Preserving Old Varieties

My local paper, the Darlington New & Press, features a number of editorial writers typical of the kind that get gigs writing human interest pieces for tiny small town papers:  local pastors writing brief devotionals; a guy griping about the things we all gripe about; an astronomer.  They all write in a similar, mildly folksy manner, which I’m sure appeals to the more advanced age of the paper’s readership.

One of their writers, Tom Poland, wrote a fascinating piece last week about rare heirloom vegetables, “Long-lost treasures and heirloom seeds.”  The piece tracks down the Bradford Watermelon, a watermelon variety thought to be extinct, but which survived on the land Nat Bradford inherited from his family.  The watermelon variety dwindled in popularity in spite of its sweet, superior flavor because the rind was too thin to survive bulk shipping.

After years of research into arcane newspaper clippings and agricultural history, Bradford discovered that the melons growing on his ancestral farm are, indeed, the legendary Bradford Watermelons.

To quote Poland quoting Bradford:

In Nat’s words, “The greatest watermelon to have come from the great age of watermelon breeding fell out of cultivation. Lost to the world, the melon lived on in the Bradford family farm fields. The last seeds on the planet of this wonderful melon were in a couple of mason jars.”

What a remarkable legacy—and a fortuitous one.  Heirloom varieties of many plants are enjoying increased interest lately as part of the current homesteading movement, as these varieties are often tastier than their supermarket, genetically-modified alternatives.

I suspect, too, that there is a certain joy in knowing that by planting these forgotten seeds, you are directly contributing to the survival of a variety.  There is a link to the past, and the agricultural experiments of our forebears.

I’ve thought about this idea more lately, as I’ve been growing my own feeble garden.  My dog, Murphy, has also gotten me to consider breeds, varieties, etc.  The bull terrier was bred initially as a fighting dog, but then was re-bred into the distinctive, dinosaur-snouted breed it is today by John Hinks, who sought to turn the creature into a gentleman’s companion.

Outside of massive agribusiness research departments, do people breed, cultivate, and develop varieties and new breeds any more?  I know that Jackie Clay-Atkinson, a regular contributor to Backwoods Home Magazine, started a seed business to help preserve a variety of squash.  But is anyone cultivating new varieties from heirloom seeds?

For that matter, are there new breeds of dogs being raised?  There is the goldendoodle, of course, a mix between golden retrievers and poodles.  I also recently discovered the bullmatian, a Dalmatian-Bulldog mix.  From what I have read, almost all of the established breeds were bred to do some kind of job:  hunt for pests, guard and guide sheep, protect their homes, and the like.  In an age of exterminators, supermarkets, and home security systems, there’s not quite the same need for working dogs as there was even one hundred years ago.

Still, I’m curious:  is anyone out there trying to create the next breed of dog?  Are there any modern Mendel’s cross-pollinating peas?

I suspect there are.  If so, we should celebrate their efforts.  I’m not opposed to genetically-modified organisms, per se—we’ve been genetically-modifying plants and animals since settled living began—but I like knowing there are varieties in existence beyond what imposing industrial farms are making.  Those industrial GMOs have fed millions and produce massive yields, but they are also highly dependent upon a cocktail of fertilizers, pesticides, and all other manner of chemicals and machinery to grow correctly.

That’s all fine, but what happens when it all collapses?  Preserving and maintaining some hardy, delicious, ancient varieties seems prudent.

It also seems like a great deal of fun, and a hands-on way to honor our ancestors, whose gardening ingenuity sustained us in less abundant times.


30 thoughts on “Preserving Old Varieties

  1. Really interesting article, Port! I would suggest going online to the Burpee site. Sad name, I know, but they have all kinds of information as well as being an excellent source of seeds. You might find heirloom vegs as well as info on new creations.

    I find that The Walking Dead can sometimes give insight to real life. The episode when they go to the museum to bring back an actual farm wagon and seeds of all kinds from the same museum. There is a short discourse by Eugene regarding sorgham wheat and how it changed diets and ‘grow-ability around the world.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ah, The Walking Dead.

      Season 10 came through yesterday and we’re over halfway through. A lot of fun, very dark and psychological. We’re really enjoying it though Tina says it’s not helping her stress levels!

      Liked by 3 people

      • Haha, yes. My younger brother and a couple of our friends and I played _Left 4 Dead 2_, a four-player zombie survival game, quite frequently. I would get so stressed out. Of course, that was when I was working twelve-hour days and playing in all sorts of ensembles, and I was getting burned out with it all. I’d get home at 9:30 or 10 PM and my brother and friends would want to play, which could last forty-five minutes (if we did well) or two hours (if we did poorly), so I think exhaustion, lack of sleep, and fretting about when I’d actually get to go to bed contributed to my anxious state playing the game.

        Now I am on a mild anxiety medication and have excised some (but not all) of the extracurricular obligations from my life, and I don’t get nearly as frightened and stressed playing the game.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks, Audre! I am familiar with Burpee, but I will check out their new creations.

      Sorgham did, indeed, have a huge impact on diets around the world. If I’m not mistaken, it became quite popular in Africa. I have not seen _The Walking Dead_ (though I did read a large chunk of the graphic novel over ten years ago), but that episode sounds particularly creative. We would, indeed, be raiding historical societies and museums for their seeds and farm equipment in such a grisly scenario.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I can’t help you with the dog breeding (we don’t have a dog) but I feel ashamed when I read of other people’s exploits in their gardens. We started work on our garden a while ago and haven’t properly returned to it, apart from the occasional trimming, weeding and mowing. Tina has some grand plans for our garden – what plants to put in, decorations, water features – but we haven’t yet done it. I think we’re a bit too late now, as we move into Autumn, but we’ll definitely be ready for Spring next year.

    As an aside, there a couple of good articles on The Conservative Woman today, which you might like to peruse. One talks of a forgotten generation and the other on the sort of civilisation one might see surviving a real pandemic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Don’t feel bad, Pontiac—I feel the same way about my garden. I am very bad about letting the weeds take over, and right now I have a thick cover of a shade-loving weed shadowing a large part of my beds. I like an overgrown look, but I don’t want my beds to look like a haunted house! Typically my girlfriend (an excellent weeder) and I will spend a few hours on a Saturday cleaning up my weeks of neglect, then do some new plantings (funds permitting). I just planted my little tomatoes directly into the flower bed, rather than doing rows; it’s been fun watching the vines spread over the garden. The celosia we planted last Labor Day weekend is starting to peek back up, too, which has my girlfriend quite excited.

      Thanks for the links; I will check them out! I have a glorious planning period first period this morning, so I have a bit more time to peruse and read at my leisure—before launching off into another long day of mind molding.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. I put up a comment with links that went into moderation – I know some sites don’t seem to like links. If the comment doesn’t appear, I’ll send you (PP) the links via Audre.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’ve just had a look at your profile and noticed you’re a history teacher. If it’s not too impertinent, can you tell me what age range you teach and whether your topic has been stunted in the modern age?

    I went through teacher training in the late noughties and found certain material for my subject (English literature and creative writing) was being discouraged as being ‘too difficult’ for the 16-18 age range.

    Liked by 3 people

    • No impertinence at all, old boy. For history, I teach mostly tenth graders/sophomores (around 15-16-year olds) for United States History. I do have some seniors and juniors, but those are the bulk of my students. In music, I teach mostly seventh and eighth graders, with some sixth graders.

      In history, I have definitely witnessed a “dumbing down” a bit. I teach the same curriculum I always have (which itself might be dumbed-down), but I find myself having to spoon-feed students more and more than in the past. Critical thinking—or even just being able to connect the dots analytically—is something they REALLY struggle with, even if I walk them through it methodically.

      That said, my administration encourages rigor, while at the same time not wanting the headaches that come from parents complaining when their kids don’t all magically make As. It’s the classic conundrum, but I know my administration (mostly) has my back in those scenarios. That said, I do a lot of CYA by offering study guides, review sessions, and the like, so that no student ever has the excuse of “Mr. Cook didn’t teach me the material.” Never mind that I actually, you know, TEACH it during class, when they’re supposed to be paying attention.

      Just my quick reflections between classes this morning. About to head to US History now!


      Liked by 3 people

  5. ‘That said, I do a lot of CYA by offering study guides, review sessions, and the like, so that no student ever has the excuse of “Mr. Cook didn’t teach me the material.” Never mind that I actually, you know, TEACH it during class, when they’re supposed to be paying attention.’

    Nice to know you’re having to delve into extra work (with no overtime) to reiterate the topics you’d already covered. That’s something you’d expect from very young children with short attention spans, not teenagers. That said, I remember well having to go through similar extra curricular activities with 17 year olds. I was going through teacher training, though, so could leave most of it to my head of year.

    I didn’t continue with teaching as a profession and/or career. There’s too much wrong with our education system to go into. I thought, at one point, of teaching creative writing at university but even higher education is under the cosh. Maybe one day.

    Liked by 2 people

    • To save myself some time and heartache, I now do review sessions during class. My after-school time is dedicated to teaching music lessons, which is fun and lucrative. The one-on-one nature of it is a blast, and we’re playing music—what’s not to love?

      Teaching is not nearly as difficult as some of us make it out to be, but it is a demanding profession (yes, yes, summers off, holidays, etc.—but you definitely earn those during the school year). I’ve been teaching long enough now that I can largely “wing it” day-to-day (I don’t do that, but I could if necessary).

      I would encourage you to reconsider teaching creative writing at a university. Yes, the students are churlish and such, but that would be a fun elective course, and you’d probably get some of the good, interested students in there. That’s the beauty of teaching electives—students _elect_ (in theory) to be there, and there aren’t the same pressures in those courses as core classes.

      Speaking of creative writing, do you have any published stories or books? I’d love to check them out.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Not yet. I’m writing a novel I hope to finish by Spring next year but for the most part, I’ve been writing articles on all sorts for The Conservative Woman, Neo and Going Postal. Before I put out my first article nearly 2 years ago, I hadn’t written much – Tina and I have gone through the wars over the last decade and my care duties came first. They still come first but I know that if I don’t finish this novel over the next year, I never will.

        If you want to check out my articles, they’re easy enough to find on Neo and Going Postal (for the latter, I wrote a couple of articles on the gaming industry). You can find me on TCW if you go to the writers section and click on my real name, Michael Fahey.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Let me know when you’re book is published; I will happily purchase a copy. Are you going to go the Amazon self-publishing route? If so, I can offer whatever pointers I can if necessary.

        I will certainly check out your writing for TCW. I’m curious to read your writing about the gaming industry.

        Liked by 2 people

    • It’s no different. In fact, you reminded me of a post from Jessica’s blog some years ago, it’s officially about The Council of Florence (when the Catholic and Orthodox churches were trying to undo the Great Schism) But I literally fell off my chair laughing because she was at the time the strategic PA of the Vice Chancellor, and sent her to ‘(spy’ was her word) on a faculty meeting at UEA.

      It may be her funniest (in a wry sort of way) post she ever wrote. Recommended to you all.


      Liked by 2 people

      • That was EXCELLENT. She is such a talented writer. I’ve always been a bit baffled by the hang-ups regarding the Creed. Perhaps I am ignorant, but I don’t see much theologically wrong with either version—the Catholic version is just more detailed.

        As Hof makes clear, though, the Council of Florence wasn’t so much about getting anything done, as neither side really had any interest in forming a union with the other. The reunification of the Roman and Orthodox churches is a beautiful dream, but it would take the intervention of Christ Himself to bring together two institutions that have been divided so concretely for nearly two thousand years.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Yep, Jess is excellent, as well as a gifted teacher. She especially has the gift of simplifying things without losing the details. A most remarkable woman.

        Yep, I never thought the Filioque was really a good reason to split the church, and suspect other things had more to do with it, really.

        Liked by 2 people

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