Saturday, May 17, 2008

Heirlooms New and Old

When ECG and I first opened the battered cardboard box that had clearly been used many, many times, the first thing we discovered was a shock of human hair.

We opened further and found a round belly marked with a bellybutton like a smile. Under the belly's gut hung vibrant laquered robes.

On its backside, we encountered a string (emerging from what would be its anus had it one), that when pulled, made the arms move up and down.

And its face? I guess I should say his face, since he is so clearly human-ish and even quite personable. Well, his face is impishly curved into the happiest of grins.

This little guy is what my uncle gave ECG and me for our wedding. It's a Vietnamese water puppet, a puppet traditionally used by rice farmers when their paddies would flood. They'd hang a screen, position the puppets on buoys or stands in front of it, and maneuver the puppets from behind the screen. Since this ancient art arose from the rural villages of Vietnam, the puppets (and their puppeteers) usually performed comedies and dramas based on the everyday life of the villagers. Some puppets would mock village members while others would honor the village leaders. Apparently, most shows opened with a comic performance by a smiling little-boy character who would tell jokes and entertain. I think our puppet is one of those little-boy characters. He certainly has already provided us hours of entertainment, and yet, we have not named him. We're stuck. Any ideas?

I wonder what he's seen and where he's been and how old he is. I wonder whose history he has been a part of. I don't even know exactly how my uncle got his hands on him. Whatever his name is, and whatever history he has experienced, we are quite happy with the new addition and will treasure him, a happy friend to follow our family through our future history.

I was the recipient not too long ago of another kind of history.

Following the excellent advice of the very wise Patrick at Bifurcated Carrots, I joined Seed Savers Exchange this year. Because of this, I am now able to purchase carefully maintained heirloom and other open-pollinated seeds not available elsewhere. The catalog is huge and daunting at first, but with time spent poring through the thousands of offerings, it becomes more of a spring of inspiration rather than a tome of obligations. It's quite amazing actually, and I encourage every gardener to subscribe, if only for the opportunity to lazily page through the plentitude that is out there that so few others get to find.

However, I'm not writing now to explain the catalog. Instead, I'm writing to tell a story, and I hope it is a story that will follow me through the rest of my gardening life.

I love poppies, all kinds, but especially the gorgeous silken varieties of Papaver Somniferum. I planted a few seeds of the readily available breadseed poppy last fall that are just blooming now.

As I read and reread the Seed Saver's Exchange annual Yearbook Catalog, I came across a description of a poppy, "Brother Paul," on which I had to get my green thumbs. I sent my three dollar check to the supplier hoping to plant the seeds this fall again when it is poppy-planting-time, and soon after I ordered, an envelope arrived with the seeds and my check. What? Why would he send my check back?

I looked at the check. In my haste, I had written three hundred dollars in the amount line. Struck with embarrassment, I sat down immediately to write him a correct check and a note apologizing for my ridiculous error. I sent the note the day I received the seeds.

A few days later, I received another envelope with another packet of a different variety of poppy and a long, handwritten letter. Claiming no need for apologies, the note explained that although the vendor had noticed my check was a "tad high," he is so proud of Brother Paul that he distributes the seed for free. In his letter, he included an even more vivid description than that which was listed in the catalog. He wrote:

The "perfect" Brother Paul will demonstrate a slight ruffle about the petal margin. This, in tandem with the color scheme, red edges encasing a white corolla center itself rimmed in light purple, make it the most beautiful poppy in its species. So I choose to believe.

You can see why I'm drooling over this poppy. But getting this seed for free and the silly mixup with the check still isn't the point of the story. The point of the story lies in the second package of poppy seed that he sent to me, seeds that he explained later in his letter. Once again, here are his words:

I enclose a gift along with your check. These seeds come from the poppy originally grown by Thomas Jefferson on his estate in Virginia. [. . .] For some years now the operators of the estate have discontinued its sale. [. . .] As far as I know, I am one of the only persons who possesses this seed. It represents an unbroken chain of seed transmission that extends back over two hundred years. No one should be burdened with bearing that responsibility alone. [. . .] As of this year, there will be only 4 people left with this seed including yourself as one of them. 200 years of living history in the hands of 4 individuals.

Oh, how I treasure this little, manila envelope.


Anonymous said...

What a great tale of generosity and collaborative exchange...

Lucy said...


People, some people, are just amazing. And how exciting it will be to see your heirloom, about as 'Royal' as one could hope, poppies grow.

Rowena said...

I love your vietnamese water puppet! I love that poppy!! Such simple beauty to be found in two so very different objects. Being one of the noble 4, carry on Christine, carry on!

Anonymous said...

That's a great story! What an exciting packet of seeds.

The SSE is really an eclectic group of people, and they are all really special in their own way.

A few of them just automatically send your money back, because they just can't see themselves accepting money for something like that (although most of them appreciate the money). I've received several free packets of seeds, often together with a great story or an explanation that it's a plant variety they created themselves. Many of them love to write long handwritten letters to people who ask for their seeds.

Many SSE members have very exciting plants growing in their gardens they are eager to share with others.

I just ordered some seeds from the SSE member in Belarus, who's garden is full of old Soviet era plant varieties. Many of these varieties are very special! He too sent a bunch of 'free' packets, and I'm still trying to get over the shock and excitement of what he sent me. These came too late for planting this year, so I'll be posting about them next year.

Wendy said...

Adore poppies too. But puppets scare me. :S
Wonderful story to brighten up a grey afternoon.

Christina said...

Susan: I've met so many fascinating people through blogging and seed exchanging--this is further proof of how many wonderful people there are in the world.

Lucy: I can't wait to see either, but it will be fall before I can plant. In the meantime, I am harvesting garlic like mad and I can't wait to write all about it. And people really are amazing, yourself included.

Rowena: Isn't the puppet great? Thanks for the support in carrying forth the little poppy.

Patrick: I've read some of the listings of that guy in Belarus, and I can tell by his descriptions that he is a passionate grower. I can't wait to hear how your collection of his seeds grow for you next year.

Wendy: Sorry about the scary puppet. I'm glad the story made you happy though. Have a fabulous day!

Kale for Sale said...

These are the most wonderful stories. My suggestion for the puppet name is Brother Paul after the poppy story, which by the way brought tears to my eyes. I've just completed reading Uncertain Peril - Genetic Engineer and the Future of Seeds (which isn't as technical as it sounds at all) and as a result the seed story is so timely and precious to me. I feel like hugging people on the street. Thank you.

Christina said...

Kale for Sale: You are welcome! I'll have to check out your book recommendation; it sounds like a worthy read.