corn from Esiah’s seeds shoots upwards on leafy green stems. A vast sage bush tumbles out across a makeshift raised bed cobbled together with mismatched pieces of timber. There are mizuna and tomatoes, Jerusalem artichoke and edible nasturtium flowers. Deirdre ‘Dee’ Woods, who oversees the project’s community kitchen, knew and liked Esiah. “He was quiet fire!” she enthuses. “A real inspiration as a young black man coming from South London.” Dee has an eighteen year old son, Jaden. He’s toying with the idea of becoming a grower, just like his farmer grandfather in Trinidad, just like Esiah. “Here’s someone you could look up to,” Dee would think, “here’s someone doing what you want to do.”
There is a temptation to follow Esiah’s seed trail to its farthest points, like mapping a plant’s root system as it divides again and again into infinitesimally small filaments, far from the green stalk that breaks the soil. An investigation like this would tell the story of a man whose influence was outsized, who from his kitchen table in Croydon was able to spark a passion in people and places many, many miles away. But among the permacultural principles to which Esiah subscribed was the idea of guilds: sets of diverse plants, insects and animals which, when they coexist in an ecosystem, create a complex system of support and symbiosis. A guild is a place of mutuality over exceptionalism, intimate connection over vast scale.
After a while spent lounging in the shade of the apple tree, Ian gives me a tour of the May Project’s chaotic gardens. Callaloo, rhubarb, brassicas, rosemary and peas spill across the beds. Grapevines cascade up and over a fence. A composting toilet makes good from every last scrap of waste. Whatever you want to grow, Ian tells me, you have to start with the ground, with the roots. In the shade of a redcurrant bush, he points out a sack of spent coffee grounds that he uses to mulch the garden’s growing beds, covering the earth with organic matter to keep the soil fertile and the weeds at bay. Like the corn and the pumpkins, like the onions that turned out to be too much work in the end, the coffee grounds were Esiah’s influence, his mark left on this patch of green in deep South London. “His spirit’s here, man,” Ian muses, looking out across the garden. “His legacy’s here.” In the hearts of others, the fight goes on. //
In memory of Esiah Levy
With thanks to Esiah Levy’s family and friends for their generosity and kindness. Thanks also to Claire Gutierrez for her support.
To learn more about seeds and seed-saving:
Saving Our Seeds: information on seed-saving and -sharing projects across the USA and Canada
London Freedom Seed Bank: a network of food growers and gardeners dedicated to saving, storing and distributing open-pollinated seed.
Seeds for a Better World Project: a project that aims to teach about the natural cycle of growing and seed saving.
Garden Organic: on reasons to save seeds.
Grow Veg: a guide to saving and sharing seeds.
Global Seed Network: on how to preserve plant diversity through seed-sharing.
Esiah’s Instagram: for countless tips on growing food and saving seeds.
Projects and organisations:
The Granville Community Centre, London: a community centre with gardens in the heart of North West London.
May Project Gardens, London: a project helping young people in South London through the power of gardening, music and creativity.
Lend and Tend, London: garden-sharing project based in London but matching gardeners with garden spaces everywhere.
Squash, Liverpool: creative food enterprise incorporating a cafe, shop and events schedule to help the local community engage with and enjoy the food they eat.
Gaia Foundation: foundation working alongside communities worldwide to revive Earth-centred cultures and restore Nature.
Via Campesina: organisation defending peasant agriculture as a way to promote social justice.
Incredible Edible Lambeth: supporting and strengthening community food projects in South London.
Land Workers’ Alliance: a union of farmers, growers, foresters and land-based workers.
Cornucopia: The Seed Redistribution Project: a public project exploring what happens (and doesn’t!) when seeds are shared.
Djarama, Senegal: organisation aiming to empower, educate and inspire young people by connecting them with the environments in which they live.