Journal of Writing & Environment

Book Review: Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver

Diane Ott Whealy’s Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver
Review by Dana Thomann

Wilsted & Taylor Publishing Services, 2011

A young man and a young woman marry. They move around the United States following odd jobs in their tiny Volkswagen Beetle in the 1970s. Life seems haphazard and inchoate, but a theme emerges in each place they live—an appreciation for discovering heirloom fruits, vegetables, and seeds. Diane Ott Whealy’s, Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver, is a reminder that good things aren’t built in a day, and it is sometimes unclear where passions and persistence will lead. Ott Whealy chronicles the beginnings, struggles, and successes of what becomes the world-renowned nonprofit Seed Savers Exchange, co-founded with Kent Whealy. The seemingly haphazard and humble beginnings that develop page by page make Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver rewarding to read.

The impetus for a seed exchange began with Ott Whealy’s ancestors from Bavaria. Their heirloom morning glory seeds were brought to North America and passed from generation to generation. Ott Whealy collects some seeds from her paternal grandparents to ensure their survival. An idea is sparked. Whealy wonders if others who save heirloom seeds would be willing to exchange to keep genetic diversity strong. In 1975, Whealy and Ott Whealy establish a small seed exchange with 29 gardeners. The following year, the exchange grows to 142 interested people. Suddenly Ott Whealy finds her home brimming with heirloom seeds, and this is just the beginning.

The importance of genetic diversity grows as hybrid seeds start to take over seed catalogs in the 1980s. Exchange of heirloom seed becomes not only recreational, but necessary preservation. Others begin to recognize Whealy and Ott Whealy for their efforts: an article in Organic Gardening magazine in 1981, a MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1990, a Martha Stewart visit in 1999, the acquisition of Heritage Farm in 1987, and 716 contiguous acres to build what is known today worldwide as Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa.

While Whealy seems to be the face of Seed Savers Exchange, without Ott Whealy Seed Savers Exchange would never have become a reality. She is a true pioneer in her field. Not only does she raise five children as they build Seed Savers Exchange from the ground up, she becomes an influential businesswoman in the process. For this reason, Ott Whealy becomes a sort of seed saving heroine—the book a celebration of all the roles women fill.

In an excerpt titled “Growing Pains” Ott Whealy describes her precarious balance between motherhood and non-profit accountant. “One year, a tax due date and my due date coincided. But before Jessica Lee Whealy was born on April 5, 1988, I made sure the federal and FICA taxes had been sent in.” Ott Whealy describes her many roles with a little humor and a lot of dutiful respect to the mission of Seed Savers Exchange.

The book does slow in some points. At moments, it reads as a thank-you card to the many people who made Seed Savers Exchange what it is today. Ott Whealy often takes a few lines to thank people. “Over the next four years, many people contributed to the effort. Kent applied his editing skills, Arllys Adelmann typed all the extensive revisions, and Steve Demuth was the technical consultant. David Cavagnaro took hundreds of photographs…” All the names can be a bit overwhelming, but remembering each name is not critical to appreciating the book as a whole.

The organization of the book can also be confusing at times. While the story is told mostly chronologically, it deviates at points, which makes it hard to follow the timeline of events leading to the development of Seed Savers Exchange. Redeeming the book from these minor flaws are lines laden with vivid sensory details. “The air smelled of freshly turned earth. Before long, we took off our shoes and walked—we practically waded—in the soft, cool Iowa earth.” The book’s beautiful layout, illustrations, and photographs reminded me of a child’s storybook, of entering a lush garden.

But while the aesthetically pleasing memoir may call to mind the feel of a children’s picture book, the larger emotional conflict of Gathering: Memoir of a Seed Saver grapples with mature themes, of letting go, and of hopefulness for the future. The ending invites readers to think about the personal sacrifices they would be willing to make for the sake of the greater good.