Caretakers of Wonder

1989 Campout Speech by Kent Whealy

Some of you have been to our past Campouts and were lucky enough to meet Jeff McCormack and Patty Wallens. They’re both very special people, wise and intuitive. Jeff has been on Seed Savers’ Board of Directors for several years now. Last Christmas Jeff and Patty sent my family a little book called Caretakers of Wonder. It is a wonderful children’s book that was written by Cooper Edens, who also did its beautiful illustrations. It’s even available through our local bookstore, so I imagine you could find it in bookstores across the country. The book makes a wonderful gift, especially for families with small children. Let me read you parts of it, because I know some of you will enjoy it as much as my family does.

“This very night, while you lie quietly in your bed, open your eyes. Now, look out your window! For even at this yawning hour, so many of your friends are working to keep the world magical. Yes, they are the ones who make new stars and put them up… The ones who keep the moon company, feeding him when he’s too thin and watching his diet when he’s too full. The ones who keep the sky and the horizon tightly fastened to each other… They are the ones weaving the meadows and telling the trees where to stand. The ones putting fruit back on the branches. The ones painting feathers on birds and designs on the wings of butterflies. The ones practicing the great rainbow balancing act. The ones collecting yesterday’s raindrops, mending old clouds, and delivering newly stuffed ones… They are the ones who will raise the sun into place. The ones who will load up the night and bring it back to storage. The ones who will give the wind directions, fly the clouds, and tell the rain where to fall… Now, while you sleep tonight… imagine what you most would like to do to help keep the world magical? For you know that one of these nights your friends are going to tap on your window and invite you to become one of the Caretakers of Wonder.”

My kids really love this little book, and so do I. A decade ago when Seed Savers was really starting to take shape, one of the things I hoped for was the chance to garden full-time. That seems rather ironic now, because almost all of my time is spent in an office sitting at a computer terminal. During the day I am seldom in the gardens at Heritage Farm. But I walk in the gardens almost every evening, usually at dusk. Dusk is a very special time of day, a time when we see much more clearly, so I often walk at dusk in the gardens. One evening last week, my seven-year-old daughter Carrie and I were walking in the gardens, hand in hand. We were walking up and down the rows, marveling at the incredible beauty and diversity. The chill that flows through the valley each evening had just brushed past us. I told Carrie that our family was very lucky being able to live at Heritage Farm surrounded by this beauty, and that many of these unique varieties were probably being grown only in our gardens. Carrie smiled up at me with her big brown eyes sparkling and exclaimed, “We really are caretakers of wonder.”

Since then I have been thinking a lot about all of us being caretakers of wonder, if you will. I’ve also been thinking about the child-like wonder that we are all born with, but seem to lose somewhere along the way. As we grow older, our thought processes change and become more developed. We become increasingly immersed in thought and gradually lose the ability to feel with our hearts. The loss of those deep feelings also diminishes our ability to dream about the way things could be; what were once vitally important dreams often just shrivel. Deep inside every one of us, however, that sense of child-like wonder still exists. But now it takes some very special situations to touch it, to bring it back out. Each of us still experiences that sense of wonder when we see the beauty of a delicate wildflower, when we walk among apple trees in full fruit, when we see a squash blossom early in the morning sparkling with dew, when we watch a hawk circling and hear it scream, or when we stand deep in a pine woods just listening and feeling.

These moments of wonder touch all of us at certain times. I have tried to think back to the moments that have touched me deeply during the last ten years. Some of those moments would include trips that I made to visit a few of Seed Savers’ larger collectors early on. By 1981 I had been working with Seed Savers Exchange for half a dozen years already. The network had grown to the point that some of our folks were putting together fairly good collections of more than 300 varieties, which at that time we thought were huge. One trip took me near Chicago to meet Russ Crow, and then on over into Michigan to meet Ralph Stevenson. Russ and Ralph were both bean collectors. That same summer I also traveled to western Minnesota to meet a potato collector named Robert Lobitz. Each time that I met one of these fellows, we ended up walking in their gardens at dusk. Those gardens were the first times that I had ever seen the diversity available to gardeners in this country. Those were the first times that I really saw our garden heritage.

I remember walking in Russ Crow’s garden and being blown away by all of those beans… (laughter)… Oh, come on now. We weren’t eating them. We were just looking at the plants… (laughter)… There were about 300 different varieties of beans in that one garden. I had never seen anything like it and was absolutely amazed at the diversity. The leaves were all different sizes and had different shapes. The plants ranged in size from the smallest dwarfs to vigorous giants shooting over the tops of 12’ poles. There were a dozen different blossom colors. And in that golden light at dusk, for the first time I saw the plants as a hundred different shades of green, which somehow really surprised me. Until that evening I had never seen more than a couple of varieties of beans growing in the same garden. And the next evening Russ and I were walking with Ralph Stevenson in his bean garden in Michigan, and I was again filled with the same feelings of awe.

Later that summer I traveled to western Minnesota to meet Robert Lobitz. We walked in his garden and he showed me nearly 300 named varieties of potatoes that he was maintaining and another 2,000 seedling varieties that he was testing. Robert had also gotten a lot of material out of the USDA’s potato collection at Sturgeon Bay, many of which were wild species of potatoes from Peru. I was amazed at the variation in the foliage of those wild species. Some of them looked like marigolds, some looked like radishes and others looked like tobacco. A few even had leaves that looked like tomatoes. I remember joking that I had seen lots of potato-leaved tomatoes, but those were my first tomato-leaved potatoes. The plants were all so incredibly different. That was the first time that I had ever seen that amount of variation in the wild species of a cultivated crop.

The summer of 1985 was the second summer that my family lived in Decorah. Glenn Drowns had also moved here and we decided to grow a garden near the Pinebluff 4-H Camp. Quite a few of you probably saw that river bottom garden. Glenn and Aaron and I knocked ourselves out that summer growing over 2,000 varieties on five acres. One of the things that really touched me that summer was Glenn’s beautiful collection of nearly 400 varieties of squash. Their vines were so strong and vigorous, their blossoms were so delicately beautiful, and their fruits were so amazingly variable. We grew 125 different watermelons that summer with flesh colors ranging from white and ivory and light yellow through dark orange, and from the lightest pink through blood-red. We also grew about 100 muskmelons that ranged in size from the tiny turban-shaped Jenny Lind to the deeply creased Old Time Tennessee Muskmelon that was larger than a basketball and so fragrant you could find it in the dark.

I also thought of an unforgettable trip that Aaron and I made in September of 1986 to Geneva, New York, where the USDA apple collection is kept. Roger Way, the USDA’s apple curator, spent 35 years putting together a collection of 1,200 varieties of apples. On a sunny warm fall afternoon, Robert Becker and Aaron and I walked through the Geneva orchards. It was a sight I’ll never forget. The rows of trees were about 12’ apart with the trees 6’ apart in the rows and 80 trees per row. Everything was on dwarf rootstock, so the trees were only about 8’ tall and were supported by three high-tension wires. The trees themselves were a bit grotesque because they were pruned flat against the wires, just a skeleton. But, as we walked down through what seemed like an endless number of rows, the differences in the fruits was mind boggling. It was a bountiful year for apples and the trees were heavy with fruit. There were two trees of each variety planted side by side, so every other tree as far as we could see was a different variety. We stopped and tasted ones that caught our eyes, and their flavors were as unique as their fruits. We ate until we were full.

As I stood there in that amazing orchard, I realized that it was touching old, almost forgotten memories deep inside me. I remembered being a small child and going with my grandmother and mother to pick peaches in orchards along the Ninnescah River in southern Kansas between Dalton and Belle Plaine. We would go in the early morning and the fruit on the trees would be wet with dew and still cold from the night air. The perfect fruits were always in the very tops of the trees where the ladders couldn’t reach, so I’d climb up among them. There is nothing that can compare with the childhood memory of biting into a huge white Bell of Georgia peach and feeling the juice drip off your chin. I hope that my children and yours are lucky enough to have similar memories. A third of a century later, I was again feeling that same sense of wonder in orchards back on the East Coast. Those orchards at Geneva were one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. On that same trip Aaron and I spent a wonderful afternoon with Professor Elwyn Meader in his orchard. We also visited several other orchards, including the Preservation Orchard at Old Sturbridge Village which is maintained by the Worcester County Horticultural Society.

Another childhood memory which touched that same feeling of wonder was going with my family to the State Fair in Hutchinson, Kansas. Like any kid, the first thing I would do would be to get rid of my parents, of course, so I could spend the time as I pleased. Then I’d head directly for the poultry sheds. There were always hundreds of different kinds of birds, and spending a couple of hours wandering among the cages was a treat that I always looked forward to each year.

My kids and I felt that same sense of wonder while riding in the back of a pickup down at Marilyn Moeckly’s farm near Ames, as we drove through a herd of White Park cows and calves. They were like nothing I’d ever seen before, really ancient looking. My kids felt the wonder even before I told them their history. Few people have ever seen a White Park herd, an almost feral breed that has changed very little in the last 2,000 years. Only about 100 authentic White Park cattle still exist in England with just about 25 in the U.S. Being so close to that was really an incredible feeling for all of us.

My family has also felt that sense of wonder many times as we’ve walked through the woods here at Heritage Farm, especially in the early spring when the wildflowers are at their peak. Starting in early April, the side slopes of this valley and the woods are alive with wildflowers. Bob Dahse – whom I haven’t seen yet today, but I know he’s here – Bob and Lara came down last spring with Alan Wade to attend a wildflower conference at Luther College. They enjoyed some good presentations and slide shows, but the conference was almost entirely indoors. Bob and Lara and Alan came out here after the conference was over, and Bob mentioned that he had never seen any Spring Beauty. I said, “Well, let’s go see some.” We walked down the valley to a beautiful little spring that flows out of the rocks at one corner of the bluff. Tracy named the little spring Spring Beauty, because they grow all around it. Just past the spring we started climbing the south slope of the valley up into the woods. That whole side of the valley was covered with Spring Beauty. What a magical sight!

Those are some of the memories that have touched me deeply, and those are the types of inspirational experiences that we want visitors to enjoy at Heritage Farm. As you can see, we have already developed several acres of gardens where over a thousand varieties of rare vegetables are multiplied each year. As you wander through these beautiful gardens you will see the diversity that all of us, who are caretakers of this bounty, are trying to save. In a short while, David Cavagnaro will tell you more about the gardens and other things that we are trying to accomplish. You’ve probably seen the temporary nursery behind the barn that contains about 300 varieties of nineteenth century apples. Later this afternoon, David Sliwa will be telling you more about our Historic Apple Orchard. Probably this evening, if they aren’t scared off by all these people, you’ll see our small herd of White Park heifers, and I’ll tell you more about them in my workshop tomorrow. There are also some really rare Iowa Blue chickens around here that you’ll certainly see.

Diane and I knew what we wanted to do when we moved up to Iowa, as far as finding a place for the projects we hoped to develop. We searched for about three years to find this farm. We had a list of about 20 criteria, so it was a long search. This is a very special property. It’s been a meeting place for centuries. The pond behind the barn was constructed in 1981 and is spring-fed. Before that there was a large spring which, along with several other springs on this property, feed the stream that runs down the valley. This was once an Indian meeting place, because of the spring and because this is such a protected, beautiful bowl.

Even after the white man came, it continued to be a meeting place. Studying the abstract of this property has been fascinating. First this land was deeded to the local school district. The way the U.S. Government put the school system in place back then was to give each of the school districts about two sections of land. The school district would then sell that land on contract and the payments from those contracts supported the schools.

In 1853 a fellow named Col. John W. Taylor bought 1,280 acres that contained all of what is now Heritage Farm. He called it Pine Spring Farm and built a large cabin up on the bluff, right above where a lot of you are camping. The structure burned in 1907, but the cabin’s fireplace is still standing. Col. Taylor probably planted the 30-acre white pine woods up above the bluff, those beautiful hundred-year-old pines. He also planted a row of pine trees on each side of a hard-surfaced road that was called The Avenue, which started about a mile south of here and ran all the way to his cabin. The Avenue was planted along its entire length with wildflowers and bulbs. Col Taylor raised elk and once sent a dozen elk as a gift to the King of Italy. Col. Taylor’s cabin was a meeting place where his Civil War buddies and the local townspeople gathered. Carriages were provided so that his guests could go out into the countryside for their enjoyment. So this has been a meeting place for a long time, and we want it to be a meeting place again.

We are very enthusiastic about developing several weekend celebrations that will be held each summer here at Heritage Farm. Next spring we intend to have our first Wildflower Festival and bring people in for a weekend of camping when the early wildflowers are at their peak, probably in mid-April. We intend to always hold our Campout Convention on the next to the last full weekend in July, when the gardens are near their peak. And, as our Historic Apple Orchard develops, we also want to start holding an annual Cider Pressing Festival. For several years David Cavagnaro and his friends held a Pumpkin Carving Celebration in California. For the first time last October, we held a similar celebration here at Heritage Farm. We intend to open that celebration up to the whole community this year. And David has been talking about processions they had out there that were really magical. All the kids especially, and their parents as well, carved their squash, it them, and then carried the lighted lanterns in a procession up through the woods and back down. David was beaming when he told me how magical it was to see these faces bobbing down the hill.

There are some of the celebrations that we would like to develop here. We hope that when people leave they will have been touched by this sense of wonder, that they will think of themselves as caretakers, not only of the seeds but also of the land. This evening my friend Paul Johnson will be talking to all of us about land stewardship and sustainable agriculture. Following Paul’s presentation we will watch a very powerful play called Planting in the Dust which also deals with land ethics and soil conservation. We are deeply concerned with these issues and, except for the garden and orchard areas, most of Heritage Farm will be kept forever wild. We strongly believe that our children need to be able to play in deep woods where huge old trees just fall down and rot. Recently we were all very pleased when David and Joanie Cavagnaro purchased a wooded 200-acre farm, because we know that means there are 200 more acres in Winneshiek County that will always be protected. And we are also very pleased because now we know that they are definitely going to stay here in Iowa.

As most of you know, Seed Savers Exchange purchased Heritage Farm in November of 1986. I’m very pleased to announce that only 26 months later, this last January, we paid off the mortgage. I think that’s incredible! It’s amazing! Here is an organization of just a few thousand people whose incredible support has given Seed Savers Exchange a home for its projects forever. Seed Savers will always have a safe haven here. We are now land-based. I’m very pleased with that; it’s a very secure feeling. We have been very lucky because some folks in California, the Warsh-Mott Legacy, believed enough in our work to make us the original $110,000 loan that was used to purchase Heritage Farm. The same folks recently made available an additional loan at only 5.5%. We have used that loan to purchase the beautiful hundred-year-old white pine woods on the bluff, the valley floor all the way to the pines you see on the horizon, and some beautiful upland meadows to the south that are the perfect site for SSE’s Historic Apple Orchard. We hope to pay off this additional loan mainly with grants.

I’m always amazed at how things just fall into place as if they were destined. Everything here has happened so quickly. We have only been in this place for two and a half years and, as you can see, our Preservation Gardens and the educational facility here in the barn are virtually complete. A year ago a crew of Amish carpenters restored the loft of this barn and turned it into the unique meeting area where you are now seated. They put in all of these massive posts and beams to make the roof sound again, reroofed the entire structure with cedar shingles, built the entrance ramp and deck, and used beautiful red oak lumber to construct those benches and this stage. Most of you have already seen the work that they did downstairs this year constructing the bathrooms and showers, and also the seed office and all of the work areas for washing and processing seeds. And all of that work downstairs took them only a little over three weeks. You just can’t believe how those fellows work. Their skills are amazing. They roll in here before 8:00 in the morning and work until 6:00 at night. They work as a team and never slow up. It’s just amazing how quickly things happen. And they only ask for about a quarter of the wages of the plumbers who put in our underground irrigation system this last spring.

We have an incredible resource in our friends in the Amish community. Dan and his crew really enjoy working here, because most of the work that they do outside of their community is not nearly as creative as the things they get into here. This next spring we intend to send out a new round of grant proposals. First we’ll have the Amish build us a post-and-beam cabin for campers to use during our celebrations and conferences. We’ll photograph that cabin extensively as it’s being built, and then go to our funders and tell them that we built this cabin for less than $3,000. Then we’ll ask for support to build four more, and scatter them through the white pine woods. We’d also like to build a larger post-and-beam structure on the edge of the orchard that will be a workshop and toolshed, orchard office, and entrance to the orchard.

Two years from now we hope to have the Amish build an office complex on the south edge of the white pine woods. That complex will include five offices, conference room and library, mailroom and book storage, underground seed storage, and guest housing. Right now all of our computer systems are in a little house in Decorah that we use for an office. But we would eventually like to move our office back out here to Heritage Farm. I know that will be a longer commute for Steve. Right now our little house in town is just a couple of blocks from Luther College, so Steve Demuth can drop by over the noon hour or on his way to work at Luther’s Computer Center. Steve, the bearded fellow in the gray shirt back there, has helped Seed Savers so very much in putting together our computer systems, doing all of our programming, and the typesetting for all of the publications that we generate.

As most of you know, Seed Savers published its Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory this last spring. We had started working on it the June before and are extremely pleased with how it turned out. It is by far the best publication that Seed Savers has done to date. That’s due mainly to Steve’s skill at typesetting and also because of the way we were able to develop this inventory. We have a marvelous computer system and a couple of fantastic typists – Arllys Adelmann and Joanne Thuente – who literally typed in every description out of every nursery catalog in the country. We were able to run out a complete computer printout, which allowed us to straighten out all of the variety names and synonyms. So all of the variety names and source codes in the Fruit, Berry and Nut Inventory should be perfect. Then I spent about four months distilling thousands of pages of descriptions down into the best varietal descriptions possible, given the material that we were working with. The book really turned out well and we’re very pleased with it.

Seed Savers is also going to publish a book that Suzanne Ashworth out in California has donated to our organization. Suzanne has written a book on seed saving techniques for the home gardener. David Cavagnaro is donating the photographs to illustrate the book. Seed Savers office staff is going to do all of the computer work and typesetting. We already have secured a grant to promote the book. We intend to use the profits from the book to help support the Network of Curators that we’re now putting into place. So that’s another publishing project that will take place next fall and winter.

Before I introduce David, I just want to thank you all for being here. I hope that as you look around Heritage Farm, you can really feel the energy and the love that’s going into this place. And we hope that all of you will carry away a little bit of wonder when you leave. That’s what we’re really trying to do here. That should be easy with this group, because all of you are already caretakers of this wonderous heritage that we’re working so hard to save.