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20 March 2024

ORFC24: Rooting: Back Towards A Perennial Culture

Daniel Grimston shares a reflection on a horticulture session at ORFC 2024. Watch along while you read. 

On Thursday morning, after the opening plenary had finished, my first coffee and I found ourselves accidentally at a panel about perennial vegetables. 

This was something I’d never thought of before – crops that, instead of being exhaustively harvested and replanted time after time, are nurtured over a long lifespan to produce in a way that keeps them alive and, most importantly, keeps their roots in the soil and the soil itself from eroding away with each harvest. Of course trees live in this way – they have to – but crops? Vegetables? How can we sustain ourselves? The panelists, Guy Singh-Watson, Mandy Barber and Tom Hartley, and their chair, Carolyn Coxe, spoke of their challenges in developing crops that had high-yield, tasted good and were appealing to the general public – ‘If I put cardoons in my veg box more than once a year, I’d go out of business’. 

Something curious bloomed here: many of the strains they had been investigating were old, pre-industrial breeds that were lost with the decline of subsistence, or the wild ancestors of our current crops, ones with more resilience, more resistance. Ones whose seeds had been rediscovered in old seed banks, down the backs of sofas and in the dusty corners of forgotten garden sheds. Here was where my mind began to wander. The rub: what if we were to start to work towards a perennial culture, one that restores itself, restores communities, stays alive long enough to be passed on, to be passed down, to grow roots? Where might we find the seeds of it – in which bank of memories, which cultural sofa, which dusty corner?

Until relatively recently, from the songlines of the aboriginal culture in Australia to the Selkie-tales of Western Scotland, most of humanity’s ways of knowing ourselves – our songs, stories, and even our languages – have come out of our direct relationship with the whole living world. They have come from our relationship with nature, or, more accurately, from our recognition that we separate ourselves at our peril. The city may end at the edge of the forest or the sea, but we must always be in conversation with the beings that dwell just beyond our ken. In that dialogue we can find the answers to questions our linear, human minds cannot answer. In the liminal space, the edgeland, where the boundaries between us blur, the animal and the plant and the land itself can teach, can be honoured and respected, can trust us enough to tell us their secrets. 

This was true, of course, until the rapid industrialisation of the West and its relationship with everything from mineral to vegetable to animal took us far away in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The speed of our culture intensified and its soil was taken for all it was worth. The 20th century especially saw the erosion of our oral traditions and ancient cultures to such an extent that many words themselves, not to mention the tales they make up, are now dying out – a complex topsoil, specific to each place, built up over centuries of relationship with that place, has been farmed into thinness and blown away by the winds of an economics to which roots and richness are an inconvenience. As long as the individual continues to take precedence over the community, over the society it inhabits, this will not stop until each of us are floating, uprooted, in our own empty space.

In places, though, people have started to turn their noses down into the dirt and rootle around. They’ve grubbed up morsels, tended the few shoots left and this conference is a place where many of them have brought what they’ve found. As so many full panel audiences suggest, a new folk tradition is walking hand in hand with the regenerative farming movement as a younger generation, tired of the constant burnout of the fossil fuel age, are turning to the land. As soon as they do, they start to hear the voices of ghosts that are begging to be heard. Not only this, but they start to respond in their own way to their own place. Something takes root, a memory begins, and as its roots seek down for nourishment the past rushes up to fill its veins. 

Here is the beginning of the perennial culture – the good-king-henry, the poireau perpetuel, the cardoon – the old seeds in the pocket of an ancient waistcoat, held in the hands of the young. It is a culture rooted in work side-by-side, in community, in the recognition that the new world can only be built by listening to what has been forgotten and carrying it into the sun once again. It is a move from the throwaway to the hand-me-down, from the eroded to the erudite, from, as the folk singer Sam Lee has said, ‘the egocentric to the ecocentric’.

Daniel Grimston is a queer writer, actor, director and activist who grew up in a farming family Sussex, now based in London. Daniel is the poet-in-non-residence for the Right To Roam campaign, who call for greater land access, and is part of its Farmer and Landowner Advisory Group.

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