We came across a story this week that would have us believe that an extinct plant escaped the callous hand of natural selection by stowing away inside a clay pot. Unfortunately for us, the story is an urban legend. But urban legends are fun and we don’t hear of many that involve clay. We’ll lay out what we know and give credit to some interesting people at the heart of the myth.
According to the Mennonite World Review, the Canadian Mennonite University, in collaboration with the Métis first nations community, had successfully grown an ancient variety of squash, “Gete-Okosomin,” from seeds shared with them by the White Earth Seed Library in Minnesota. The newspaper attempted to get to the root of a legend that accompanied the squash, asking if it was true that the seeds came to us from inside “a clay ball” or ancient clay pot.
In fact, the gourd couldn’t be traced to a clay pot, or a clay ball, or a clay anything. However, it did come to the university from gardeners who have been saving the unique plant for generations.
Further digging into the history reveals that they were originally gifted to David Wrone, a University of Wisconsin emeritus historian, by some elder women gardeners from the Miami Nation in Indiana in 1995.
One of these squash had been grown and saved by the Miami people for many generations, perhaps even thousands of years.
In a note to the White Earth Seed Library, Wrone related that he had earlier received squash seeds that had been found deep underground in a Kentucky cave.
They were well preserved and estimated to be several thousand years old. Wrone grew them, but they were “smallish and not as tasty.”
The seeds from the Miami women were shared with Wrone and eventually with White Earth Seed Library.
Over time and through many tellings, these two squash seed stories crossed and turned into one.
The seeds shared with the CMU Farm were, in fact, those grown by the Miami women.
The above facts alone are fantastic. And they’re real. Along the way, however, it was combined with another story. Seeds that grew meager (but nevertheless ancient) plants were discovered in a cave. The less-sexy seeds were replaced by the giant squash grown by the patient labors of dedicated (but less-ancient) gardeners. The less-sexy cave was replaced by a clay ball and then a clay pot. The clay pot took the place of the gardeners and now we have a romantic story about archeologists finding a clay pot that sheltered a plant thought to be extinct for many generations.
This is an example of modern redactional myth-making. The redaction is for the purpose of making a good story better and marrying it with a moral. In the account presented by sites like Ancient Origins (they’re not quite a news source, but they probably have the version of the story you’re most familiar with) the vessel comes to us from an ancient people who wanted to teach us a very important lesson about genetically modified crops. Such are the political times we live in. Even our tall tales must be accompanied by a harangue.
Some Native Americans found squash seeds in a pot about 800 years old and revived the plant for the first time in centuries. The seeds from the large, bright orange squash have been distributed to native communities and to others, including some college students in Canada who grew a big, orange squash this fall.
There is a worldwide movement to keep the planet’s rich heritage of food crops safe from genetic modification, catastrophe and loss of diversity that may result from food producers’ growing just a few high-yield or tough varieties of fruits, vegetables and crops.
By collapsing these two stories into this simpler form, Ancient Origins (or the modern redactors who handed this urban legend off to them) glosses over the hard work of the gardeners who protected the seeds over the course of generations. It’s unfortunate because Ancient Origins and the farmers seem to have similar viewpoints. The farmers of the squash want to protect it and other plants from going extinct. These plants are part of their culture and sharing them with the university both protects them and forges relationships between different communities. But that story is nuanced. It loses some of the magic. It does not appeal to ancient wisdom in light of choices we make in the present, the stock-in-trade of woo websites like Ancient Origins. It’s strange and perhaps a little patronizing to respect an idealized ancient culture while not paying attention to the respectable work done by another culture in the present. AO isn’t interested in the patient work of farmers. AO wants to sermonize. To their credit they did run a correction. Barely. It’s buried in the second page and we don’t reach it until after we’ve already read the myth and the sermon.
Just a heads-up in case this urban legend appears in the Facebook feeds of your clay friends. But if you think the myth is romantic, you’ll be pleased to know that artists are working with similar concepts. We ran two stories about cups that are designed to spread seeds once the user throws them away. We also ran a piece on Marek Cecula’s torpedo-shaped seed vaults that are designed to withstand Armageddon. They’re all magical without the embellishment.
Bill Rodgers is the Managing Editor of cfile.daily.
What do you think of this story of (not quite) contemporary ceramic art? Let us know in the comments.