Thursday, June 18, 2009
Overall, life is great. Greece has been an emotional roller coaster ride of emotions, but filled with amazing experiences. Some highlights include harvesting wild oregano in Ikaria as the sun sets over the sea, travelling to the village where my ancestors are from, volunteering on an organic farm with my Italian friend, visiting passionate organic farmers here in the north, travelling to the remote mountains where people still save their ancestors seeds, and much more.
I am now settled into Peliti (a seed saving community) in North Greece and I couldn’t be happier. My belly is full, my skin is dark from the sun, the calluses on my hands grow with each day, and my thoughts become filled again with seeds and farming. Yep, this is the life for me! I get to work hard outside and see another side of the seed saving movement. I am filled me with hope and inspiration once more!
Below I posted a few journal entries and blog posts. I have attempted to edit them and make them coherent. I believe they are worth reading if you have any time. They are not just about seeds, but also about my Greek adventures. I just figured out a way to post part of the entry on the front page. If you want to read the rest, click "Read More" at the bottom of the post! This way my blog is not so crowded. If you are not interested in Greece, scroll down to see past reports and photos from India, Italy, Thailand, Ethiopia, Canada and Peru.
All of my Greece photos to today are now on my flickr site. Click the link on the side of this page to view them! I have selected a few random shots and put them on this page. Hope you are all well and I will see many of you soon when I return in less than 3 weeks!
I have been carrying this quote in my pocket, so I will now share it here.
Today we are not called upon to give our lives as the brave scientists at the Vavilov institute did. We are not even required to be scientists or ambassadors, for remember it was the “amateurs” who domesticated our food crops and helped create diversity. Instead, we are called upon to help preserve the local diversity handed down to us. Whether we be scientists or politicians, farmers or factory workers, gardeners or teachers, we each have a special role to play in passing this gift onto the next generation. The manner in which we meet this challenge will determine how or whether – future generations will live on this planet.
“One thing is certain,” writes Bentley Glass. “We cannot turn the clock back. We cannot regain the Garden of Eden or recapture our lost innocence. From now on we are responsible for the welfare of all living things, and what we do will mold or shatter our own heart’s desire.”
From Shattering by Cary Fowler and Pat Mooney
The Pomak in this area are some of the only people left in Greece with the ancient agricultural knowledge, animal plows, and diverse seeds. Read my post below for more information
During and after the Second World War it was difficult to travel in and out of their area because of their close proximity to the Bulgarian border (which was communist).
As a result of their isolation, Panagiotis found an impressive diversity of plants, seeds, and animals when he first began travelling in this region. Since 1997, these people have been a source of seeds and knowledge for Peliti. I listened to tales of the Pomak people and Panagiotis collecting missions as the fog cleared over the green hills. The area suddenly felt different as we began to observe people in traditional Muslim clothes. Not typical in Greece, many people were out working very early in the morning. At this hour, most Greeks are still sleeping off their souvlaki, wine, and music from the night before (partly joking, but often true). Along the way we stopped in a larger village to buy bread from a local bakery. The people had a distinctly different look, with blue eyes and often blonde hair. Sadly, much of the land was covered in Tobacco fields. Even at this hour, the fields were full of men with black caps and women with colored scarves and gowns weeding and spraying the tobacco. None of them wore protection while spraying and old ladies with extreme osteoporosis still bent over to weed. Like much of Greece, most of the young people leave here to go to the cities. Not exactly the bucolic mountain village I was imagining.
After a few hours of driving through lush valleys filled with rivers, cotton, and a few old men riding their donkeys slowly down the road we got to our first destination. We were now high in the mountains, far from the cotton fields below. All around us, animals grazed happily. As soon as we stopped an older man came out to greet us. He had a calm smile and embraced us warmly. This man was a friend of Panagiotis. One farmer we met earlier had been hiking up this valley and he had stumbled on Achmed’s farm. The village is small and extremely simple. There are no large concrete houses like the rest of Greece and many houses are still made of stone. The families are largely self-sufficient and grow almost all their own food. Rye is the principal crop in this area. It was exciting for me because it was the first area I had been to where Rye was grown. Ached had both winter and spring rye. He showed us the seeds and explained when he planted and harvested each. The rye was used to feed their animals (goats, cows, and sheep) but was also important to the human’s diet. It was primarily made into flour for bread. Achmed explained how the winter Rye this year had been destroyed by dogs and weather. Luckily, he had plenty of Spring Rye seed to plant in the same field.
After a month in Greece, I would never believe that a place like this existed here...
For me, Greece seems very developed and modern. Even the small gardeners use rototillers, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. However, here everything is done by hand with no chemicals. Like so many countries I’ve visited, animals plow the land. Donkeys or mules are the beast of burden in this region and the farmers continue to use them not for fun, but for survival. Until recently they did not have electricity and were isolated from Greece. In turn, the knowledge of how to prepare the land, grow food, preserve food, and live in a community has remained central. Even today, the villagers become largely cut off from the rest of the world during winters. After showing us his rye seeds, Panagiotis collected a range of traditional corns from Achmed. All the seeds were stored in a barn made from local wood, with a roof of the rye straw. To this day, they still select the rye not just for taste or history, but also its ability to grow well in the mountains and its use as thatching for roofs. Achmed explained to his that the rye comes from his grandfather and even farther back. He said they have never stopped growing it in this area, and it is important for both the animals and humans. Achmed and his wife also save seeds from beans, tomatoes, peppers, and onions. He never buys seeds and was confused when I asked if he had ever tried growing hybrids. All seeds he grows are from his family or community. If something ever happens he acquires local seeds from his neighbors.
We got a tour of Achmed’s fields, which were scattered over the hills. I felt like I was back in the Andes again as we scampered through steep fields to try to keep up with the farmer. They had just finished cutting a large field of grass by hand to store for the winter (with a scythe). Achmed showed me the rye fields and explained how the cut the crop with a small sickle and then thresh it by beating it on wood. Like nearly every place I’ve been the grain is then winnowed by pouring it from above and utilizing the natural wind to blow away the chaff. I thought that I would never find a place in Greece where people still harvested the grains by hand, but here it is! I have been disappointed when various wheat farmers showed me their combines from America or special new equipment (not to say this is all bad, but I could learn about large combines in America if I wanted). It is amazing to see that once again the mountains are the last place where not only seeds, but traditional knowledge still remains. I could spend years learning from Achmed all he knows about the land, growing rye, raising animals for both milk and meat, grafting fruit trees, etc.
We enjoyed a fresh glass of milk (amazing), loaded up the car with corn and white cherry trees (a special Greek Variety) and continued on our journey. Achmed was amazed that an American had travelled around the world to see his seeds and I was joyous to have been able to come here and learn a small bit of the traditional knowledge. After driving for about an hour we stopped at one of the many hot springs. It was nice to see the local men and women walk to have their daily bath in the thermal water. The water was much too hot for me, but an interesting experience nonetheless. Sweaty and dazed we continued our voyage, stopping to take photos of various rye or oat fields, high mountain villages, and unique breeds of cows. We enjoyed a late breakfast of warm bread, olives, cheese, and fruit.
All of a sudden, Panagiotis turned sharply off the main road onto a small dirt road. He explained that we were now beginning our journey to the next village of the day, much farther and more remote. We stopped a man in his truck and Panagiotis asked directions. The man refused to give us directions for over five minutes and kept saying the village we wanted to go to was too far. He said it was dangerous and we get lost on the dirt roads many times. The first time Panagiotis came here in 2003 there was not a road to the village. He hiked to the village with a photographer friend. After getting lost many times, he finally arrived. They stayed one day, collected seeds and took many photos. These photos were spread through Peliti and journalist friends came to do a story. Soon after, the local government apologized and put a “new road” to the village. Today we had the luxury of driving to our destination, but still had many hours on dirt roads and possible wrong turns with no people to ask.
This area was markedly different from the last. It was much drier and hotter. Instead of lush, green hills there were steep, harsh mountains. Along the way we saw a few very isolated villages high in the hills and stopped various old women who pointed us in the right direction and continued to tell us it was too far. Miraculously we reached the village after a few hours. Many of the stone houses were abandoned or dilapidated and the place had a strange, sad feel to it. Panayiotis may have sensed my feelings of disappointment after such a journey and explained that even if a place appears poor when you arrive, you have been given the beautiful trip here and can always find something of value.
My sense of apprehension dissipated as our second kind host greeted us. The man lives in a beautiful, incredibly simple stone house with his wife. It is built into the hill under a large tree and is surrounded by a vegetable field, fruit trees, and many animals. Our hosts were extremely happy to see the photos which Panagiotis showed of his previous visit here. These astounding images of bean seeds, tomatoes, and their traditional farms and houses were featured in various articles and Peliti publications. Both the husband and the wife beamed with joy as they looked over the photos and welcomed an American into their home. They were ashamed to let me see inside but filled with pride that I had come to see their seeds and farm. The border of Bulgaria was within eyesight and over a glass of slightly fermented milk they explained how hard times had been before. The majority of people had left as a result of this. During the war, they would be yelled at by Police for even looking at the Bulgarian border. Up until a few years ago they had no road, electricity, etc. All supplies they needed had to be carried up the steep mountain from kilometers below. Due to both the lack of a road and the politics they were extremely isolated from any neighbors. I couldn’t believe that the path we had come up was the “new” road, which they were so happy about. It was an extremely challenging, rocky road but at least they could drive supplies up with a 4X4 whenever they needed them.
Both the husband and wife were very excited to show us their vegetable fields. They save their seed from everything they grow and explained to me that the varieties were all very old. They have never bought seeds from down below, but they once bought chickens. The purchased chickens could not survive more than a year here because they couldn’t fly and escape the predators. Their local chickens are able to evade hawks, survive off little food, and produce excellent eggs (which are tastier and they say have little cholesterol). They grow three varieties of tomatoes. One is grown and saved because it is fast and produces early, the other is excellent for sauces, and the third is their favorite. It grows very tall and produces tomatoes like none they’ve seen anywhere else. The inside of tomatoes sparkle and our host explained they taste excellent no matter how you eat them. They said that there is no reason to try new varieties because these grow well here with only manure and little water, and produce better tasting tomatoes than they could ever buy. They also grow 2 types of potatoes, 2 types of pumpkins (one is black), 3 types of corn, and at least 8 types of beans. Our hosts excitedly explained why they are good (whether for taste, fast growing time, or color). When I asked about how they prepare the land for planting our host immediately showed me his aged manure and the equipment they use to plow. He then asked me if I wanted to see how they do it. Before I could answer he had ran to get their work mule. It was wonderful to see the simple process of how they harness the mule and use it to plow. We each got to take a turn plowing and they were full of pride top explain their methods and tradition.
After plowing, the wife called us over to the shade where she sat with their bags of seeds. I was blown away by the bean diversity they still grown and consume. Beans are my favorite seeds, not just because of their beauty and diverse colors. In one form or another, beans are crucial to nearly all self sufficient people or ecological farmers. They are extremely nutritious (protein) and also help to restore the land by capturing nitrogen for the soil. Through a series of three or four languages we learned as much about the beans as we could. The husband translated from Pomaki to Greek and Panayiotis then translated to English for me. Some of the beans were excellent dried in soups, while others were fresh. One variety could survive with no water, while others grew very tall up the corn. They continually told us how old these beans were and said their grandparents had used these beans here and their grandparents too. After collecting some corn, bean, and potatoes we got a tour of the animals. The chickens, sheep, goats, donkeys, and cows were all very unique and were adapted to live well in these harsh conditions, with only a bit of cracked corn as a supplement.
We ended our visit by sharing another glass of milk and I asked every question I could think of. It was very inspiring to see these people still lived here and kept the seeds and knowledge alive. However, it was very sad to hear that only about 5 people remained in the village. They told us stories of the hard times and how their sons are now working in England, Germany, or Athens. It is a strange irony how they were proud to tell us of their sons Mercedes, but they continue to live in such a simple way. They didn’t answer when I asked what would happen to their farm and seeds later. Luckily Panagiotis has met these people, but there are many other villages in this area with no young people. As the old people get sick or pass away we lose not just the seeds but the agricultural systems and extensive knowledge of how to live and farm in an ecological way (they use no chemicals and their crops looked great!).
I asked my last question about how they preserve their food for the winter and we spent the next half hour hearing recipes and seeing their various canned products. A few of the things they make are cheese, yogurt, pickled vegetables, tomato sauce, and various canned meat products. As another gift, they gave me one jar of goat meat in a bottle from last year (looks extremely unappetizing, but I’m sure it’s good). We bid our sad farewell and continued the journey through rough mountain roads.
The road improved slightly as we got down into the valley. The heavy rain began all of a sudden and we spotted a shepherd standing in the rain. We asked him for a ride and he politely declined, saying he had to stay with his animals. The rain covered him as he smiled from ear to ear and wished us a good journey. Like their animals and plants, they are very hardy people! For over an hour we guessed which dirt road to take, hoping we would make it out. Miraculously we emerged onto the paved road that brought us to the closest town. We were very happy to have made it out of the rough mountains and rain (the car badly needed oil), but shocked to be thrown back into busy urban life. In only an hour we were transported to another world. The rough mountain roads, mule-plow, and colorful beans seemed like a world away!
I am very glad Panagiotis took me to see these special people. They are some of the last in Greece still retaining and farming their ancestor’s seeds. For them, the seeds still mean survival and their historical story has not been broken. Many have started to grow traditional seeds again through Pelitis’ work, but very few retain the agricultural knowledge and continue to grow the local crops on the same land their ancestors did, with no machines and no chemicals. These remote areas were more developed than most places I’ve been this year and the people do buy flour and many other things from the market. However, the connection to the land and much of the knowledge still remains. This morning I ate the eggs from their chickens and fondled my new bean collection. Another magical adventure!
Less than a week ago I was in Athens- tired, alone, and sinking into a deep sadness. I found myself wondering what the hell I was doing here, why I have lost my ability to be social, and what I was trying to accomplish. With only a month left to go in this epic journey I became anxious to get home and could think of nothing else other than my friends and family back in the states. However, I am now settled into Peliti (a seed saving community) in North Greece and I couldn’t be happier. My belly is full, my skin is dark from the sun, the calluses on my hands grow with each day, and my thoughts become filled again with seeds and farming. Yep, this is the life for me! I get to work hard outside and see another side of the seed saving movement. Once again I am amazed by the unique directions people take with preserving local seed. This movement is more widespread than I ever could have imagined.
The current agricultural situation here in Greece is obviously quite different from Ethiopia or India, but there are still many similarities as to why these seeds are important and the approaches being taken. Like nearly every project I’ve studied this year Peliti is a grassroots movement. It preserves an immense amount of agricultural diversity (over 1000 varieties) by connecting people to each other and working outside of established channels. The goal is to keep seeds in the hands of farmers and gardeners. Participants freely share and exchange seeds (as well as other goods and services) for a variety of reasons. As I’ve seen all year many value the more tangible aspects of traditional or heirloom varieties: the taste is much better, they grow with less water in the hot Greek summer, the plants are stronger and need no fertilizer, etc. Some are aware of the politics involved: they save and share their seeds out of fear or a desire to be free from corporate control. Lastly, many are involved for social and cultural reasons – they see how important these plants were to ancient Greece or their ancestors and they want to continue this history. The varieties these people grow have been given to them by the grandmother or they were found in an ancient Greek archaeological site.
Peliti was founded and is run by a man named Panayiotis Sainatoudis. Panayiotis and his family have taken me into their home, fed me, put me to work, shared seeds, and tried to explain every aspect of Peliti to me (through broken English and Greece). They renew my hope for humanity and our struggle for a happier, healthier, and more ecologically sensitive life. On my third day of volunteer work we finally found time to sit down for an interview. It was wonderful to learn about how Peliti works and what they have been able to accomplish. However, I was equally moved by Panayiotis’ life story. In the early 1990’s Panayiotis helped to organize agriculture courses here in Northern Greece. During January of 1991, a friend gave Panayiotis a packet of diverse seeds from an American seed bank. Panayiotis was immediately enticed by the feel of the seeds and the beauty of the Native American corn. A year later, while distributing invitations for his brother’s wedding in his birthplace, he saw a short-stemmed black maize plant. Panayiotis asked the old woman working in the garden about the plant. She happily explained to him that it was for making popcorn for her grandchildren and presented him with a few seeds. Panayiotis has called this “the corn which changed my life” and always carries some seeds from this plant in his pocket.
During our discussion he passionately handed me seeds from this life changing plant and asked me to continue the story. It was a powerful moment for me and one which filled me with joy. Throughout this entire year I have carried one colorful bean seed in my pocket. It is the first plant that exposed me to the beauty of seeds and the first one which I saved seeds from. Whenever I have gotten nervous, scared, sick or lonely on this voyage I take out my bean, breathe deeply, and rub it gently. It reminds me why am I here and provides me with hope for the future. I have never told anybody about this bean, so I was thrilled to see another man had a similar practice. Perhaps we both sound crazy, but at least we are not alone.
After receiving these corn seeds and the story from this old woman, Panayiotis asked for seeds in each house he delivered a wedding invitation to. By the end of the day he had an armful of corn, pumpkins, beans, etc. Since this day Panayiotis has always had seeds on his mind (like me). He has developed the habit of asking everywhere he goes about what seeds the people cultivate. Gradually, he began to ask other questions as well, such as how they cook their food and how they preserve it.
Panayiotis left the city life and lived in a remote village in the mountains of Northern Greece with no money, in a house with no electricity. In the spring of 1995, at a moment of personal breakdown, Panayiotis became aware that the subject of local seed varieties was the most important topic for him and he began Peliti. Peliti began as a personal need for Panayiotis and slowly it spread and became a “point of reference and medium of expression for many people.”
Panayiotis spent years seeking out the cultivators of local varieties in Greece. He travelled all throughout the North and much of the country with no money – hitchhiking, walking and relying on the help of friends or strangers. Throughout these hundreds of trips he collected over 1,200 varieties of traditional seeds. In the mountainous villages near the border of Bulgaria, Panayiotis was surprised to find that nearly every house saved their own seed and many had noticeably different varieties. He followed people’s suggestions about where there were local seeds still left and journeyed to the most remote areas of Greece. Aside from collecting seeds he learned many lessons which changed his life. Some of the lessons he learned that “nothing happens by chance”, “when we decide to do something the whole universe conspires to help us succeed”, “we have nothing and nobody to fear apart from ourselves”, and that “we are significant and important irrespective of our economic condition.” While Panayiotis and I have very different stories it was amazing to see that seeds had a similar impact on our lives and we have come to learn some of the same lessons. Both of us have been led to incredible places and people through a passion for seed. We have benefited greatly from the kindness of strangers, seen how bright the human spirit is, and learned that we create our own destiny. Panayiotis put many of my own thoughts about this past year into eloquent words. Like him I have seen that when I fully put my mind to something it seems as if everything happens to help me reach my goal. Additionally, the most unexpected challenges or situations are the ones which often teach us the most (nothing happens by chance).
Starting in 1997 Panayiotis began travelling to the Pomak villages in the Xanthi province in Northern Greece. The Pomak are an ethnic minority in Greece. “Political, religious, linguistic, and other factors have led to their isolation.” As a result of their isolation, Panayiotis found an impressive diversity of plants, seeds, and animals. Since then, these people have been a source of seeds and knowledge for Panayiotis. This is also a similar story to ones I heard in India, Thailand, and other countries. After the seeds are lost, many passionate seed savers like Panayiotis travel to the isolated mountainous regions where people still rely on locally adapted seeds for survival. The majority of the traditional seeds being grown now in Punjab, India come from those collected by Vijay Jardihari in the Himalayas. In Thailand, many of the traditional varieties being grown and distributed by Pun Pun come from the isolated Northeast. In a way, my entire journey has been to these isolated, diverse places. Nearly all year, I have lived in mountainous areas where people still maintain agricultural diversity. Panayiotis explained to me that Greece has a huge amount of seed diversity because agriculture has been practiced here for nearly 10,000 years and because the land is extremely diverse with mountains, valleys, etc. The same is true of nearly all countries I’ve visited. Ethiopia has especially remained a center of crop diversity because of the mountainous and diverse terrain, isolated areas, and long history of farming. Similar factors led me to India, Thailand, and Peru.
Throughout the rest of the 1990’s Panayiotis worked at the Cereals institute in Thessaloniki, attended many seminars on biodiversity, spoke about his travels, and continued collecting seeds. After collecting over 1,200 varieties Panayiotis realized he needed to find a way to maintain these before they all went bad in his house. He organized various meetings that began to plan for seed exchange events in Greece. These first meetings were the beginning of a process that ended in the “Pan-Hellenic Local Seed Varieties Exchange Festival,” which is now in its 9th year. This past year over 1,500 people came to this festival, from small gardeners, to large farmers and even Athenian lawyers or businessmen. The yearly event begins with speeches and a closed exchange between farmers who came with seeds. The public is then invited to come and get the seeds they want from the farmers and gardeners. All seeds are given for free and people are recommended to grow them out and bring seeds back next year or give them to others.
Panayiotis continued to travel and live in the most remote areas of Greece. For nearly two years he stayed in a settlement of around ten houses scattered over the mountainside without electricity, telephone, television, etc. He worked the entire agricultural cycles with the people and collected seeds. Once again, seeds were a crucial part of life for these people because they needed them to survive. They couldn’t easily go to town to buy seeds and these traditional varieties were adapted to the harsh mountain climate. Panayiotis found many houses to be nearly self-sufficient and some cultivated up to 17 varieties of vegetables. A sample of all the seeds Panayiotis collected was sent to the national gene bank. Throughout all of these journeys to Greece and Bulgaria, the keepers of the seed taught Panayiotis what it means to be a good person. Similar to my own journey, the rural farmers showed Panayiotis that for seeds to be saved we need to make changes in our self. The journey has taught us both the power of community.
In 2000, Panayiotis organized the creation of a network of farmers and gardeners who still grew local seed varieties. Each year since then they have published a book with the names of these growers, their phone numbers, and the varieties they cultivate. Anybody who purchases this book from Peliti can contact the cultivators directly to request a small amount of the seed they desire. Now, 142 farmers and 18 animal breeders are participating in this network. As a result of this grassroots work, over 1,000 varieties are being actively preserved. Like many other community seed banks or village networks I’ve seen, Peliti is dynamic and participatory. The seeds are not simply collected and stored in a freezer. They remain in the people’s hands, continue to evolve, promote sustainable agriculture, and support local culture. The story of our agricultural history continues through Pelitis work and the cultivation of these seeds.
In addition to the annual festival and book, Peliti also created April 7th as the day for local varieties in Greece. The first year began small, but celebrations or events have now been organized throughout much of Greece. Peliti works extensively with school groups. Panayiotis and his wife spend much of their time speaking and teaching, often to children. They have helped to create dozens of school gardens. The school children are also actively involved in the April 7th events for local seed varieties. Peliti provides various schools with traditional seeds and knowledge. The seeds are then grown by children in their classroom. When the plants are big enough they are given free of charge to interested farmers and gardeners. One school in Greece now distributes hundreds of free plants every April 7th in the central square of their city. The mayor provides a truck and people come out to get free plants, connect with each other, and learn about Peliti’s work.
One thing which is amazing is that Peliti is run entirely by volunteers. Panayiotis makes his money from the sale of books and donations. However, throughout the country and its islands there are volunteer groups that help to organize events, teach children, collect seeds, and much more. Panayiotis spends much of their time giving speeches, and presentations to schools. They also distribute out around 8,000 envelopes with seeds and 6,000 plants. All the seeds come free of charge from farmers or gardeners. The seeds are packaged and given to anyone who requests them. In total, they estimate they have distributed seeds to over 50,000 farmers, amateur gardeners, wine growers, etc.
What started out as a dream with no money and little organization has now involved into a widespread movement in Greece, and “the most important Ngo for the collection, preservation, and dissemination of local varieties”. Peliti has received extensive coverage in the media and is now supported not just by farmers but by many businessman and urbanites in Athens. In 2001 when an article was published in the Athens news about Peliti, they attached a packet of local corn to each newspaper (12,000 in total). Additionally, over 130 musicians and artists came together to create a CD and series of events for Peliti. The CD, “Singing for Peliti,” is now being sold to raise money for the further development of Peliti’s community. They are working to create a home base and more permanent community. Seeds remain central to Peliti’s work and they have succeeded in spreading not only seeds but stories and knowledge to many in Greece. The work continues here each day.
Panayiotis tells his story and about the work of Peliti with such passion and hope. He frantically ran around the office to show me various stories, photos of events or collections, and seeds. His energy was contagious and I couldn’t help but feel joyous to be back among another seed fanatic and brother. A major lesson I have been pondering the past weeks is how kind strangers have been to me and how everything has seemed to work out amazingly. Numerous times through this voyage I would get upset that something didn’t work out, I missed my bus, or got lost. However, each time it has worked out for the better. I had a crazy idealistic dream when I began this trip and an unwavering passion for seeds. Somehow, the journey has surpassed even my wildest dreams. All my dreams and hopes have come to be a reality. Panayiotis summarizes his life’s story and the story of Peliti with a similar sentiment. He believes we can accomplish anything we truly set our minds to.
“Everything created by a human being has passed first through his imagination: the clothes I wear, the computer I have in front of me, the houses we live in, the cars we drive. In the beginning everything seemed like intangible dreams. But, with patience and persistence they became a reality.”
You may read this and label Panayiotis and me as dreamers or idealists. However, we are not alone. Countless farmers, organizer, politicians, or average citizens this year have shown me the power of a dream and persistent dedication. One small example was a farmer in the highlands of Ethiopia. It was his dream to have a fruit tree farm. Everyone had told this man he couldn’t find water on his land and it would be impossible for him to dig a well or successfully grow fruit trees. For over a year he slowly dug a well. He made a rope out of horse hair and other fibers to pull the dirt and him out at the end of each day. Over 8 meters deep, he finally hit reliable water. This farmer then collected scrap pieces of tires, metal, and other “junk” from the city. With no previous knowledge he designed and built a hand pump that could irrigate his land and two neighbors. When I visited, his land was now filled with incredibly productive fruit trees. They had formed a group of innovative farmers in the area and were experimenting with organic fertilizers and pesticides, pruning techniques, and other methods they developed. The farmers in this group were making much more money than before, did not have to ask for food aid, and could afford to buy supplies for their children.
The story above is just one small example of a dream coming true through persistent work that I have seen this year. The large majority of people I’ve met and worked with are fighting against all odds. Companies, government, neighbors, and even family are often against them. Despite this, we are able to prevail. When Panayiotis first had the idea to publish a book with all the growers of local seeds he had no money, computer, or ability to publish a book. One wealthy Greek man from the city called right as Panayiotis was pondering how he could possibly create this book with no money. The man had read about Peliti in the paper and asked how he could help. He immediately committed to giving all the money needed to publish Peliti’s first book and from there the network began.
When not interviewing Panayiotis, or eating excellent vegetarian meals prepared by his kind wife Sophia I filled my time working in the garden. It felt great to be using my body again and they appreciated the work. I also helped a little to organize the seeds and Panayiotis took the time to tell me many stories about the different varieties (where they had come from, how they are used, how little water they need, etc.). During free time I have been biking to the river and enjoying life in the lush mountains of Northern Greece.
Another interesting aspect of Peliti is their work with wheat. They help to conserve around 10 ancient wheat varieties. Wheat came to Greece from the Fertile Crescent and has been cultivated here for over 8,000 years. It has been a crucial part of Greek culture and many stories, myths or songs depict wheat or bread. Peliti has helped distribute the seeds of Tritium Monoccocum to various growers here. This ancient wheat, often called einkorn, is the ancestor to our modern wheat. It has a hard hull, which cannot be removed easily, but is an extremely hardy plant and was important to ancient Greece. As a result of Peliti’s work three farmers are now growing Einkorn on a large scale and are connected to a mill in Athens which will soon start to sell flour. Peliti has also helped return Mavragani, black wheat, into cultivation. They have received small amounts of this and other seeds from the national gene bank. The samples are then grown out by farmers, multiplied, and distributed. Numerous varieties of ancient wheat and unique tomatoes would not be grown in Greece today if it wasn’t for Peliti’s work.
Weekend in Thessoliniki
This past weekend Panayiotis took me with his family to the city, Thessaloniki. Our main purpose was to attend a large agricultural fair on Friday. However, once again Panayiotis showed me extreme hospitality as he sacrificed his time to drive me around and introduce me to farmers. The farmers we met were truly inspiring. First of all, they got me excited again to be back in America working on my own farm project with friends. They also taught me a great deal about organic (or biologic) agriculture here in Greece. The first man we visited grows over 7 packed acres of organic vegetables and over 50 acres of organic wheat. Unbelievably he does all this on his own! He also collects many aromatic plants (oregano, thyme, etc.) and bakes and sells bread from his wheat. All the products are sold in local markets and Archilehas grows many ancient varieties to Greece. One wheat was given to him by an old man who said it bakes excellent bread and is grown by very few people. Other traditional beans and tomatoes had been selected by Archilehas because of their excellent flavor and hardiness to resist pests and climate conditions. He grows some hybrids but finds the taste is much worse and sometimes the plants don’t perform as well (sometimes they grow great). Many people are excited by the taste of his heirloom varieties, but some Greeks in the market won’t buy the products because they look different or strange. For a few hours Archilehas ran us through his farm picking anything that was ready and stopping to have us taste as much as we could. He worked incredibly hard and cannot sit still for a second. However, from the first moment we met you can see the joy and passion in his eyes. Like many organic farmers Archilehas truly loves his work. He said that he does not make enough money for how much he works, but you can see his contentment as he moves through the farm explaining his favorite bean or growing method (also a bean fanatic like myself).
One other farming couple we met was one of the first organic farmers in Greece, true pioneers. They were busy preparing for a summer solstice (St. John?) celebration, but stopped to serve me tea and explain their farm to me. While they grow a huge amount of organic, healthy food, their main passion is fostering community and farmer to urbanite relationship. They don’t like to use the word consumer and try to get the buyers of their products to become involved with the farm as much as possible. They have formed a committee of community members who work with the farmers to decide what will be grown, how the products are sold, and how the farm is run. These volunteer members help to organize events and design a system that works best for all. They have had a farm stand on the honor system, but are now working to create a better model. Children scampered around us preparing for the celebration that night where they would mill the small bundles of wheat they had cut and bake bread together. Aside from organizing community, these farmers were also working to return culture and traditions to the area. Some visitors came from the city while were there and explained to me how important the farm is to their lives. Another powerful day in which I could more ideas of what I want my future farm to look like!
In the morning we went to an organic farmers market. Panayiotis introduced me to many kind farmers who told me about why they grow the local varieties (their taste mainly, but also their colors, history, and strength). Many farmers also told me about the difficulty in growing old varieties because of the strict EU regulations. Technically, any variety grown and sold must be on the EU list. To get a variety on this list is very expensive and complex. In turn, there are only a few old Greek varieties on this list. To be certified organic, farmers are also required to purchase organic seeds each year and it is very difficult for them to use their own wheat or barley from the past year. The organic or biologic festival was nice, but not thrilling. The majority of the vendors were selling beauty products or other organic goods to elite clients. Some farmers had beans, sauces they had made, olive oil, and organic meat. Relatives of Panayiotis were there selling jewelry as well. The jewelry was all made from seeds collected in Greece. It was very beautiful and helped to raise awareness about seeds. Perhaps the most exciting part was the traditional music and dancing. I love seeing Greek dancing and it was interesting to see how the music and styles were different here in the north (Turkish or Balkan influences).
The past few days I’ve been back working in the garden and biking through the hills. Tomorrow, Panayiotis and I will hopefully embark on a journey to the mountains near Bulgaria. Panayiotis keeps saying it is a surprise, so we will see what this adventure has in store for me!
My first weeks here I missed Peru and the simple beauty of the Andean people. I was shocked by how many abandoned farms there are, and the large percentage of young people which move from the villages to go to Athens or America. My days were easy as I took Greek classes, walked to the sea, and chatted with old men in the square. However, I found myself constantly judging the life around me. People worked very little yet still had fairly lavish houses, cars, phones, etc. Even most of the rural people on the Island of Ikaria seemed disconnected from the land to me. Albanian immigrants worked the fields and drinking wine was more of a priority to the Greek men than anything else. I was able to move past these judgments as I learned more about Greek history and accepted that I was in Europe – the so-called “developed” world.
Instead of harping on the negatives I finally opened my eyes and saw how beautiful my surroundings were. I found old ladies who still did cook the wild greens and save seeds, asked everyone I could about their seeds, and dove head first into my Greek classes. Another turning point was when I gave a slide show on my travels/research to some people at the Greek school. Sharing my photos and stories never fails to fill me with hope and remind me my path in this life. At the end of two weeks at the language school I could speak a little Greek, knew much more about the history, and felt excited to tackle my big, fat, Greek adventure. Instead of leaving the island immediately I hitchhiked to the other end where I had met a man who knew a great deal about the local plants. Elias and his wife Thea (a Greek American) run a restaurant and hotel. I got a beautiful room on the sea and made an appointment to spend to whole next day collecting edible plants with Elias.
My first three weeks in Greece were spent on the island of Ikaria. Some of you have heard about Ikaria because it was featured in the news (CNN, BBC, and National Geographic) recently as a place where local people live the longest. When I arrived to the island, a large film crew was just leaving. They are part of a project called The Blue Zones which studies humans’ longevity and the reasons why in some areas people can live much longer than average. The reports painted Ikaria as a very remote, undeveloped island, in which people still live connected to the land. Some of the reasons they gave for the people’s health are that the Ikarians eat many wild greens, make teas from wild herbs, are not rushed and stressed, work outside or walk a lot, eat a balanced diet of local foods, and have a strong sense of community. After hearing this on my first day I had high expectations for the island. However, in my first days I ate no wild greens, felt the people were not kind, and wondered sadly through empty farm fields now filled with weeds. The island did not seem remote or magical to me – it seemed developed and very modern after coming straight from the Andes. Villagers did not greet me with soup or a potato as I passed their house and instead often ignored me or grunted quietly. Part of my disappointment is because the Blue Zone story exaggerated a good deal to make the news and a large part is because I simply had trouble adjusting to life in another new culture and way of life. After so many transitions this year I know that each country or drastically different place throws my emotions for a loop, but there is nothing I can do to stop this.
While walking back from the store with my yogurt Elias spotted me in his truck. He was headed to feed the animals and do some work on his farm. There were language barriers and I wasn’t sure if he had forgotten our meeting or what. However, everything seems to work out better than I could have guessed. He showed me all the parts of his farm (which jutted out over the sparkling blue sea!). We picked some plants along the walk and I harvested a sack full of wild oregano for the restaurant. Life is about the moments – not the days and there are few moments as beautiful as picking oregano and thyme while gazing out at the blue sea, with the wind in my hair.
Elias didn’t have time to show me many more plants, so I offered to help him work. This took him by surprise, but we were soon hard at work- digging and preparing the small fields to plant. After work I was fed a Greek feast by his wife and they refused any money. The next day our work continued: cleaning pig pens and planting tomatoes. After a hard morning work his wife made a picnic lunch for me (two homemade cheeses, local bread, cucumber, tomato, and local olives). I ran up the river which ends at the sea next to their hotel and dunked my sweaty body in the cool water. I ate every bite of the delicious food and fell asleep in the shade next to a rushing river. Upon waking I swam again in the cool water and frolicked naked up the valley. In the evening I worked again with Elias. As the sun set majestically over the sea we looked back on our work and enjoyed Elias’s homemade wine. Life couldn’t get any better!
I spent a few days with Elias and his wife Thea – working, running up the river, and feeling the calming powers of the sea. When I went to leave they would not accept a cent for the hotel room or all the huge meals they had fed me. At this time I became convinced of the Greek hospitality which everyone speaks of. People like Thea, Uncle Yiannis, and the other locals who I met during this week showed me what Greece has to teach me. They told me stories of the time they spent in America and how they couldn’t stand the life there. They hated having to compete with their neighbors over houses and cars, they missed the relaxed Greek life with less pressure to constantly work, and they longed for a community like the one which exists here in Ikaria. They may not farm much anymore – but they all still make their own wine, oil, and often cheese. Nearly everyone has a vegetable garden. They know which wild plants can be eaten and many save the ancient seeds from their garden – which are adapted to the harsh, sea conditions. It is very different from the agrarian lives of Peru or Ethiopia, but has a lot to teach me nonetheless.
To my surprise, I found out there was an NGO which had a seed bank on the island. My Greek friend helped me to call them and for the first time I was refused a visit to a seed project. The guy who runs the seed bank accused me of working for Monsanto and coming to the island to steal their seeds – he wouldn’t let me explain myself and hung up the phone suddenly. Ahhh, the extremes of Greece! People are either incredibly kind or truly rude (not even acknowledging you when you say hello or ask them a question). I decided to be persistent and after many calls made an appointment to meet with some of the regular staff without the boss knowing. To be honest, my favorite part of the visit was my walk through the rural mountain villages to get to the seed bank. It was the first time I was disappointed by a seed saving project this year. They had collected many old varieties from Ikaria and other neighboring islands. They had hundreds of samples neatly organized in a fridge. However, the fridge had been broken for many months. The room was hot and nobody was allowed to enter the fridge which had two padlocks on it. Very few of the seeds were being grown out and the staff told me it was not their intention to give out the seeds. Families called to ask for some seeds and they were told no. For some reason, the boss had a real fear of who got the seeds and what was done with them. Samples were sent to the national Gene bank, but these seeds sat here to rot.
The seed bank was one small part of their NGO which does great work on environmental research, protection of the sea, etc. The staff explained that while working on environmental issues here they saw the importance of protecting local seed and recognized the huge loss of agricultural diversity in Ikaria. In a valiant effort they traveled and talked with many old people to collect their seeds. Unfortunately little has been done since then. They do not want to make a community seed bank or enlist the help of small farmers and gardeners to grow the seeds. It was a strange visit and showed me a bit about how I don’t want to run my future project (as an all controlling boss filled with knowledge and passion that are trumped by fear).
I left Ikaria sad to say goodbye to Elias, Thea, the magical river, and quiet mountain villages. I had the cheap seat on my ferry back to Athens and found myself surrounded by immigrants from Africa, Turkey, and Palestine. They had snuck into Greece from Turkey and reached an island where this ferry began. For hours they told me their sad stories as they made their way from their homeland to some promise of a better life in Europe. We discussed the state of seeds and farming in their villages and laughed together at the strange antics of Greeks. If there is one skill I have honed this year it is the ability to listen. I have learned that each person we meet on this earth has a great deal to teach us – whether it be a professor, a chemical salesmen, or an illiterate farmer. I was amazed by how much hope this group of immigrants had. Most of them had no money, knew no one in Greece, but were filled with joy and excitement because they had arrived.
One Palestinian man told me about the death of his entire family in the war (mom, dad, two brothers, and nephew). He had been travelling with no money for two months and had been beaten and starving. When the boat pulled into Athens he hugged me deeply, tears filling his eyes. Before this embrace, I was secluded in my own emotions. The port we were entering was the same one in which my family had left 100 years ago. Thinking of their difficult journey to America filled my eyes with tears and joy. Like these immigrants – they faced war and hunger in their homeland. They gave up their entire life to board a boat for an unknown land because of its promise of freedom and possibilities. Our world has changed a great deal since then, but a new batch of immigrants now emerges with the similar emotions and dreams of a better life. We have “developed” some countries like Greece, but left many others to be abused and dominated. I felt helpless as this Palestinian man told me of his plight from his home and smiled from ear to ear now that he had “made it”. This was the” first day of his new life”, the” first day of a better life”, and he said that he couldn’t be happier. Nonetheless, he was entering Athens with no money, no food, no contacts, and no prospects. He was convinced he would make a good life for him and his future family. I couldn’t bear to tell him how hard it is for immigrants in Athens now – so I gave him the money I could and wished him all the good luck in the world. He refused the money at first saying we were friends and I have helped him enough. Sadly, I could hear the deep rumble in his stomach as he finally took the money and promised he would use it for food. We parted ways and my Italian friend met me at the port. I was forced to accept again my privileged white life.
The next week I spent working on an organic farm with my friend Francesca. Francesca and I first met while weeding rice fields together in India and we now found ourselves happily weeding onion fields in drastically different surroundings. Francesca had come to visit me in Greece for a week and wouldn’t come unless we could work on an organic farm. After some failed attempts at contacting farmers in Greece we got in touch with Dimitri- our kind host. We found Dimitri through WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). WWOOF is a network which is now found in dozens of countries worldwide. People like us pay a small amount to join. You are then provided a list of all the organic farmers in the country you desire, with a description of the farm and the requirements of volunteers. It is an excellent way for farmers to find free labor and willing workers to travel free and experience a country in a different way.
Dimitri’s farm was more a garden than a farm. It was smaller than expected and this time of year there is less work to be done as the prime crop is olives. Nonetheless, we did all the work we could (weeding, mounding potatoes, watering, etc.) and settled into the slow pace of Greek life. Dimitri lives in Antirio, a small town just across the bridge from the Peloponnese. When not working we found ourselves relaxing at the local café on the sea. Each day Dimitri’s mom prepared true Greek feasts for us. She taught us how to make spanikopita (spinach pie) from scratch. I have never seen somebody roll out dough with such skill and grace as her. I practiced my Greek with her and tried to make her laugh by butchering as many words as possible. Francesca struggled with such a slow paced life – but I found that after 11 months I can adjust to anything and am used to spending ample time just loitering and enjoying the company of other humans. In a typical day we spent four hours working, chased the chickens around for a while, drank ouzo (Greek Liquor) by the sea, and listened to Dmitri’s many stories. Dimitri fed us, housed us, woke us up with coffee and fruit, showed us the local sites, and treated us to everything you could imagine. Not a bad exchange for a few hours of weeding and some information about seeds.
Dimitri was very excited to show me his seed collection. He has been saving seed the past few years and has gotten some unique varieties from Peliti (the Greek seed exchange network). He gave me tomato seeds from the island of Santorini that grow with practically no water. I love to see the joy on people’s faces as they open their box of seeds and tell me the stories and information behind each variety. There is something magical about seeds, which excites many of us when we hold them. Perhaps it is simply their beautiful shapes and colors or their promise of future security and tasty food. No matter what, it is undeniable that so many people like Dimitri are hooked on seeds after they are given their first local variety or they save their first seeds from a plant they grow.
Also, the Greeks in Dimitri’s village were incredibly kind. Children greeted us with screams and mispronounced English words. Old women gave us sweets or a snack and one man even prepared a whole bag for us as a going away present. He ran the pharmacy next to one garden we worked in and on our last day selected everything he had in his store which would be useful for each of us (from toothpaste to sun block and work gloves). After feeling frustrated by the hard exterior of many Greeks I am blown away by the incredible kindness of strangers once again. This entire year I have been given gifts of every shape and size. People with much less money than me have treated me to trains, meals, and everything you could imagine. Strangers have fed me, housed me, taught me, and shown me what it means to be a decent human. All year I have travelled without an exact plan. I have remained extremely flexible and opened myself to what the world has to teach me. With genuine intentions and an ability to listen, help in any way, or sleep on floors I have seen the beauty of humanity. We do not need to be rich, but we need to treat others with respect, help them when they need it, and give more than we receive! The extreme hospitality and kindness I experienced in India continues 11 months later in Greece.
When I left Dimitris' I entered the unknown again with no confirmed plan for the rest of my time in Greece. My first goal was to make it to the village where my ancestors were from. A relative of mine had given me the name of the village and so I boarded a bus to the closest city. Megalopolis is not impressive, to say the least. Two power plants line the town, constantly pumping out smoke. Except from the central square filled with old men sipping coffee, the town has a very industrial feel to it. Every hotel told me they were filled with workers for the power plant; finally I had one which could offer me a room. After a good old Greek Souvlaki I struggled to sleep – thinking of what might happen the next day as I entered the village of my ancestors.
It is hard to explain why I came to Greece and feel so drawn to see this history. My dad has told me I have no direct relatives left in the village, just some people with the same last name, and some distant relatives in Athens. After a whole year of studying other people’s cultures, history, and heritage I felt a deep desire to find mine. I yearned to discover some roots I have or connection to an agrarian past. I am a modern American and have no historical connection to a place or culture. For years I have struggled with not having a “home” or roots. I often found myself jealous of the Indian villagers with such a connection to a place with all their family. I grew up in central New Jersey and after finishing high school both my parents moved away and remarried. After high school I travelled to Nepal and Tibet, lived in North Dakota, worked on a farm in NJ, and then settled at The Claremont Colleges in California. I even spent a summer working on community gardens in NYC. My friends are in California and my family is spread out along the East Coast. Basically, I am a transient, unrooted young man – like so many Americans. I felt the need to come to Greece and after many sleepless hours convinced myself that no matter what happened the next day I was glad I came.
I woke up early and followed my local map to find the road to my ancestor’s village. What appeared on the map as an unpaved country road was now a bustling highway filled with traffic headed to the sea. After getting honked at by crazy Greek drivers in the blazing sun I found an old railroad track which seemed to head the right way. Two hours later I emerged on the small road which went to Elinitsa (my great grandparents’ hometown). Men working in the fields would stop to stare as I passed and asked where I was going. My broken Greek could not explain that I hoped to find my roots and some connection to an agricultural past. The area, Arcadia, is filled with rolling hills, olive trees, and a plethora of birds. Arcadia is written about in many myths and stories as an idyllic, rolling forest where Pan played his flute, frolicked in the hills, and seduced women. Unfortunately, there were bad wildfires two years ago and much of the area is still burnt. It still has a calm, magical feel.
As I strolled into the village before ours I was stopped by an old man and woman on a bench in the square. They beckoned me to come sit down, immediately handing me mint leaves and a beautiful red flower to smell. I explained to them why I was here. They were both very excited and the woman kept telling me she loved me. I couldn’t understand a word of her twenty minute rant about my family’s history except that they ran a food store in a village, and that she loved me and enjoyed pinching my face (more enjoyable than expected). I was anxious to continue but the old man wouldn’t let me walk alone. He got his car and along the way we picked up a Greek American man in the village because he spoke English. I was immediately shocked by this man as he shoved three business cards in my face (for various fast food ventures) and asked me how rich my family was in the states. I quickly found out that everything he promotes in life is directly opposite what I stand for. In a ten minute drive to the village I learned about his 5 cars, his new fast food chains, and his hookers in Vegas. He asked me what I do for a job. I explained my research and told him when I get back I will be an organic farmer. The man then translated to the old man that I was very rich and my father controlled the organic food industry in the US. I am not sure how he possibly made this up and have become convinced the man is fully insane. Nonetheless, he helped explain to people in the village who I was.
Upon arriving in the village, Elinitsa or Mami, where my family is from we were greeted by a gruff man with the same last name as my Uncle in New York. He pointed to the other part of the village and said that’s where my relatives were from. A small crowd formed as we walked to the house where my great grandfather would have lived. Other villagers greeted me and told me about how smart and successful my family was with their food store and other businesses. They told me they were great farmers and knew how to make money. One man showed me the Ellis Island card for his father in 1904 as this was the same time my family went. My father had told me that many people left the village for Athens and America, but I had no idea it was this bad. In the early 20th century and after World War two there were large mass migrations to America. At these times wars raged in Greece and there was promise of work and the industrial revolution in America. During and after the Second World War, the USA funded development of industry in Athens. This was designed to cut off the supply to the communist forces and push Greece away from communism into democracy and capitalism, as it was a crucial area in the Balkans. This led to the abandonment of many villages. Additionally, the young people have continuously left the village for work in Athens. I found out that only 15 people live in the village now. Some have the same last name of my family, but the large majority is old and cannot even leave their homes. A few people have moved back to start farms or just to retire.
It was moving for me to see the house where my great grandfather would have lived (it is now a decrepit stone building, falling apart). On my families property there is still a standing stone house covered in grape vines. The man who owns it, a distant relative of mine, now lives in Athens and only comes in the summer. Some people have started a garden around the empty house. However, the property is surrounded by abandoned fields. I was led to an old water mill, which was amazing to see. My crazy Greek-American partner, Soitiro, translated some stories for me about how this area used to be covered in wheat, olive trees, and grapes. One old man told me how great the festivals were here when the grapes were harvested; wine was drunk all night with local bread and goat meat. They complained to me about how they cannot get good bread anymore and no one wants to farm here. I continuously asked Soitiro if they had any old seeds from this area but he did not get why I wanted them. He would just ignore me and try to talk about his plans to open “In and Out Burger chains” in Greece. On one hand I felt amazed and moved to see the house where my ancestors lived, their old farm fields and water mills, and the square where they danced the night away. However, while drinking coffee with the old women I realized finally that I did not have to search in some distant land for my roots.
I laughed to myself as I finally accepted that I am an American, from New Jersey. The people here may have the last name as my grandma and they were kind as they served me coffee and water. But, I have no relatives here and after a few minutes the crowd lost interest in me and went back to their chairs. I was left with a crazy fast food man and a kind old man who wanted me to bring him a beautiful 25 year old girl from America. It was then that I realized how happy I am with my modern existence. I may not have a hometown or an epic story to tell about my history. However, I have a mother, father, and sister who love me deeply. I have an extended family with all kinds of in-laws or step-parents and wonderful friends all over the world. I am happy I came here, if only because it satisfied my desire that I need to find my roots. Instead I now know that my home lies with my family in America. It does not matter that my relatives in the states weren’t farmers. What matters in that they love me and my heart truly lies in crazy America and good old dirty Jersey!
If anything, the Greeks in this village were much less kind and welcoming than nearly all people I’ve encountered this year. People from drastically different backgrounds than me have continuously accepted me into their homes, called me brother, trusted me with their seeds and children, and given me all the love I could I ever hope for. It took me years and many hours flying to accept that I am a modern American man with a love for the soil, music, family, and friends. I do not have to search anymore as I know that my roots and my inspiration can be found anywhere. I can learn a great deal from the Indian villagers or Ethiopian farmers, but will always return to my homeland, filled with its crazy politics, offensive media, and eccentric people. We often search for the things farthest from us, while ignoring the beauty right under our nose. It has taken me travelling around the world to truly appreciate all that lies ahead for me at home. For once, I am proud to be an American!
After meditating for a few minutes on the old foundation of my family’s house I was beckoned to leave. I exchanged numbers with the villagers and got back in the car with my new guides. They took me to a spring in the forest where all the villagers come in the summer to picnic, drink wine, etc. We then went to Soitiros' farm; he was very excited to show me all he had planted over the last week. He was working a lot outside so he could lose his gut and attract young women again. Soitiro had no interest in traditional seeds and blatantly ignored my question each time I asked. He bragged about how good the chemical fertilizers were and I was dumbfounded about why he wouldn’t even answer me regarding seeds until I realized he just ignored my comments all together. I told him I really love to eat hippopotamus and he responded by saying that he has a beautiful daughter who I could meet if I want and if I am rich enough (maybe she likes to eat hippopotamus?).
That night I returned to my power-plant surrounded hotel room in Megalopis because I had already paid for it. George, the old man from the bench, really wanted me to stay with him so they would come the next morning to pick me up. After waiting for hours, they finally came at midday and we began our adventure. First, we went to an old friend’s house who played clarina (traditional Greek music with clarinet) and who supposedly could get any woman in Megalopi. He was a stylish older man who still lived with his very old parents. While his mom prepared us bread and coffee he serenaded us with Clarina and George led me through the house in a traditional Greek dance. The rest of the day was filled with wine, visits to friends, plenty of Clarina music, talk of the old days in Greece, plans about how to get rich, and plenty of souvlaki and cigarettes (like true Greek men).
I woke the next day in the village, gazing towards my ancestor’s house and listening to the sounds of chickens and old women sweeping. I had no idea what to expect for the day, but George soon served me coffee and explained to me that we would go to visit his cousin. Yesterday, George had heard my request for old seeds and he now presented me with two types of beans from his father. His family had grown these beans for generations in this area and a tear filled his eyes and he urged me to plant a few in his garden and bring the rest to America. He told me that he had never made it to America, but his families seeds would (another magical moment).
The entire journey to his cousins house we blasted traditional Greek music, clapped and sung together (I simply made strange, deep sounds with my mouth and pretended to know the words). His relatives lived in another nearly abandoned village. Nonetheless, they had an incredible view of the rolling hills and sea below. We drank wine for hours and feasted on what they had cooked for us over the fire (mostly all from their farm). After eating, the old woman forced me to take a nap with the other men. She gently tucked me in and patted my forehead, reminding me how much I missed my beautiful mother. The snores of the other men truly frightened me and I struggled to sleep. Upon waking they gave me some seeds and bid me farewell, promising we would never forget each other. For the next four days I packed up my bag each morning, preparing to leave, but ended up staying another night with George. For two days I went on adventures with my crazy friends as they encouraged me to try to lure young women to them, showed me the sea with the most beautiful girls, and fed me the best souvlaki around. After each excursion I returned to the square in the village and chatted with old women as they pinched me and continued to tell me stories I couldn’t understand. They competed over who would feed me and some days I ate three dinners because I couldn't bare to tell one of the ladies I had already eaten.
At night I would hang out at the café in the square and try to talk farming with everyone who came out for a coffee or wine. The first night, everyone told me they didn’t have seeds and had no interest in speaking with me. However, after I stuck around for awhile and they saw how excited I was to learn my family’s history and help them in their gardens, their hard exteriors began to fade. By the third day, old women were waiting for me on the road to secretly hand me their old seeds. As I ate lunch in their house, they would prepare bags or wild oregano, chamomile, various unknown spices, vegetable seeds, and a piece of pie for the morning. My days were filled with extremes, vacillating between missions to find prostitutes for the old men (something I was forced into) and amazing meals with the village women as they filed my stomach and pockets with their stories and food.
One day, I finally broke away from my companions and walked alone back to the house where my ancestors were from. I stopped along the way to drink coke, coffee, and lemonade with various villagers. In the square I encountered a younger man and explained why I was there. He told me he had heard about me and explained that he was a retired police officer, with the same last name as my great uncle. Instead of welcoming me with open arms, he grilled me about what my father did, where I came from, what my intentions were, etc. Finally, he accepted that I was not lying and showed me into the villages’ museum. It was very exciting to see a wall covered with photos and drawings of many of my ancient relatives. I was most enthralled by the old agricultural tools, and images of what life was like here before the mass migrations. The visit to the museum truly capped my time here as it allowed me to learn about the history of my family and accept my current existence and passions which shaped my life more than the name of my great grandfather.
After a week I finally decided to leave George’s house and continue onwards. I was sad to leave the rolling hills and the kind old women, but happy to break free from the pressure of the fat, souvlaki-eating, chain-smoking, horny Greek men. I had heard about a beautiful mountainous area nearby, so I decided to head there. Luckily, I just barely made both buses and ended up in Dimitsana. With a small backpack and an excitement to be alone again I hit the trail, following signs for the river. After about an hour of frolicking joyously down the valley, I heard somebody yelling in English for me to join them for coffee. I had stumbled upon another Greek man who had been America for years and now returned to his home village. I gobbled down coffee, goat meat, various cheeses and breads, two types of Greek liquor, and two local sweets. I then hit the mountainous trail again, embracing the ironies of my Greek adventure as my stomach rumbled in confusion. As the sun was setting a German man honked his car from the road and asked me if I was headed to the monastery. I had no idea there was a monastery, but told him yes anyway. He gave me a ride to the end of the road. I was blown away by this ancient monastery built into the rocky hills. Before entering the impressive structure I wondered through the gardens and then stumbled into a cave. To my surprise the cave was filled with praying monks. One monk stood up and strictly scolded me. All I understood was, “Never enter the cave, Never!” (another lesson learned in Greece).
For the next days I hiked up and down the river trail, entering every ancient monastery I could find, bathing in the river when I got hot. The Greeks I passed or monks I met asked me where I was going and where I would sleep that night. When I answered I don’t know in Greek, they were taken aback and asked at least another 5 times, thinking that I didn’t understand the question (when someone doesn’t understand our language we often yelling – thinking this will help). The truth was that I had no idea. For two days I slept under the stars in between the trail and the river. I hid myself from passing people, fell asleep to the sound of monks praying, and woke to the loud gong at 5 am. It was a time for thinking and enjoying being alone. When I got lonely or tired I simply took out the bag of seeds and fondled each one gently, remembering the old woman who had slipped them into my pocket and dreaming of all those who had grown this variety and cooked it.
On my walk back to the town it started pouring rain. I had left all my rain gear or warm clothes in the city. Scampering from tree to tree I tried to stay as warm as possible. After hours of shivering and yelling at myself for leaving behind my jacket I emerged on the road and found a warm tavern to eat some fresh goat meat and wine. With a contented stomach and wet clothes I boarded the bus to Athens.
My next few days were spent exploring Athens. I felt that I could not leave Greece without seeing Athens and its famous historical sites. On my first day, I found myself putting off the Acropolis to chat with recent immigrants from Nigeria and explore the neighborhoods for the meat market, fruit and vegetable market, and smaller weekly farmers market. The first thing I noticed is that the markets were much cleaner and better organized than those in Peru. They lacked the friendly old women with every color of potato imaginable, but still featured some smiling farmers and a beautiful display of fresh food. The choices are less exotic and resemble much of what we grow and sell in the states. The unique things were the many types of “wild greens” sold, aromatic plants, unique eggplants, plethora of seafood, and strange pieces of animals. I found one farmer who was excited to share information on growing biologically and told me about the seeds he saves and how much better they grow than the hybrids he used to buy. However, most sellers were not interested in speaking with me.
The Acropolis, National Museum, Ancient Agora (market) and other sites were impressive. I was awed by the massive architectural undertakings, long history of “civilization” or democracy here, and complex system of mythical gods. I also searched out any information on agricultural history and found a man in the museum who showed me the importance of wheat and barley to Ancient Greece (some say they have been grown here for 8,000 years!). In many sculptures, Demeter (the mythical god of wheat and agriculture) is depicted handing a piece of wheat to the other gods. Other sculptures depicted women grinding flour or kneading bread. I loved seeing the plethora of ancient art and learning how important music and dance has also been to Greece for thousands of years. The sites were not as pristine and powerful as Macchu Pichu, but still emotionally moving and beautiful. After three days in the bustling city I boarded a night train to the North. Once again, I was headed to the unknown, returning to the world of seeds. I was to be met on the other side by the head of Peliti, the most important NGO for the collection, preservation, and dissemination of local Greek varieties.
George found these old beans seeds for me in his basement from his father. He cried upon giving them to me, asking that I plant a few in his garden and bring the rest to America. George was never able to make it to America, but insisted that his beans do,
A truly wonderful man (although lonely and strange) who showed me again the kindness of strangers!
I have been in Greece over two weeks already. Peru seems like a distant land and my mind is still slowly adjusting to another new culture and way of life. As I sit to write I look out over a perfectly still blue sea. Bells ring quietly in the lush hills surrounding me as goats move about gingerly to find their favorite food. A hen moans loudly as she lays her egg and two cars crawl up the dirt road.
My first few days here I was utterly amazed by the beauty. I frantically picked wild oregano and thyme, bought some old men in the village a beer and tried to ask them about their farms, rubbed myself in potent wild lavender, and frolicked through colorful hills. Despite all this, there was something nagging at my soul, pulling my emotions into confusion or depression. I was walking down the hill, staring at the sparkling sea when the wave of confusion first struck. I felt so happy - the sun of my face, gazing out into infinity, the music from my recently acquired iPod sung in my ear. However, soon after feeling this great joy I found myself lying on the ground- curled in a fetal position, crying and frantically running my hand through my hair. Dark images of this past year began flashing in my head.
I remembered teaching a group of children in India with distended bellies how to give a high five. I remembered crying with women who told me about their son’s death or hugging an orphaned boy as he showed me photos of his mom. I can still feel the desperation from the group of Ethiopians as they ask me what America can do to help them. For days after this strange crying session in the gravel road I struggled with my white guilt. My dreams were filled with memories of hungry children and oppressed communities. My heart felt so heavy that even wine and Greek dancing did not bring a smile! I couldn’t stop asking why. Why are some so wealthy while others struggle to survive? Why are the dark skinned people of this world
continuously abused and oppressed? Why are we as white men given so much freedom and power? How can I spend a Peruvian mans salary for a month on one meal here?
These questions gnawed at my insides day and night. Repressed memories from this year and before wouldn’t leave me alone The calm sea outside my window reminded me of the still ocean I dipped my feet into only hours after the Tsunami ravaged entire villages and families (four years ago in Thailand). I couldn’t eat the food on my plate without thinking of all those kind souls I met who will go to bed hungry tonight. I felt angry at myself and the wealthy Greeks around me. Instead of enjoying the gorgeous hills I was deeply saddened by the abandoned farmland which people in Peru or Ethiopia could use to survive. Despite all this, the wave of emotions receded almost as quickly as it began. I was asked to show some pictures to a group of people here. As I scrolled through the thousands of images, my mind became clear and I realized again what this year has really taught me. I remembered the Ethiopian children with no possessions in the world as we laughed and skipped through dry, rocky fields. I yearned to spend another cold night surrounded by 12 Peruvian children after a great meal of potato soup. I couldn’t help but smile thinking of all the proud farmers with their seeds- especially the old woman in the Himalayas who had never met a white person before. She fed me until I was sick and filled my pockets with seeds, chasing after me to give me one last variety of holy barley she had forgotten. I was reminded of the young Ethiopian couple with over 42 varieties stored safely in their house: including sorghum called “The one which saved grandma” and a teff variety that made the other women cry out in jealously after they tasted it. I remembered the meetings in the Andes about the importance of protecting native potatoes and the excitement in children’s eyes as they told me about each new potato variety we unearthed.
The white guilt faded as I realized that not one farmer this year has regarded me with contempt or anger. The traditional farmers and seed savers have opened their hearts and homes for me. Countless families have sacrificed their best food stores to prepare a feast for my arrival. I have participated in coffee ceremonies, goat slaughters, rice harvests, farmer field schools, organizing meetings, dances for native millet, songs for Himalayan mixed crop systems, and much more. I have experienced extreme hospitality in every rural place I’ve been. Dozens of farmers have been excited to give me their seeds and teach me not just about their propagation: but also about their uses, histories, and the importance of sharing. Repeatedly, I’ve seen the power of pride and local sufficiency.
I know now that community is the most important aspect to life. Money, fame, beauty and even health fade but community or a strong social network is what keeps us alive and happy through all the hardships. Some of the best moments of this year have been laughing with old men in languages I don’t understand, visiting neighbors to chat and stare into each other’s eyes, or sharing tea after a hard days work. At first I saw the beauty in these rural villages and couldn’t help but criticize the USA. In America, we have become slaves to our jobs and our material possessions. True health or happiness is sacrificed for our work. We have been programmed to think that we need a huge amount of material goods, and we keep working to acquire these. Many of us get sick from working too much and lose our connection to friends and family. We then work more to pay for our health insurance and forget our loneliness. We become stuck in a vicious trap. It doesn’t have to be like this and for many it’s not!
What I meant to say when I started this whole rant is that the kindness of farmers, their innovativeness, and passion for healthy, happy life overrides any white guilt I was struggling with. Guilt is a worthless emotion which helps no one. Instead of wallowing in sorrow or confusion I must seize the day and life in a way that benefits the earth. I was born a privileged, white boy from New Jersey. I can’t deny this. But, I can use my privilege to help those around me. All the people I have encountered this year who live in the most challenging situations do not sit and complain, sinking into misery or jealousy. They figure out a way to work together to improve their community.
I will forever remember a talk I had with Umendragi after ten days of visiting farms in Punjab. He told me that he was confident their natural farming movement would spread across the whole state and they would win. He was sure the Multi-National Companies would leave Punjab and they would restore health and pride to the people here. After all I had seen I could not believe these ridiculous statements. There was a train each day that took hundreds of cancer victims from one village to the hospital. I saw massive fish kills and stayed with various orphans or widows. Advertisements for fertilizers, pesticides, new seeds, and tractors were everywhere. Farmers took loans they could never pay and sprayed chemicals which we ban in America. I asked Umendra how he could be so confident. He laughed and told he had no choice. He instructed me to close my eyes and envision a happy, ecological, and spiritual life returned to my homeland. Umendra asked me to envision the world I desired (filed with equality, diversity, healthy people, good food, strong communities, and dance parties). He then showed me that I had no choice but to fight for that and believe I will succeed. It is important to put things into perspective, but to also have an undying passion and hope in what we are doing. This is what kept Gandhi going and this is what keeps Umendra going. Umendra knows that many say it is not realistic to teach natural farming in Punjab. However, he takes joy from each smile he helps to create, and feels inspired by each new member or successful meeting.
I left this conversation feeling that Umendra was too radical and idealistic. Since then, I have seen enough to convince me he is right. There are enough of us questioning the system of oppression, environmental destruction, and unfulfilled lives. We may not have all the answer yet, but we will prevail. It is not a fight against something, but a movement for a positive future. As long as enough people are asking similar questions and deciding to work together for a better life, there is hope and infinite possibilities. Statistically, in Punjab and much of the world things couldn’t get much bleaker. When you remember the statistics, but focus on learning from all the inspiring people of this world – your attitude can change drastically. I find hope in the farmer field schools in Thailand, Potato Parks in Peru, Slow Food Presidia, and Sustainable Developments in Ethiopia, village led seed banks, and endless festivals. Around the world people are asking why we must follow this one path of development. Why must we live the way in which the elites and corporations dictate? I have seen in 8 countries that there is more which unites us than divides us. We all value family, health, friends, rewarding work, and celebration. We all want a good life for us and our families. Movements are taking hold in nearly every country to restore culture, put local ownership and control back in people’s hands, value good food, and live a life connected to the ecology around us.
I hear Umendras' voice in my head and I know he is right. For much of this year I have lived with people who have no material possessions, but are rich in social capital. They always have friends and family who will lend a hand, share what food they have, exchange the best seeds, prepare a warm drink, and make each other laugh in times of need. I have seen that our movement may not have to money or power to fix all the villages that desperately need help. However, we have the social capital. We have people from all walks of life who are willing to question the system and give everything they have to improve our lives. Seeds are food. Healthy, affordable food is a right and a necessity for every human on this planet. Working together we can make our dreams a reality. I have seen enough smiling faces, dark seed banks, colorful dances, and passionate meetings to know that we will win!