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Corona Victory Gardens and the GOTG Conflict Seed Initiative

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

I've had a lot of time to think about the question of humanity and our ability to come together as a human family to survive and possibly thrive as a world community. I have been fearful that this was just an utopian thought and that I was being naïve to think the country I live in could be united--let alone the world. The quarantine gave me a lot of time to think and think and think about our odds. I realized this has been a pressing question of mine for not just for the last 6 months since the quarantine began in NJ, but dominated my private thoughts much further back, 30 years back--returning from war and wondering if any of it added up. Do we even have what it takes to survive or will we go the way of the dodo on the back of stupid, meaningless war and violent conflict?

In the first war in Iraq, I was an 18 year old combat medic. During my short tour there, I saw many things I wish I could forget, horrors that have haunted me to this very day. But it was something else that I experienced while there that gave me a degree of hope. It was the orphaned children with their unbreakable need to play, to laugh, to be kids in this horrible and insane war that had stolen their parents. The way they would live in bombed-out, building skeletons, mostly open air, right outside of our small medical team's camp and play around the fires they would light almost every night. We would see them throwing gun powder from found small munitions on the fires, illuminating the night sky with light and explosive laughter (even if a few of the young ones did get too close on a few occasions and got something the team referred to as "flash burn" and had to come to us for treatment in the morning). They retained what might be called "the felt presence of immediate experience" in this dire life their world at war had so unfairly subjected them to.

One day a little girl arrived at our medical field hospital with her parents in very bad shape. She had suffered at the hands of a person that most likely just wanted her to get better from the large cyst/tumor on her leg. In trying to open up the lump, it had become infected and gangrenous. She was just holding on, barely, as her parents gave her to us hoping we could help. They kept saying they were from Basra, a town about 20 miles away. She was transported to the MASH unit where we later found out she had lost her battle with the infection and had died.

It wasn't until 27 years later that I saw the name of her hometown again in the Baker's Creek rare seed catalogue. The Basrawya Tomato, as described by Baker's Creek Seed Company on their website, is an indeterminate tomato "originating from the Southern Iraq town of Basra and introduced into North America by Aziz Nael" that grows very well in even the hottest climates. It was then that I decided to buy this tomato and grow it in the 2018 season. I got a late start that year, but was able to grow it and pay my respects to her and the thousands of kids like her that had their light extinguished by the crushing machine of war. From that point, GOTG had the beginnings of what would evolve to be the Conflict Seed Initiative: the growing, saving, and sharing of seeds from places of war and other violent conflicts.

In the past two years, I have expanded my collection of Iraqi seeds to include four tomatoes, and two melons. This inspired me to look for seeds from other areas devastated by war:for example, Syria (7 seeds in my collection) and Afghanistan (5 seeds varieties in my collection). EFN, the Experimental Farm Network, was the second seed company i noticed had a social justice, seed justice, message on their website and purchased most of my Syrian and Afghan seeds from their Threatened Communities collection. The Experimental Farm Network was featured in a 2016 Guardian article entitled "Sowing the Seeds of Syria: farming group rescues plant species threatened by war." In this article they highlighted a forgotten tragedy of war, "Most of us don’t think about agriculture as one of the losses of war. We think of the loss of human life, the rubbled cities and the looted archaeological sites....But agriculture, too, is an ancient heritage that can be vulnerable. In Syria, some farmers cannot access the seeds they need, fertilizer or irrigation, according to several Syrian agricultural experts and a July report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization."

This season I was growing around 40 varieties of fruit and vegetables from war-torn regions, but also from areas still experiencing genocidal movements against minority populations, such as in Burma or South Sudan. I have amassed a collection that I intend to expand in the years to come and continue to bring awareness to seed justice in all its evolving forms.

Countries that experienced the trauma of war or other violent conflicts of the past, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan will be featured in coming Conflict Seed Initiative blog posts to bring solemn remembrance of the resilience of the people and their seed heritage that has survived past those devastating and horrific wars. Especially Japan, that between the carpet bombing, that would become common military tactics in the proceeding wars, and the war ending atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had lost between 2.5 to 3.1 million people both military and civilian. Their seeds represented in the Truelove Seeds catalogue, like the Tokyo Bekana or the Shishito Pepper, show how their seed heritage was persevered and thrived after losing so much to WWII. Also, be sure to check out their African Diaspora, Lenape Native American and Syrian seeds...even several seeds from Vietnam.

During the NJ COVID-19 Quarantine, May through June, I set up a piece of plywood that simply stated "Free Plants" with an arrow pointing to a stand in front of my house that held labled starter plants for various conflict seeds from Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan, Syria, and Vietnam. Below the arrow where a few hashtags: #CoronaVictoryGarden #HealingGardensInitiative #ConflictSeedInitiative. Whenever someone would stop to pick up a plant or two, while being sure to social distance, I tried to talk with people about Gloves on the Ground and educate them about our two central initiatives. By the middle of June, I had handed out 80 starter plants for these conflict seeds to people in my small South Jersey community. It is my hope that others will take my lead and replicate this in communities around the country! In doing so, you and GOTG will play an active and primary role in defining Seed Justice and Freedom! I invite you to join us by visiting the Healing Garden Initiative page to register your Healing Garden with GOTG and see what we, veterans and civilians, can grow together!

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