I sat at my desk in the Sow True Seed office, fluorescent lights glowing overhead, my computer screen flickering with orders coming in through the internet. Not the picture one imagines when thinking about the work of a purveyor of heirloom seeds, yet it is in this little office that things happen which just might change the world.
This day my phone erupts into a shrill ring, not very unusual, although this call was special, this call was a call to action. On the other end of the receiver an urgent voice was asking about a squash. Not just any squash, but a squash which invoked memories of childhood, one with the power to bring those long past back into the present, a squash whose presence had faded from the filmstrip of Virginia back-road truck farms and family garden plots, desperately calling from the volumes of history to come home. This squash is the Permelon.
What is this Permelon Squash? Why did this man on the phone speak with such passion and urgency about a mere vegetable? I found myself getting caught up in his fervor, I wanted to know what this elongated curcubit was, with its orange flesh dripping with sugary sweetness, skin bright and thick which some say you’d need to cut it with a hacksaw. What happened to erase this once popular kitchen staple from the culinary indulgences sought after by the very people who once grew it?
After assuring the voice on the phone I would do my best to find this lovely piece of his past I hung up and prepared for the Pikeville, KY seed swap I would be attending the next day. But wait I get ahead of myself…
The previous weekend I had attended a seed swap at the Appalachian Institute for Mountain Studies in Burnsville, North Carolina. It was the first formal seed swap I had ever been to and immediately I recognized how important these events are. Although this was a small gathering the impact on the attendees futures were huge. It not only allowed people to share resources but also encouraged community and the ability for participants to build food security for themselves and their families.
While sitting with James Veteto, the Director of the Southern Seed Legacy Project, I was transported into a world where there were more choices about the food we eat, our ability to shape the world around us to be regenerative and supporting, all the while awash in a serenade about all the lives and stories of the people who carried these seeds in their hearts that we could still have them hundreds of years later. That day seed saving transformed from a beautiful collection of historic food varieties into something much larger and personal.
In the following days when I received the call about the Permelon I felt that something had changed in me. The voice traveling across telephone wires was not a gardener interested in growing a unique heirloom vegetable for their own amusement, it was another human reaching out to reclaim and remember a piece of their history. To reconnect with lost parents and a way of life which had faded into the past. His request like so many others I get on a weekly basis spoke to me of great possibilities for our future of food.
Chris and I loaded into his pickup truck in the darkness, two mason jars of coffee at the ready for the long drive to Pikeville, Kentucky. It was three in the morning and the seed swap would begin in five hours. The sun was touching the mountains with her soft glow when we crossed the Virginia line , excitement was building in the little truck cab. Stories of seeds, the mountains, and the hope for local sausage on fresh biscuits broke up the time over the many miles we traveled. I wondered to myself about the potentiality of actually finding that squash. Were there Permelon seeds hidden in mason jars within the homes and cabins which dotted this rural landscape?
We filed into the high school gym into the warm welcome of Joyce Pinson, the founder and all-around mover and shaker of this event. The normal setup and chit chat ensued while people began to pour through the door. Generations upon generations of families lined up; snaking their way through the multitude of tables arranged before them. Mothers taking photos of their children in front of the Sow True Seed rack like it was a celebrity they had been waiting to meet. Folks traveled from up and down the coast; Maryland, Illinois, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee, and of course North Carolina. Seeds covered the tables like blankets, many with family names, exotic varieties from far off lands, and many of the well-known heirloom varieties such as Jersey Wakefield Cabbage. For these, folks would travel hundreds of miles in hopes of finding treasure. But for me, aside from all the people who support the sacred work of preserving biodiversity through seed saving, it was the short amount of time I sat with Bill Best that I will hold dear.
Bill Best hails from the mountain community of Haywood County, North Carolina. His family has been saving seed since time immemorial. Surrounded by hundreds of people Bill transported me through his stories back to his childhood. I could smell the air in the valley of his youth, the sound of the ocean rushed in my ears when he referenced the coast, and most of all the urgency in his voice penetrated his message of preserving our agricultural legacy deep into my bones.
He told me of the way of life he was brought up in, a time where you relied on your own hard work and the connections of community. He spoke of a time not long ago when the way we ate had a greater meaning than it does to many today, as expressed in this quote:
“My father traded salt from the Carolina coast. They used to harvest it from the seawater, evaporate it. He traded for salt and spices; everything else we grew or raised for ourselves. We didn’t have to buy anything. I didn’t know it back then but we ate good, I mean the food was delicious and more healthy than the food we get today.” Bill Best
I walked away from that gathering of hometown heroes, ardent agriculturalists, victory gardeners, and dedicated preservationists knowing myself a little better, feeling more inspired to keep doing this work, and very hungry for the harvest yet to come. But wait…what happened with the Permelon?
Despite asking every person I thought would have answers the fabled Permelon continued to elude me. I was given suggestions for various people to contact, told tales about “so and so in such and such county once had Permelon seeds,” yet even amongst folks who labor day after day in this cause there still remains mysteries, lost varieties, lost stories awaiting recapture. And so my journey continues, maybe one of you reading this may have the very seeds that transport the man in Virginia back to the time of being a small boy, perhaps you are carrying the torch which will light the path back to a way of life on the verge of disappearing.
Written by Shane Maxson, Customer Relations at Sow True Seed
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