Seeds for Life

Conserving the Cultural Context of Traditional Crops
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2019 / October

Cathy Teng /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard


A seed is more than just the source of a single life; it is also an embodiment of culture. Culturally grounded seed conservation isn’t just about keeping plants alive; it also aims to pass down the legacy of related cultural systems, emotional memories and ecological wisdom. Jian Zilun has devoted his life to this alternative movement of cultural preservation.

 


 

The sky is just brightening at 5 a.m. when we meet Jian Zilun at the Hualien Train Station. We proceed to drive to the Bunun Aboriginal village of La­muan (Chinese name Nan’an) in Hua­lien County’s ­Zhuoxi Township, where Jian plans to film the millet harvest and the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new village hall. He also wants to interview those in the village with expertise in planting millet and Bunun beans. On the trip down, Jian Zilun explains how he has turned his focus from “arti­facts” to “grains” over the course of his career as a ­conservationist.

On a slow-moving tricycle

At university Jian Zilun studied art. The summer after he qualified for admission to the Graduate Institute of Conservation of Cultural Relics and Museology at Tai­nan National University of the Arts, Jian became inter­ested in farming. He first learned how to be a farmer at the Nongfa Xuetang natural farming school, and he also worked as a driver for Big Wang’s Vegetable Shop. As he delivered vegetables of various kinds, he came to serve as a moving hub of information about agriculture. But when he was asked some tough questions (such as “Why should I buy new seeds when I can simply save some from this season’s crop?”), he discovered that commercialization and mass production had led to mono­cultures, with a gradual loss of seed diversity. 

Believing in the importance of seed conservation, he began to slowly travel the East Rift Valley on an electric tricycle vending cart, carrying seeds and books—his  Wild Seed Library. He exchanged seeds with the local residents and spread an ethos of conservation. “But in truth, seed exchange isn’t that simple,” he says. 

The cultural pulse behind conserving seeds

In 2013 he traveled to far-off India. That South Asian nation had just begun to introduce genetically modified strains, a trend that allowed multinationals to corner the seed market there. Farmers had to take out loans to buy seeds, and when they couldn’t pay those loans back, some small farmers went bankrupt and committed suicide. In response, many Indians came together to establish seed banks, helping farmers to keep their own seed stocks and thus reclaim power over their own seeds and crops.

The trip to India left Jian with a key realization: “If you don’t know how to protect both the seeds and the cultural milieu and emotionally resonant stories behind them, then engaging in seed conservation is devoid of meaning.”

By following Jian over the course of one day at work, we begin to gain a sense of the culture surrounding seeds here in Taiwan.

Early in the morning, we arrive at Lamuan to shoot an elderly Bunun woman—or tina—named Pan Zhuju harvesting millet. At 10 a.m. we move locations to shoot the groundbreaking ceremony for the village hall. The tribal chief blesses the spot, and there is a series of offer­ings and other ceremonies that are tightly connected to the culture of the village and daily life there.

In the afternoon, we go back to the tina’s house for an interview. Facing the camera, she picks up a handful of Bunun beans that she is saving as seeds and says: “You don’t want to dry these bainu mew [“eyebrow beans”]; they’re better cooked fresh. If they’re dried, you have to boil them for a long time to soften them again. But if you then steam them and crush them into a paste, they have a mouthfeel like mochi.”

“When I visited Puli for a Bunun sports event, I discovered they still had bainu mew so I brought some back with me.”

Looking carefully at the size, color, markings and textures of the beans in her hands, one can see that they include pigeon peas, speckled kidney beans, lima beans, hyacinth beans and pinto beans, among others. The biodiversity in the hands of this national treasure is quite impressive.

The nuances of the cultural context are difficult to understand in the abstract. What we can learn on a brief visit like this is limited, but we can at least gain a sense of what Jian means when he talks about “seed culture.” The tina’s feelings about the various crops, and her cooking knowledge and taste memories, are important legacies that need to be passed down. Understanding the background stories connected to seeds is a duty of those involved in seed conservation.

Family vegetable gardens maintain biodiversity

During his travels Jian began to see and hear about all kinds of traditional local crops. But he also discovered that the number of vegetable varieties used in rural cooking was falling. Beans have long been an excellent source of protein, and the Bunun still are accustomed to eating beans: “The passing down of these varieties involves emotional factors that are closely connected to culture,” says a worried Jian. “With such an outflow of young people, when children don’t grow up in the indigenous community and do not build these taste experiences and memories, the cultural and emotional connections to varieties can quickly be lost.”

Fortunately, there are still home gardens. “In the seed conservation movement, mothers in tribal villages or other locales are playing the strongest role in preserving biodiversity.”

Jian then brings us to visit “Big Sister” Song, who works at the Lamuan Visitor Center. In her home garden, she plants millet, alianthus prickly ash, beans and all manner of wild vegetables. At first glance, her garden looks disorderly, as if nature has reclaimed it, but as we follow Song’s footsteps, we see that there’s a clump of millet here and a clump of corn over there, and to the side there’s a tree on which hyacinth bean and lima bean vines are growing. She is not planting in large quantities and has chosen crops that aren’t fussy. Although she’s not bringing in big harvests, her crops are easy to care for.

Mothers are maintaining access to biodiversity for their kitchens with just the small plots of their home gardens. And they are continuing to plant and share their seeds.

Finding one’s own role in seed conservation

Jian also went to Japan to gain a better grasp of marketing. There he discovered that the Japanese really know their food. In Japan, research into traditional crop varieties has traced some of them back to the shogunate of Ieyasu Tokugawa in the late 16th century.

One conclusion from his experiences in Japan resonated strongly with him: “In terms of our duty to protect seeds, everyone has their own role.” In seeing the cooperative mechanisms in place in Japan, he came to under­stand that protecting seeds could never be a solitary pursuit: Seed conservation involves issues related to the entire production environment. As industry has brought division of labor to our working lives, so too do we have different roles to play in seed conservation. “Any variety that has been passed down to the present has made it here because our ancestors deliberately continued to eat it. Eating is thus an action to protect seeds.” Jian’s eyes sparkle as he says this.

For instance, the Bunun grandmas who plant gardens are also protectors of seed stocks.

Holding a camera and asking questions alongside them, Jian is a documentarian.

Playing the role of advocate is Lo Chi-yen, who invited Jian to document these events. Lo is a project research fellow with the Tse-Xin Organic Agriculture Foundation, who assisted with the organic conversion of rice paddies in Lamuan, and the Bunun bean project.

The collected millet samples are to be prepared as botanical specimens by someone who is not on site: Lin Zhi­zhong, in the role of academic researcher.

Su Zhimin, who left Lamuan at a young age, now runs a restaurant in Pingtung called Kakanan Nua Qemuma-­Quma. He is planning new dishes for his menu by drawing on research into Bunun beans. His roles in seed conservation are those of culinarian and cultural inheritor.

The Forestry Bureau’s Hualien District Office has supported this project of cultural recording.

A tina named Buni, who sells Bunun beans from a stall in front of the Lamuan Visitor Center, is also a wholesale bean trader. She clearly understands the state of bean farming in the tribal villages. “She plays yet another role in seed conservation,” says Jian.

In the same field of seed conservation, we can see how different people fill different niches.

Calling for reconnection with nature

Drawing on his own strengths, Jian has thrown himself into various atypical forms of seed conservation. Early in his career, he curated an exhibit on traditional crops titled “People Conserve Dreams • Dreams Conserve Seeds • Seeds Conserve People.” His hope was that the general public would pay more attention to the importance of remembering and continuing to farm tradi­tional crops. At the Mipaliw Land Art Festival, held along Provincial Highway 11, he created the “Pahanhan No Sapaloma” (a “seed habitat house”). Its tradi­tional ariri granary highlighted connections between people, crops, and nature.

“I’ve gotten involved in such a range of activities because seed conservation requires us to take different approaches to bring it into people’s lives,” says Jian. “If seed conservation isn’t manifested in real life, it has no meaning. If it has no place in people’s lives, it will be forgotten.”

One day in 2016, an overworked Jian collapsed. By the time they got him to the hospital, his heart and breathing had stopped. He was in a coma for seven days, terrifying his family and friends.

After convalescing for a year, he once again found a place for himself in seed conservation work. He uses various different media to tell the story of seeds, so that more people will come to understand the importance of conserving them.

In his long quest on behalf of seeds, Jian has gradually come to adopt new approaches. At first, he pursued his seed conservation work as a lonely figure riding around on a three-wheeled electric vending cart. Today he has learned to pool his efforts with others who share his goals. 

“By helping everyone find their place in the seed conservation movement and by finding connections between everyone and seed conservation, we are perhaps at the beginning of real change.” He has remained true to his original ideals.

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把種子「種」回生活

種子野台的保種運動

文‧鄧慧純 圖‧林格立

一顆種子,不僅僅是生命的起源,更有自身的文化脈絡。因此,保種不僅是保存那僅此一株的生命體,更應是將其背後相關聯的文化體系、情感記憶、生態智慧等都能被傳承、保存。這種非典型的文化保種運動,簡子倫正用生命實踐著。

 

 


清晨五點,天剛濛濛亮,我們與簡子倫相約在花蓮車站,驅車往卓溪南安部落,開始一天的工作。簡子倫要拍攝小米收成和部落聚會所的開工儀式,並訪問部落種植小米和布農豆豆的達人。開著中古的手排車,一路顛簸震動,趁著這段長約100公里路程的空檔,簡子倫一路說著他人生從「古物」到「穀物」的歷程。

種子野台慢慢騎

大學修習的是藝術,考上古物所的那年暑假,簡子倫卻在一趟澳洲打工度假的歷程中,對農作起了好奇,「種子」因之在他生命中發了芽。

他先在「農法學堂」學怎麼當一個農夫,之後繼續在花蓮「大王菜舖子」擔任菜車駕駛。將各類蔬菜送往迎來的過程中,他成了農業資訊的交流站,但也發現讓人費解的問題:「種子留就有了,為什麼一定要買?」進一步才了解到在商業機制的運作下,以求取產量為選種的標準,造成作物單一化,種子的多樣性逐漸喪失。

個性裡有一股傻勁,簡子倫想到就去做。覺得保種很重要,一定要跟大家多多宣導,利用農閒之餘,他騎著一台電動三輪車,車上載著種子和凱風卡瑪書店捐的生態書及繪本,在花東縱谷上慢速奔馳,一邊跟在地居民交換種子,一邊分享保種的概念,「但現在回想起來真的天真,種子交換真不是那麼單純的事情。」簡子倫說。

保存種子背後的文化脈絡

2013年,他遠行到印度,為了了解當地的種子交換的機制。這個南亞大國當初引入基因轉作,致使跨國公司壟斷種子市場,農夫借貸買種子,卻因無力償還,造成許多小農破產自殺。鑑此,印度民間紛紛成立種子銀行,以不合作運動的概念,教導農夫自己設法留種,透過分享種子,跟基改說不,拿回種子自主權跟糧食自主。

去了一趟印度,簡子倫發現種子交換其實是一個龐大的機制,而不僅只是單純的交換種子,「其實難的是交換之後,要怎麼樣讓品種繼續留存。」「如果僅是保種,卻不知道怎麼照顧種子,及它背後的文化脈絡與情感故事,這樣的種子保存是很空洞的。」簡子倫說。

跟隨簡子倫一天的工作行程,我們才約略捕捉了一絲絲他所提的文化脈絡線索。

一早,抵達南安部落拍攝小米收成,跟tina(布農語稱呼女性長輩)潘竹菊聊今年的收成情況;上午十點,接續拍攝南安部落聚會所的開工儀式,看著部落頭目的祝詞、陳列的祭品、儀式的科典等,都與部落文化緊密聯繫,屬於部落生活的日常。

午後,我們再折返回tina家,簡子倫要為日後紀錄片的拍攝預訪準備。

潘竹菊面對鏡頭,把玩著手中拿來留種的布農豆豆,緩緩道出:

「這個bainu mew(部落暱稱八家將豆)不要曬乾,新鮮的來煮比較好吃,曬乾的話要煮很久才會一樣鬆軟」,蒸熟後打碎,(口感)就像麻糬一樣。」

「上回去埔里參加布農族運動會發現那邊還留有bainu(豆)mew (眉毛)的豆豆品種,才又找回來。」

細看她手中的品種,光豆類就有樹豆、花豆、萊豆、鵲豆、斑豆等,又可再從大小、顏色、花紋、質地等做出品系的區別,這位國寶級的部落豆豆達人藏種的多樣性可見一般。

文化脈絡這龐雜的體系著實過於抽象難以理解,細看簡子倫為拍攝紀錄片條列的採訪大綱,內容跨及夢的指引、農耕歲時、田間出現的物種、農作流程、農耕工具、煮食方式等面向,我們從採訪過程能窺見的實在有限,但從tina的話語中,約略體會到簡子倫所說種子的文化脈絡, tina對作物的情感,這些烹煮的知識與味覺的記憶,是保種任務中更需要傳承的,理解種子背後的故事,也是保種人的任務。

填補多樣性的家庭菜園

在四處遊走的經歷中,簡子倫開始接觸和聽聞各地方傳統作物,也發現村落「食」的品種逐漸減少,甚至消失。舉例來說,豆類是原住民族的重要食材,它易於保存,又是最好的蛋白質和蔬菜來源,至今他們仍保有食用豆子的習慣,「品種能夠留存不僅是商業因素,有些是情感,牽涉到情感因素就會跟文化扣連得很緊,阿嬤教他怎麼吃,他就繼續教他的孫子怎麼吃。可是當年輕人口外移,小孩子不在部落裡長大,這樣的味覺經驗、記憶在文化情感層面斷裂得很快。」簡子倫憂心地說。

所幸我們還有家庭菜園。「在保種的運動中,維持多樣性最強的角色是部落或地方的媽媽。」她們知道如何在一小片土地裡,維持最高的多樣性,養活一家人,這就是家庭菜園的概念。

簡子倫帶我們拜訪在南安遊客中心工作的宋大姊,她在遊客中心後方自家的菜園,種了小米、刺蔥、豆類及各類族繁不及備載的野菜。乍看之下這塊土地像被自然徵收般的雜亂無序,但跟著宋大姊的腳步,東一區小米、西一叢玉米,裡面還有重新種回來的龍爪稷,僅管會除草,但會特別留下野生的山萵苣,旁邊一棵大樹上攀附著八月豆的藤蔓,這才領略到家庭菜園的厲害之處。部落媽媽深深清楚土地的個性,保持原有的地貌,不做大規模開墾;智慧地選擇留下灌木,當作支架;她們挑選不需精細操作的物種,產量不高,但相對的栽培管理也比較輕鬆。

媽媽們就是靠一小塊地維持餐桌上的多樣性,同時也透過不斷的種植、分享來保種。

找到自己的保種位置

在印度觀摩了農業前端的交換機制,簡子倫又去了日本,想了解後端行銷的真義。在日本見習才發現他們把食物玩得很高段,「在我的角度看,它其實是一種食物策展。」日本對古來種(傳統品種)作物的飲食研究,還能追溯到德川幕府時期,甚至可以呈現料理的考古學,再現彌生時代的餐桌。

日本的經驗也讓簡子倫驗證了自己心中所想的:「在保種任務中,每個人都有自己的位置。」看到日本的合作機制,他領悟到保種不可能是單打獨鬥的事業,保種牽涉到的是整個產業環境的問題。產業有不同的分工,過程中每一種身分,如種植的人、保存傳統品種的人、做加工料理的人、做歷史研究的人、報導的人、做推廣教育的人,都有自己的位置,甚至「今天任何一個品種留下來,都是因為祖先們很認真地吃它們,努力地吃也是一種保種行動。」簡子倫眼睛發亮地說。

比如說,上午六點就下田,拿著小刀動作俐落地把一株株結實累累的小米穗採收下來的tina們是保種任務的種植者,也是留種者。

拿著攝影機,在一旁拍攝訪問的簡子倫是保種任務中的紀錄者。

邀請簡子倫參與這次的紀錄行動的是羅紀彥,在慈心基金會協助南安的稻田有機轉作和布農豆豆專案,是倡議者。

採樣的小米要作成標本,要送交到不在現場的研究者林志忠手中,這又出現了保種任務中學術研究者的角色。

少小離家的蘇志民,現在屏東經營「小農餐桌」,他帶著一家子回來,打算運用布農豆豆研發新菜色。他是保種中料理人的身分,同時也是文化的繼承者。

設計公司三月半負責計劃案整體形象設計和包裝。而支持這次文化紀錄計畫的是林務局花蓮林區管理處。

在南安遊客中心,遇見的tina Buni,她在遊客中心前擺攤賣布農豆豆,她向族人收購豆豆,最清楚部落裡種豆豆的情況,「這也是保種的一個角色,她是布農豆豆總經銷。」簡子倫說。

同一個場景,我們就見習了保種任務中每一個人的位置。

喚回人與自然的連結

運用自己的專長,簡子倫投入許多非典型的保種,早些年的「種子野台」、「人藏夢‧夢藏種‧種藏人」傳統作物策展,希望大眾重視傳統作物的續存與記憶;在花東台11線上舉辦的森川里海濕地藝術季創作「有種棲息所pahanhan no sapaloma」,搭建一座意義轉化過的穀倉(阿美族語ariri),供人與種子共處以感受共同的生命時間,再牽續人與作物與自然的關係。他也拍攝紀錄片,還有為花蓮農改場80年場慶策展。

簡子倫戲稱「我就是雜務長呀!」「我會做那麼多雜事,是因為保種真的是需要從另一個角度被帶進生活。」當今現代人的生活與自然脫離太久,許多理所當然的事情卻被忘了。「保種如果不在生活裡實踐,就不具意義。沒有在生活裡佔有一席之地,它就會被遺忘,沒有和它產生關係,你就不會重視它。」

2016年,過度工作的簡子倫,無預警地倒下了。到院前沒了呼吸心跳,昏迷了七天,嚇死了身邊的親人朋友。

休養了一年,重新回到保種行動的簡子倫,仍持續自己從印度回來後堅持的就地、異地並行的保存機制,在自己的一小塊地種下分享來的品種,形成一份移地的備份,並堅持倡導種子就地保種的重要性,因為有了文化脈絡,種子才是活的,並有機會發展出新的多樣性。他也繼續選用不同媒介,說保種的故事,讓更多人知道保種的重要。

一路的探尋,簡子倫逐步修正自己的步伐與路線,一開始是孤身一人騎著三輪車的種子野台,如今,他學會兜攏一群志同道合的人,一起來實踐。他在中間成為媒合者,用攝影、用策展、用藝術,跨域的合作,建構相互理解的過程。

「幫大家找到保種運動中的位置,使保種與每個人產生關係,這樣就可能是改變的開始。」他的初心,始終沒變。

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