Letters: Old Way Garden Wisdom

Dear Carol,

I hope you find a moment to consider some less well known but significant scientific findings regarding plant life that could be included in Spirit of Change holistic magazine at some point. My life’s work has become validating my Sicilian Nona, Jennie, and the many oral traditions she brought with her from Siculiana village, Argrigento province, Sicily, regarding her backyard garden plot.

I would join my Nona every weekend from the time I was about 5 or 6 in that tradition called “farming out,” which I loved. I would kneel on the earth beside my Nona with great reverence. She would place her lips up close to her blossoming plant life and whisper words of love; she would call them Mommies, her love word. It was clear to me, even as a child that my Nona was acting within an order of thinking that I call “Old Law” or the “Old Way.” She engaged in many agricultural practices that refuted what some would call common sense. For example, she planted extra rows of some of her vegetables “to feed the insects.” “They have to eat too,” she would advise. And she would plant flowers amidst her vegetables so the bees and caterpillars could eat too. And her garden would thrive.

It wasn’t until I came across an issue of Nature while working at MIT that I caught glimmerings of an alternative perception of reality. An article published in 1995 talked about “plant talk.” Professor Josef F. Stuefer, plant ecologist with the University of Radboud, Nijmegen, The Netherlands, had for years been exploring the same kinds of phenomena I had witnessed happening in my Nona’s garden. He has concluded that plants talk to one another when they are of the same seed batch or the same rhizome reproductive lineage. He has concluded that when under attack by herbivores, plants, so related, will signal their neighbors through release of pheromones and their neighboring plants will emit alkaloid substances that render them toxic or distasteful to the assaulting herbivores. Images of my Nona’s garden immediately came to mind and I saw that while she had been operating from an oral tradition, it was scientifically grounded. My Nona was not an “ignorant peasant” as she had often been described, but a bearer of wisdom passed down through the ages.

So now I have my hands full with Jennie’s Farm to replicate my Nona’s garden here in Orleans. The ways of my Nona are likely those of many other indigenous people throughout the globe, who are even now being pushed off their land in favor of the big corporate farmers. And I’m afraid that the seeds of knowledge they have practiced and handed down may also be lost. I believe that at some point the health and healing aspects of Spirit of Change will eventually have to meet up with principles of right farming, including relevant discussions concerning both the proper scale appropriate to healthy food raising, but also strategies regarding the tools and practices of healthy food raising as well.

May I close with this quote from Columella’s On Agriculture, Books II & III (70 A.D.): “And so I gladly profess myself a demonstrator, rather than an inventor, lest anyone should think that our ancestors are unjustly deprived of the praise that is their due. For there is no doubt that they knew, even though it has been handed down in no writing, and yet in such a way as to give directions.”

Sandy Schaefer Ung
Orleans, MA