In Soil and Spirit, poet, farmer, and educator Scott Chaskey generously reflects on the natural world, his travels visiting growers around the country, and his insight into how we can build healthier communities while tending to the earth.
One of the earth’s ways of seeing surfaces as color on this plateau in New Mexico. Luminous, earthy shades of red and gold adorn both people and plants here near the pueblo of Santa Clara (K’hapoo, constructed in the fourteenth century by traveling bands of Anasazi): where the wild roses grow near the water. In this kind of country, in the words of author and journalist Tony Hillerman, “the mountains affect the climate of the valleys, and the climate of the soul.” And here in Española the sky is dominant. Air at this height has lost a quarter of its weight—it is low in oxygen and carbon dioxide, high in hydrogen. The light is not easily diffused.
It is early evening, late September, still warm in Española, and my wife, Megan, and I have arrived at a small public park, at seven thousand feet, a place bathed in a crisp light. We are here at the invitation of Tewa Women United (TWU), an organization of Indigenous women from the northern New Mexico pueblos, united “mind, heart, and in the spirit of love for all” (wi don gi mu) for over thirty years. Tewa is a Kiowa-Tanoan language group spoken by Pueblo people mostly living in the valleys of the northern Rio Grande. In the words of TWU: “As Pueblo/ Tewa women our source of strength has always been our connection to land, spirituality, and culture.” Their mission and their work is embodied in the Tewa concept of wo’ watsi, to walk the middle path of balance and serenity.
We join the others, a diverse group of people aged five to seventy-five, and we climb stone steps laid into a terraced hillside, from the playing fields below toward the garden planted above. Several years ago, an eroded gravel slope was transformed and renamed the Española Healing Foods Oasis, and now the garden is maintained using traditional dryland farming techniques. There is calm in the short walk we take together, mostly in silence, each focused on the purpose of the evening: to harvest the seeds of amaranth plants.
Several visitors from Guatemala lead us to the garden, and they imbue the harvest with a festive spirit. The bright colors of their dress match the brilliance of the tall grain in the garden: ripe brushes of crimson, carmine, primrose, honey, and ocher against the blue dome that envelops Española. These villagers from Guatemala arrived here for a short stay in May to plant the seeds with the Tewa women community, and harvest time has come. Now they have returned to instruct and to share a ritual activity practiced by the Indigenous people of Mesoamerica for centuries.
When we reach the higher ground of the garden, we surround the ripened plants—or rather, they surround us—some specimens over six feet in height, stalks leaning and falling into one another, held upright in the reddish soil of Española by mutual consent. Juana’s Orange, Amaranthus cruentus, named after a seed saved by Juana Xitumul and Elena’s Red, saved by Marcela, a Maya Kaqchikel elder, the seed hidden in her home during the long civil war that tore Guatemala apart from 1960 to 1996.
The genus Amaranthus, cultivated for over eight thousand years, which includes more than sixty species, is technically neither a grass nor a classic cereal grain; botanically it is different from the classic cereals—such as wheat and rice—so it is classified as a pseudocereal (as are quinoa and buckwheat). It is well-balanced in amino acids, free of gluten, extremely high in protein (the seeds contain 14 to 16 percent protein content), high in fiber, high in lysine, with generous doses of calcium, magnesium, carotenoids, and twice the iron of wheat. As a cultivar, amaranth is included in the family Amaranthaceae, a classification that now includes the previously separate Chenopodiaceae. The relationship is most obvious in the leaves of spinach, beets, and Swiss chard. The triangular, almost heart-shaped leaves of amaranth, often an attractive pattern of greens and reds, are used as a food source in many cultures. Now cultivated throughout the world—in India, China, Africa, and the South Pacific islands—and able to be grown at high elevations, amaranth may have originated in the highlands of Mesoamerica, the cordilleras. The Russian plant explorer Nikolai Vavilov labeled this region as one of the centers of origin. Each of the centers, located throughout the world, is now respected as a mother place of food biodiversity. This matters in an era defined by the loss of biodiversity; places of origin hold keys that may assist to feed growing populations. Amaranth almost disappeared as a crop widely grown, until research conducted in the 1970s by the Rodale Institute in Pennsylvania inspired a revival of interest and cultivation. The Amaranth Institute, based in Missouri, is dedicated to the preservation of the once-diverse gene pool of this highly nutritious grain.
“Seeds are a place and a product and a memory; they offer us a collective inheritance in the form of a tiny and simple time capsule.”
Though the seed of this attractive, valuable plant is tiny—the size of the eye of a needle—each plant can produce as many as a hundred thousand seeds! As an organic farmer for many years, I am painfully aware of this production. Each growing year I have wrestled with a cousin of Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus retroflexus, affectionately known as redroot pigweed, and considered to be among the world’s worst weeds. Sometimes known as one of the weeds of fertility, once this fast-growing plant discovers your fertile field, it is very difficult to control. It adores the. heat and, left untended, it can grow to the size of a small tree in a month. And if one plant is allowed to mature and shatter? Those one hundred thousand seeds can live in the soil, undisturbed, for forty years. In a food plant, of course, this is a quality worthy of praise.
The name amaranth derives from a Greek word meaning “never-fading,” “one that does not wither.” In Mesoamerica, it was named huautli, “the smallest giver of life.” It is at home in Nepal as well as the mountains of Guatemala, and once the plant is established, it requires very little moisture. Amaranthus is a resilient plant, and that quality has ensured its survival against significant odds. The Aztecs, who revered this cultivar as an invaluable food source, made statuesque figures out of a mixture of seeds and honey. Fearful of pagan ritual, and to punish the Indigenous people’s reverence, the Spanish conquistadores in their madness burned the crop fields and banned the production of this staple of life (this despite the fact that the conquistadores’ horses, starving after the long voyage, chose the abundant seeds of amaranth to feed on). Centuries later, this wasteful, brutal tactic was revived during the three decades of civil war.
Before she founded the Albuquerque nonprofit Garden’s Edge in 2007, Sarah Montgomery journeyed to the Baja Verapaz department in Guatemala in 2002: to Rabinal, a town in the Sierra Chuacas mountains, to begin a garden project with war widows. An edge is defined as the crest of a ridge, a critical position, a meeting line of two surfaces—a place where tension is palpable. A step, a shift in time or inclination can lead to a precipice, or to a renewal. Sarah was there to assist the local Indigenous villagers, the Maya Achi, to plant the native crops that fed their ancestors—heritage corn, beans, squash, macuy, chipilín, and amaranth—and although she found it difficult to establish trust, it was listening to seed stories and honoring heritage seeds that connected Sarah with the Maya. In words spoken by an Indigenous leader from the northern territory of the Haudenosaunee, Oren Lyons, faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga: The seed “is the law of life. It is the law of regeneration.”
Sarah’s goal was to foster food sovereignty in a people and a country that had endured unspeakable atrocity for decades. Finding a source for seeds and saving seeds became the heart of her work, and is now the work of the Qachuu Aloom Mother Earth Association—a Mayarun organization. Sarah writes: “Seeds are a place and a product and a memory; they offer us a collective inheritance in the form of a tiny and simple time capsule.”
Purchase a copy of Soil and Spirit from your local bookshop or order one here.
It is a small miracle—no, a great miracle—that any heritage seeds could be found in Rabinal at the start of the twenty-first century. The Maya as a culture predate the Aztecs, and have survived over five hundred years of colonization. They “have been on the receiving end of a constant offensive against [our] forms of production and social organization, culture and religion,” observes Rigoberto Quemé Chay, a leader of the K’iche’ (meaning “many trees”) group of Mayas. Undoubtedly it is the Mayan cosmovision (the term used by Chay) that has helped to insure the survival of these people. This great civilization, which arose in time with the Christian era, developed ceremonial centers, hieroglyphic writing, astronomy, a calendar, and a recognition of the concept of zero.
The Mayan year is divided into 260 days, representative of the cycle of corn in the earth, and the cycle of a human embryo in the mother’s womb. Chay writes: “Mayas believe that all nature is life: each animal, stone, and river has its own nahual or divine personification.”
In the decades of conflict and upheaval, a few elder villagers found hiding places for what may have been their most valuable resource, placed in jars here and there, sometimes lodged under roof tiles. To begin the process of renewal, Garden’s Edge worked with twelve families and a few handfuls of seeds. The mission was to collect and reintroduce traditional seed varieties, highly adaptive seeds that might revive a local culture once familiar with the farming practices we now label as agroecology. The approach is a proven one, sensible, practiced for centuries—to acknowledge and work in concert with the ecological system one is a part of. Agroecology respects the social ecology of place. It is a theme also at the heart of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
Closer to home for the villagers of Guatemala, the theme cries out in the sacred book of the Maya, the Popol Vuh (The Book of the Dawn of Life), where it is written that to make an enemy of the earth is to make an enemy of one’s own body.
Whereas conventional systems—what dominant cultures have been exporting for decades—lead to a dependence on the use of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides, all costly imports, the approach of Garden’s Edge is to encourage independence and resilience through regenerative agricultural practices. Through Qachuu Aloom, the villagers of the region may realize “the right of peoples, communities, and countries to define their own agricultural, pastoral, labor, fishing, food and land policies” (from the 2002 Rome Forum on Food Sovereignty).
Now over four hundred seed growers are involved in practices that foster biodiversity, instead of those that decrease it, a reversal of the legacy of colonial policy and twentieth-century industrial agriculture. Garden’s Edge has initiated programs to foster seed saving through a local seed bank, to support traditional healing arts, to improve maternal health, and to install a microenterprise system to offer start-up loans. To mitigate the impact of climate change, they have helped villagers to build the first sand dam in Chixolop. Effective in Africa and also in Honduras, a sand dam will capture rainwater, conserve soil, and replenish the aquifer.
Julian Vasquez Chun, a Maya Achi, credits Qachuu Aloom for opening the door to a relearning of ancestral practices, and to creating a way to exchange with other growers. He learned to love plants in his mother’s garden, and he now uses a technique known as campesino a campesino, “farmer to farmer,” to teach other families cultivation skills, but also the less obvious values of working with plants. Through Qachuu Aloom, he has realized a dream: not only to lead in his community, but to inspire other farmers to recognize their collective inheritance. To save a seed is to pass on a story, and also to preserve an ancestral gift, a spiritual connection with mother earth. In the Popol Vuh, the creator is known as Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Earth, and humans were brought into being out of a plant, born of corn.
A few days prior to the gathering in Española, in a small garden beside the Albuquerque Museum, with Megan I joined university students and children, Sarah from Garden’s Edge, and the Maya Achi from Qachuu Aloom to practice the art of saving the seeds of Amaranthus cruentus. The garden was planted to accompany an exhibit titled Seed: Climate Change Resilience. We knelt beside Julian to thresh and winnow the abundant, brilliantly colored amaranth plants. Julian is an amaranth ambassador in a program known as Seed Travels, founded by Garden’s Edge in 2009. But Seed Travels is much more than a program; it is a way of connecting, of allowing an old way of seeing to reemerge. Those who travel together and cultivate the plants extend the work of connecting communities in Guatemala to communities farther north. Amaranthus cruentus, the sacred superfood, has been planted by the Guatemalans in California at the Milagro Allegro Community Garden in Northeast Los Angeles, in Pasadena, in Bishop, and in Venice, with the Seed Library of Los Angeles; and in Arizona at the Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Institute.
Now in Española at the Healing Foods Oasis with families from Santa Clara Pueblo, Rabinal, Albuquerque, and Española, instructed by Rosalia and Maria Elena, we snap the ripe stalks and bundle the brilliant seed heads, as many as we can carry, to transport the harvest to the lawn below. We stack the grain on several tarps and kneel before an age-old mystery: out of the tiniest of seeds placed in a substance ground down from rock over millennia, in a high, dry country, this superfood (millions of seeds) came to maturity on substantial stalks taller than our bodies. As we cup our hands around and over the flame-shaped seed heads, they shatter, and a sea of pink and gold grains flows around our knees. Perhaps we are at a threshold, the place of entrance to a dwelling. The dwelling is the soil we kneel upon as we thresh the grain, our common home; the amaranth is an entrance, our shared harvest.
It is strange, impossible for me to imagine the consciousness— of the conquistadores, or of a ruling faction obsessed with power—so filled with fear of a plant, a people, to be moved to destroy every trace.
When the threshing is completed and the long stalks are removed, Julian teaches a young girl the art of winnowing. She is shy, yet eager to take on an active role in the ceremony, to be in the center. He gathers the seed in a wide bowl, lifts the vessel to shoulder height, and pours it out. A gentle breeze sweeps the chaff from the small seed, carries it away, and the seed kernels by the thousands sift to another waiting bowl. Now it is the child’s chance. She hesitates, unable to raise the bowl to any height; seeds and chaff fall as one, asking to be winnowed once more. Gracefully, and with care, Julian helps her to feed the air with amaranth seeds, and a mound of usable grain builds in the bowl.
More than enough seed to mix with the liquid honey warmed on a portable stove. The grain pops in the pan, and Rosalia swirls the tiny, toasted, puffed seeds with a stream of golden honey to form a pan full of sweet, nutritious amaranth bars. As the sky color turns to rose, we taste and talk. The whole experience is an enactment of what the ethnographer Eugene Anderson names “an ecology of the heart.
Gary Paul Nabhan, ethnobotanist, writer, and farmer, in his book Enduring Seeds: Native American Agriculture and Wild Plant Conservation, a chapter titled “A Spirit Earthly Enough,” speaks of a common thread that weaves together stories of the Pueblo people, the Maya, and the K’iche’: “Their native agricultures continue today because they are persistent cultures, retaining sets of values not found in the modern marketplace.” Theirs is a reciprocal practice—peoples drawn to care for soil and plants and community, campesino a campesino.
It is strange, impossible for me to imagine the consciousness— of the conquistadores, or of a ruling faction obsessed with power—so filled with fear of a plant, a people, to be moved to destroy every trace. I believe and I have said that our culture, our habitation in this time on earth, is in need of transformation. Here it is, expressed in the interdependence of a persistent people and an ancient grain. Here in a plant so colorful, “one that does not wither,” a plant that produces seeds—in a beautiful phrase I recall from the Chandogya Upanishad—“smaller than a grain of rice, or a grain of barley, or a grain of mustard-seed, or a grain of canary-seed, or the kernel of a grain of canary-seed,” a plant that inspires gratitude, ceremony, art, reverence, and, when warmed, wow, it can pop! Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Earth.
This piece is excerpted from Soil and Spirit: Cultivation and Kinship in the Web of Life by Scott Chaskey (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2023). Copyright © 2023 by Scott Chaskey. Reprinted with permission from Milkweed Editions.
Milkweed Editions is one of the nation’s leading independent publishers of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry bringing new voices and perspectives to essential conversations of nature, culture and identity that transform the way readers see and act in the world. This partnership enriches an already long and tightly woven strand of mutual inspiration and shared community between Milkweed and Orion.