All Aboard the Ship Sailing Near-Extinct Grains From Oslo to Istanbul
“We’re using the seeds as a way to talk about challenges within the food system,” says Amy Franceschini, one of the artists involved in the project.
The crisp morning air whips around my body as I make my way down to the end of a floating jetty at a community boat moorings in Wapping, East London. With Tower Bridge in the distance, I watch as the crew on board the mighty Christiania, a former rescue boat, prepare for the day.
But it's their cargo I'm more interested in: seeds.
"We set sail in September from Oslo, where we started with a selection of ancient grains that were rescued from possible extinction," explains Amy Franceschini, one of the artists onboard the vessel and founder of Futurefarmers, the design collective behind the voyage. "We're using the seeds as a way to meet farmers, seed-savers, bakers, and policy makers in different locations to talk about changes and challenges in the food system."
Franceschini is one of seven artists, sailors, and chefs currently aboard Christiania as part the Seed Journey project. The crew members rotate as the boat makes its way from the Norwegian capital to countries including Denmark, England, France, and Spain before heading to its final destination of Istanbul. The type of cargo, however, stays the same.
"The seeds guide us. We have a collection that we use along the way to show and tell stories," says Franceschini. "But we also might meet a farmer in Brittany who will point us in the direction of a grain farm in Spain. We have bags of seeds on board. They're in our pockets, in packages … "
On cue, Franceschini starts unpacking a box. She takes out a big hourglass filled with grain and some ears of Finnish rye.
She holds it up. "I don't know how a staple got in there."
We've relocated to a nearby boat house with Franceschini, Martin Lundberg (artist and navigator), and Marthe Van Dessel (another artist capturing daily life on the boat on the airwaves of Radio Ramona). I ask them how they chose which seeds to bring.
Franceschini explains: "They're either from seed banks where they've been sitting idle for years or from informal places like in between two floorboards in an abandoned sauna in Norway. Activating those seeds is what we're interested in. Whether that's highlighting a grower who's reintroducing to the land and growing them, or using them to talk about issues in the food system."
Rewind. In between two floorboards in an abandoned sauna? Lundberg gives me the lowdown.
"Travelling communities in Scandinavia pre-1500 used to carry these seeds in their pockets and grow rye wherever they'd settle," he says. "One seed in good conditions could create 1,200 seeds which means that a family could survive on the crops as well as have more seeds to take with them to the next place."
But Lundberg explains, as the practice of shifting cultivation was restricted around 1520, the production of the Finnish rye decreased with the last evidence of the crop in the early 1900s.
"This guy, Per Martin Tvengsberg, had an idea that these grains needed to be saved so he got permission to take apart this old sauna," says Lundberg.
Franceschini explains: "The Fins used to dry their grains in the saunas where they bathed. Nine grains were found in between the floorboards and when they were grown, seven of them came back to life."But there's more importance to the grain's revival than meets the eye.
"They're symbols of resilience but also of self-reliance," says Franceschini, picking up the crop from the table. "These seeds didn't go through the industrialisation process so they haven't been homogenised. They're still very biologically diverse so they're more robust in terms of climate change. They haven't been shortened like modern grains so, because they're high, they shade out the weeds. You don't have to use chemical herbicides. They also provide their own nitrogen so you don't have to add it artificially into the system."
Franceschini tells me about a Lincolnshire-based project they have encountered along the journey so far called Field of Wheat, which explores the use of chemicals in farming.
"With a farmer, they made a bag of flour and listed all the fertilisers, pesticides, and fungicides that have to be used in conjunction when growing wheat," she says. "The conversation turns to how a relatively small scale farmer producing a commodity crop, can transition out of this locked-in practice."
Van Dessel adds: "You also have the issue of needing a circle of similar-minded people working with the farmers. Conventional millers and bakers might not be able to take the ancient grains because they're not certified and considered 'dirty'."
Back to the Seed Journey at hand, Van Dessel says: "The seed ceremonies we host at every stop help to connect all these people."
Franceschini shows me a mini hourglass with a few grains inside.
"They're symbolic cargo which we keep inside a little replica wooden rescue boat. At each stop, they'll be filled with seed and sealed with wax from the farmer," she says. "At the seed ceremony, we bake flatbread from the grain and send up smoke signals in Morse code from the small wood fired oven. It's a translated message from the first farmer we worked with in Norway: We don't need a museum to preserve varieties. What we want is to grow them."
And what about the plan once they reach Istanbul?
"The idea is to gather all of our stories, our research, the seeds, and the rotating crew for an exhibition and public programme. But I wouldn't call it the ending of the project," says Franceschini. "Because the idea is to get the seeds back in the ground and activate local networks in all the places we visit."
Lundberg adds: "When we land in Istanbul, it's just one day. There are still 364 other days in the year."
I leave the crew preparing for their departure from London to Antwerp, and wobble back up the ramp of the floating jetty. It's lucky they have better sea legs than I do.