Shards of the past and seeds of the future

Pondering the details of everyday life in the Bronze Age, as I did in a post several weeks ago, took me back to a discussion between Nigel Clark and Michelle Bastian at the RGS-IBG conference in late August. They wondered how we might need to reassemble the shards of the past in different ways in the future. As I pack up to leave Gothenburg and head home, my head is spinning with ideas, comparisons and lists of things to do. So I will just present a few thoughts as disconnected shards that may or may not sit together in a strong stone wall.

Stone wall, Gotland. Photo: L. Head

A couple of weeks ago I gave a keynote address at a Garden and Politik workshop here, organised by Katarina Saltzman and colleagues in the Department of Conservation.  (I talked about the politics of weeding practices in Australian gardens, forthcoming as a chapter in a book on Rethinking Invasion Ecologies.) In the wider workshop discussions focused on historical garden practices that will likely be needed in the future; seed saving, vegetable growing, harvesting wild foods, preserving. It is no accident that many such practices depend on the knowledge and experience of women. Are these practices forward looking or backward looking? Or, to extrapolate the gist of Nigel and Michelle’s discussion, what if we need our grandmothers’ skills and knowledge to manage in the future rather than to remember the past?

AUSCCER’s Catherine Phillips has thought about these issues in much greater depth than me, and discusses them in her new book Saving More than Seeds.

The fieldtrip for the workshop took us by tram, bus and ferry to several garden sites throughout the city. Mats Havström, curator at the wonderful Gothenburg Botanical Garden, gave an impassioned argument for the importance of botanic gardens in preserving biodiversity. Rather than just being a fascinating curiosity, the historical collections in botanic gardens provide a crucial resource for the future.

Workshop fieldtrip. Photo: L. Head

Their contributions include:

  • collecting and propagating wild Swedish water lilies (who knew there was such a thing!),
  • collecting overseas plants threatened in their own countries,
  • discussions and exchanges with overseas botanic gardens, including in Melbourne as they plan for long-term climate change. Curators need to decide which trees they should plant now to flourish in fifty or a hundred years time.

Community gardens are never far from this kind of discussion, which flourished as we stood among the kale and corn in a garden in the suburb of Majorna. There are diverse views on the politics of community gardens. At one end of a continuum is to see them as a panacea to many urban food shortages. At the other end there is great scepticism that they can ever be much more than symbolic, and concern that they are inclined to romanticise the agrarian ideal. My own thinking fluctuates, but there is no doubt that you see urban agriculture differently if you imagine which spaces we might have to use for growing food at some time in the future.

A number of AUSCCER research projects implicitly or explicitly connect shards of the past to future possibilities: the Household Carbon project on the value of the vernacular and the frugal; Elyse Stanes and her recycled fashion; Chantel Carr, Justin Westgate and Chris Gibson on quality design and making things; and Michael Adams on hunting and bushfoods, to name just a few. These projects are also generating varied responses about their value for a politics of the future.

The När Stone Slab, replica in the Visby Museum, Gotland. This limestone slab, containing beautifully preserved fossil crinoids (sea-lilies), was found in the early twentieth century by a farmer quarrying for building materials. Photo: L. Head

Romanticising the past? Unrealistic about the future? Or preparing for transformation by thinking about things differently? We in AUSCCER like to think the latter. But just as Gotland farmers have built and rebuilt their walls over hundreds and thousands of years, using stone many millions of years old, those futures will be literally built from shards of the past.

You can read Professor Lesley Head’s staff profile or this recent interview for more information. Her latest book is Household Sustainability and it’s available through Edward Elgar Publishing.

You can follow @ProfLesleyHead on Twitter. Lesley has also written several posts for this blog, including ‘Loving your monsters – the Climate Council and #Pinktober‘, ‘Words and weeds in Sweden‘, and ‘The conversation we need to have about carbon‘.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *