Heirloom Seeds and Social Bridges: Forging Connections in Lumpkin County, GA

Posted by | April 10, 2014

Jonathan WinskiePlease welcome guest author Jonathan Winskie. Winskie is a graduating senior at the University of North Georgia. He is pursuing a History degree with an Appalachian Studies minor. He has worked as a seasonal Interpretive Park Ranger at Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia (National Park Service) and as a Student Assistant at the North Georgia Appalachian Studies Center.

 

In the fall of 2012, seven students from a diverse array of academic majors and social backgrounds ventured from the comfort of the neo-suburban bubble that was North Georgia College & State University’s (now University of North Georgia’s) campus. These students, all enrolled in the fledgling Introduction to Appalachian Studies course, sought to extend their collegiate experience beyond the classroom; they desired an experience just as unique and perhaps even more personal than the lush forests, gentle streams, and timeworn mountains could provide.

heirloom demo booth

Most of the students had spent extensive time exploring the natural beauty of the region; some even chose to attend North Georgia in large part for the very reason that such outdoor recreation would be readily available. No, these students sought an experience that eluded most of their classmates, or perhaps they eluded it: they sought to engage in conversation with the people whose ancestors had cleared, sawed, planted, and sweated their way to a hospitable mountain home and who still resided in the county today. These students brought with them an open mind, empty paper, and an eagerness to connect with those who didn’t see Lumpkin as simply a pretty retirement community or as a necessary stop in their transient journey to careers and families.

Several key questions fueled their inquiry: how has heirloom seed gardening helped to develop community in Lumpkin County? What is the status of the tradition? What heirloom seeds still exist within the county?

The students’ line of inquiry coalesced into Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories (SAGAS). SAGAS, a collaboration between the Departments of Biology and Visual Arts and the Appalachian Studies Center, is one of 15 Appalachian Teaching Projects  sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Since that initial foray into the hearts and minds of Lumpkin’s citizenry, dozens of students have followed in the footsteps of the initial septet, expanding the project beyond the bounds of Lumpkin County and bringing the seeds and citizens highlighted in the project to a various by-invitation presentations and conferences, including several Appalachian Studies Association Conferences and even presenting before the Federal Co-Chair of the Appalachian Regional Commission, Earl Gohl.

Two students published a scholarly article detailing the project in Papers and Publications, the University of North Georgia’s peer reviewed undergraduate research journal. The article can be found here. I have been personally invested in the project since its outset, and given that I will be graduating in a little over a month, it comes time to reflect on the significance of this project from a student’s perspective.

Students work on putting together a "communograph" that depicts the data collected while researching the practice of collecting and sharing heirloom seeds. A communograph is a piece of artwork that serves as a collective memory bank, artistically representing the seeds, the stories, and the people who save them. It is a map of Lumpkin County, with photos of seeds, plants and community members transferred onto large pieces of fabric. The sections of the map are stitched together with red string depicting community boundaries and the areas where seed collectors share their produce and their seeds.

Students work on putting together a “communograph” that depicts the data collected while researching the practice of collecting and sharing heirloom seeds. A communograph is a piece of artwork that serves as a collective memory bank, artistically representing the seeds, the stories, and the people who save them. It is a map of Lumpkin County, with photos of seeds, plants and community members transferred onto large pieces of fabric. The sections of the map are stitched together with red string depicting community boundaries and the areas where seed collectors share their produce and their seeds.

I could expound upon the unique varieties of heirloom seeds endemic to Lumpkin County and northeast Georgia, or engage in a bitter diatribe against the influx of commercialization, but neither of those encompasses the true scope of heirloom seed gardening in Lumpkin County. Instead, I hope to emphasize the metaphoric “bridges” built upon these seeds. These seeds served, and still serve, as vessels to facilitate deep and powerful connections between community members, students, and, potentially, the future.

Many of the families that still practice heirloom gardening in Lumpkin County have deep roots in the region. Several of the families (the Grizzles, the Gilreaths, the Jarrards, etc.) all claim ancestry dating back to the 1833 Gold Rush or shortly thereafter. Living in the mountains of northeast Georgia could be a strenuous and sometimes dangerous endeavor. Those that decided to make the mountains their home relied upon their neighbors for survival, a necessity which developed deep community attachments.

One of the mainstays of life in Lumpkin, even as late as the 1960s and 70s, was growing one’s own food supply. However, this food was not horded selfishly. Carol Meeks, a native of Lumpkin, remembers that when a neighbor had an excess yield, “you just went over and got it, whatever they had.” Neighbors would behave in the same manner towards her own family’s garden. In this way, families traded heirloom seeds amongst each other. As we traced heirloom seeds through Lumpkin County, we found that many of the old families of the county traded heirloom seeds with each other, and so in some ways these seeds helped to facilitate the development of community in Lumpkin County.

Detail from communograph

Detail from communograph

Furthermore, heirloom seeds served as a social bridge between the students that took part in the project and the community members that gardened. In the five years that I have been enrolled at North Georgia, I’ve noticed that stepping onto the Dahlonega campus from anywhere else in the county was like stepping onto a different world. The vast majority of students hailed from outside of the county, and on weekends, the campus becomes like a ghost town, the site of a mass exodus of studentry making their way back towards Atlanta and its suburbs.

Thus, a very real disconnect exists between the community on North Georgia’s campus and that of Lumpkin County, as most students never take advantage of any opportunity to experience the “deep culture” of Lumpkin County. Instead, the relationship between students and community members is one founded upon misunderstanding and prejudice. When I first enrolled at North Georgia, my fellow cadets and I were taught to avoid the local “Nuggets,” lest we be forced to reenact a scene from the infamous Deliverance. This prejudice, as with most, proved to be baseless and ignorant.

For many of the students involved, the heirloom seed project served to rectify the problem by creating a dialogue between student and community member, and thus, I hope, the beginnings of a sense of mutual understanding and respect. In talking with my fellow students, many of them view this as an invaluable part of their college career. Several maintain contact with the community members with whom they worked, and I would venture to say that almost all see this project as personally and academically enriching.

Though there may have been some initial confusion as to our intentions, the reaction from the community towards our project and our students has been generally positive, with many being proud to share a little bit of their culture with those outside of their mountain town. I hope that we have built a bridge between campus and community that will continue to be mutually enriching and beneficial for years to come.

I feel that this project has the potential to build a bridge between the present generations and those of the future. In a world of growing dissatisfaction with corporate agribusiness, harmful chemicals, and genetic viability of food, heirloom vegetables offer a potential sustainable and healthy alternative. Many of our “seedkeepers” remarked that they practice heirloom gardening not out of necessity, but out of a desire to maintain some sense of autonomy and control over their food. Some practice heirloom gardening in order to help maintain genetic diversity among plant species. In heirloom gardening we can see the beginnings of social and environmental activism, and thus we have a potential blueprint for helping to create a more sustainable future for all.

Unfortunately, heirloom gardening in Lumpkin County seems to be on the decline. With the influx of conveniences such as a Wal-Mart and various fast-food chains, the time and effort required to grow one’s own food seems unnecessary for many. Most of those that still practice the tradition in Lumpkin County are approaching their twilight years, and few of younger generations seem to be carrying on the tradition in their stead.

heirloom tomato

I hope that through this project, Lumpkin County gardeners may have found some eligible youth to carry the banner forward. As Bill Best wrote in his book Saving Seeds, Preserving Taste: Heirloom Seed Savers in Appalachia, “the need to educate our public about this important aspect of our heritage can’t be overstated… We can start by saving and sharing.” I hope that the saving and sharing done by heirloom gardeners in Lumpkin County will help to build that bridge to a better future for all.

6 Responses

  • Rob Baker says:

    Something I’ve wondered about this project:

    Given the ever growing minority of people who farm for subsistence, how many connections do heirloom seeds actually make? Are these college students, or younger generations, Appalachians? Will they foster that culture in the area or will they take it elsewhere?

  • Rob Baker says:

    Or should I say, ever “shrinking” minority…

  • […] recently featured a post from a good friend of mine, Jonathan Winskie. For those of you unaware, Joanthan is the red headed […]

  • Rosann Kent says:

    Rob, Interesting questions! First, how are you defining the following terms? Subsistence farmer, connections, Appalachian. Rosann

  • Rob Baker says:

    I clarified the questions on my blog:

    I changed “subsistence” to “subsistence and/or supplemental”. As far as Connections and Appalachian, the only answer I can give is, however you take the words to mean. We’ll come down on the preciseness of meaning through the discussion as it evolves.

  • Rosann Kent says:

    That’s a lot to begin to unpack without working definitions. We’ll continue the discussion on your blog.

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