Heather is stewarding a Tasmanian 'Three Sisters'

Updated: Oct 6, 2021

We asked Heather about her experience being a seed steward with the Cygnet Seed Library.

What does being a seed steward mean to you?

So many things. I love the beauty of the seed stewardship relationship. It is humbling and also exciting. To me, being a seed steward is about becoming an active ecosystem member. It is about two kinds of relationships. One is with one's community. When one takes on seed stewardship, one is offering to serve the community, to help that community access a certain kind of seed. It is a really nice way to serve a community, because I can do most of it from my garden, doing something I love.

The other relationship within seed stewardship is the relationship with the seed and the plant she becomes. In stewarding a seed, one learns about the best ways to grow that particular plant, what she likes and dislikes, how to serve that plant well, to enable her to live her healthiest life, to grow the healthiest possible seeds and reach fruition. I like that those two relationships are simple and complex and the self reflection and allowance that is required for both of them.

Can you tell us about your seed stewarding adventures from last year?

Last year I did a lot of experimenting with seeds for the seed library, I don't have a lot of growing room yet, so I mainly grew for seed in 2020/2021, rather than for food. My main aim was to start developing a set of 3 sisters, a common way of gardening used by many first nations people throughout Turtle Island. The three sisters are: a corn sister, who reaches up to the sky, a bean sister, who provides nitrogen into the ground to help corn grow and climbs the corn and a squash or pumpkin sister, who spreads across the ground, helping hold in moisture and keep the soil from getting too hot and dry through summer. I had been told that people had little success with this model in Tasmania, but I still wanted to try some methods I was taught by Rowen White, a Mohawk seed keeper. The three sisters that I grew out were: true gold corn, vif rouge d'entempes pumpkin and purple king climbing bean. I also grew out a saucing tomato, cannestrini di lucca.

What seed are you stewarding this year and what do you know about this variety?

Oh gosh, I may have gotten a little ambitious and we will see whether I can actually get this many plants get to seed.

I will continue my work with the three sisters I mentioned, as well as several tomato varieties, I'm trying to grow some locally acclimatised watermelon and a capsicum. I'll also grow out tomatillos (fingers crossed), a lettuce, jalapenos and possibly a cucumber.

Why did you pick this seed?

I chose the three sisters relationship as my primary focus for a bunch of reasons. Seeds and growing plants through their whole lifecycle, then allowing them to start again, has been and continues to be immensely healing during this time of immense global upheaval.

It has also been a time for me, as for many, of immense personal upheaval. During 2020 I had several experiences that made me acutely aware of how colonisation and discrimination is still alive today, this came to a head during the Black Lives Matter protests. It was an immensely disconcerting and destabilising experience. I became aware that so much of my work and things I had previously believe to be be "good" and "right" were rooted in a certain world view, a world view that was attached to ideas like "I'm a good person" and "bad people do bad things." I realised that this was a naive perspective. I realised that many things throughout history, like the stolen generations, the atrocities of residential schools, genocide, colonial violence, the incarceration of people seeking asylum and of people of colour in high proportions were all done under the banner, at the time of being "the good thing".

It stopped me in my tracks. I started to think a lot more about what consent - in all ways - really means and how much our culture has very set ideas about the world and our own goodness. I realised that this had prevented me from facing my own behaviours.

And so what then? How can one take action when one realises how much one's actions have been based on problematic ideas? Well, first of all, obviously, you have an existential crisis. Then I started reading a lot of diverse voices, voices talking about different ways of thinking, doing and being.

Lost and unsure of anything anymore I turned to studying seeds and their stewardship with Rowen White. I read Sue Stuart-Smith's The Well Gardened Mind and I kept revisiting Robyn Wall Kimmerer's Braiding Sweetgrass. I was falling in love with Martin Pretchel's view of seeds and their tie to human beings, the dance through time that happened between them in relationship. The sacredness of a seed. It was helping me to understand that action doesn't have to happen all the time. That developing relationships and viewing the world as a beautiful, sacred gift was one of the most perfect actions I could take.

I listened to a TED talk by Winona LaDuke. She talked of a conversation she had with her father. He said, you know Winona, you are a really smart young woman, but I don't want to hear your philosophy if you can't grow corn. And I started thinking about that... what makes someone worth listening to? What is it that gives us the humility to speak with care and to act with true, rather than performative compassion. The growing of plants is such an excellent practice in this. A plant doesn't care about your past, it doesn't care if you have three degrees or you're a "good person." It just is, it grows well or it grows poorly and many of the decisions you make as a planter of that plant decide how well it grows.

So, in my throes of deepest unknowing, I bought some corn seed. I choose some sisters for her. I planted them out the way that Rowen showed me. I planted the corn when I saw the first blackberry flower, like Rowen's people do. I waited 6 weeks before I planted the beans by her corn sister. I watched them grow. I grew out their sister, a bright orange red pumpkin nearby. I watched them grow. I revelled in the simplicity of their needs. And at the end of summer, we didn't eat one of those corn cobs, I had promised, this first year that those kernels were all for seed. And I carried that bag of gold to seed library, packed them into our little golden bags and knew their preciousness and also their ordinariness. They are just food. Just something that feeds. And yet, that is everything the most precious of things, a kernel of corn in someone's hand can feed a whole village with time, knowledge and humility.

In answer to this question, I don't even know if I chose this seed, true gold, zea mays. Perhaps she chose me. Perhaps we chose each other. But she taught me the most fundamental lessons that sit at the centre of my life.

Seeds teach us how to create more beautiful worlds by existing. That is what seeds do. They are abundant simply by being themselves. Zea mays taught me two very important things:

That every new season - we dance into the uncertainty with hope in our hearts


We cannot build resilient systems out of non resilient behaviours.

And every new year I spend with her and her sisters, I am sure I will learn more things.

We cannot change the past, but every day we can choose to listen more to voices that make us uncomfortable, to learn more about how to be humble and kind, to be ready to investigate our own reasons for doing what we are doing. Growing seeds is such a good practice for this. It teaches us so many of the skills we need to learn from the past, to not continue to oppress others and to work towards creating more just and fair systems for everyone (including our plant and human relatives... and all living members of our ecosystems). They teach us humility, patience, softness, how to listen and observe, how to allow, how to de-centre ourselves from our relationships with the world and each other.

I live in Gardners Bay.

The land we steward is bordered by a creek and is old orchard country.

We call the land Wanderland.

Wanderland has sections of lead and DDT toxicity.

We work around these patches with seed growing, but also have decided to use our life times to dramatically reduce this toxicity, through microbiology and fungal remediation.

What stage are they at for the season?

The corn is sitting in a bowl with her sister the bean. It's too cold for them to be in the ground yet!!

What traits will you select for?

Largeness of size and resilience to disease and drought... as well as flavour!

Any challenges so far?

Possums. They're dedicated! We are still trying to sort put our animal proofing systems.

What technique have/will you use to save the seed?

I let the corn dry out to a certain extent on the plant, once the husks have gone brown, I bring them in and place them on a baking rack in a dry, warm area of house, I let them dry out until they fall off the cob when I wring it in my hands.

The beans I also let dry out on the plant, I know they're ready when I shake the dried out pod and can hear a rattle.

The pumpkin, I wait until the stalk going into he pumpkin goes brown/dies off. Then I harvest the pumpkins. I leave out in the sun for a day to harden their skins, then store them in the pantry. We save the seeds as we eat the pumpkins. I use the fermentation method for removing the flesh from the seeds, then dry them out on cardboard in a low light area.

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