Kristen Kirby Shoot holding basket of corn.
Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron
personal essay

The Transformative Power of Tending Seeds

published Nov 8, 2021
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My first memory in the garden was as an impressionable 6-year-old, listening closely to my grandmother’s advice: “If you talk to them, they’ll grow stronger,” she’d say, gesturing to the seeds we had just finished planting. For weeks after school, I’d lay at dirt level, striking up a conversation with the newly sown beans, encouraging them to wake up and break through the earth. Until one day, I noticed their emerald heads splinter the soil. I shook with excitement. “They made it,” I whispered to myself.

Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

Since those formative days with the land, it’s been instilled in me that plants are living, breathing, thoughtful relatives. We are kin, inseparable from each other’s cosmology and given life by the same sacred breath.

In my early 20s, armored by this precious knowledge, I said goodbye to the Western red cedar trees of home. Carry-on and work boots in tow, I made the move from Oregon to Detroit, Michigan. I’d heard the buzz about the city’s urban agriculture community, one that was incredibly diverse and knowledgeable — the type of place where trust had to be earned. I respected that. With little idea of what lay ahead, I set out to learn how food sovereignty did (and could) function in a place that seemed to have everything working against it.

People are often quick to describe Detroit as a dystopia and it’s easy to see why. The city’s infrastructure is crumbling, environmental racism is palpable, and suffering seems to be the norm. It’s within those sentiments that I’ve come to realize the ways in which history repeats itself. The ancestors of this land, the Anishinaabeg, have experienced and survived through dystopian times before. Trails established by the local tribes have been paved over, becoming some of Michigan’s largest interstate roads. Diseases that traveled with the settlers devastated entire communities. Waters that had danced with manoomin have become so polluted by industry and development, threatening this vital foodway.

The truth is, most systems in place today were built off our erasure. Our communities on Turtle Island have endured forced removal, assimilation, and genocide. The land they cared for — the land that cared for them — was taken and turned into a resource that would serve the means of colonization. The intent of these malicious acts was to control and remove us from our sources of spiritual and bodily nourishment.

Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

Despite the trauma our seeds have endured, they plow forward. The ground cherries, sunflowers, and chokeberry all had found me in my moment of need and together we are able to heal. The seeds I sow today are brimming with resistance, resilience, and unconditional love.

The land I work today is tenderly named Leilú, meaning butterfly in the Tlingit, my tribal language. It speaks to the transformative power of tending to our seeds, in addition to the power of people and plants working in tandem to take care of future generations. Leilú is where I grow culturally significant food and medicine for the community.

I’m always delighted to be greeted by a waterfall of strawberries, the flowering tobacco, statuesque sunchokes, and ever-sprawling sage. And yet, as I hold tightly to these plum-colored kernels of Cherokee White Eagle corn, I am reminded of the obstacle-ridden journey these seeds faced to arrive in the palm of my hand.

Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

Under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, approximately 60,000 Indigenous peoples from five tribes were displaced from their homelands. The ancestors of this White Eagle corn were carried by the Cherokee during their forced relocation from Georgia to Oklahoma, a heinous part of the nation’s history commonly referred to as the Trail of Tears.

It’s autumn now and the Three Sisters — corn, beans and squash — I planted in the spring fill the city block with their handsome skeletons. They’ve filled baskets upon baskets with their generosity: plump scarlet runner beans, ash blue pumpkins with neon orange interiors, and countless ears of pearlescent corn. The abundance gifted by the garden will always astound me.

Credit: Rosa Maria Zamarron

Plants are the reflection of the people who tend to them and, in turn, the people are a reflection of those plants. In Detroit, the reflection of these plant relatives are present in some incredible folks. Shiloh Maples is the first person from Detroit’s Indigenous community that I connected with. Her work around food sovereignty is deeply inspiring. Sharing the story of her seed journey, she encouraged me to dig deeper into my own. Shiloh also connected me to Rosebud Schneider, a friend and former coworker of hers. 

Rosebud’s knowledge of planting and traditional foods is expansive. The work she does at Ziibimijwang farms is breathtaking and barely scratches the surface of the connection she holds with the land. If you see half of the human-plant equation, the other is inevitably nearby. It is a system that depends on reciprocity and gratitude. It’s incredibly important to remember the connectedness of it all. To protect the plants, the land, and the water is to protect Indigenous people. We are inseparable from them. 

As the metallic scent of winter enters the air, I begin to reflect on the lessons I’ve learned this season. My time spent in the garden is a homecoming of sorts, to be with relatives. Our plants have stories to share, memories to recollect, and guidance to offer. Inside of every seed is a map, leading to a new and better understanding of what it means to be an Indigenous person in this world. By this I find myself: graced by sunlight, roots firmly planted and sturdy against the wind.