Sow Good Seeds: Be like the chipmunk

Sow Good Seeds is a column devoted to environmental issues, gardening, cooking, and anything else connected to the natural world that has so graciously hosted us on this earth. My hope is that it will encourage you to see the world around you in a different way, to make incremental changes in your daily living, and to treat our planetary home such that we honor the generations of life that will follow.

You saw them at grocery stores this fall: shelves of glass jars that showed up in the kitchen section as soon as the temperatures dipped. They’re now replaced with holiday table decor, but it’s still food preservation season!

In the world of permaculture, this falls under the principle of catching and storing energy. It’s one of my favorite principles, as I’m sure it is for others. It makes me feel like a chipmunk, tucking walnuts into the crevices of a tree trunk and gathering moss and stray bird feathers to keep their den warm over the long winter. 

I don’t know if chipmunks feel gratified by their stores of food after busy days of harvesting, but I definitely feel a sense of satisfaction as I watch the metamorphosis from piles of vegetables on my counter to containers in the freezer or jars in the basement. It’s also gratifying to work together as a community in the storing of food at harvest time: canning parties are lots of fun when you divide the work and the gains!

These days, we have access to all the things all the time — we can find tomatoes at the store in January, when technically there’s a scarcity of such produce in Michigan at that time of year. This principle is an invitation to live seasonally and take advantage of abundance when it’s present. 

This past summer, I watched with some chagrin as the local department of public services appeared one day and took down a mostly-dead tree in front of my house. It was time for the tree to go — the hollow stump left behind was clear indication — before it had the chance to crash down during a storm. Any person who plays Settlers of Catan knows, though, that trees are enormously valuable. They contain energy that can be used for firewood, for mulch in gardens, for building materials, and more — all of which I could have captured to incorporate into my own property. Instead, due to timing and circumstance, the branches were chipped and the logs piled on a truck, bound for the municipal yard waste site. They’ll be used in someone else’s yard as compost or mulch, so there is some consolation that my tree’s energy will go somewhere, at least.

It’s not just physical energy in the form of produce or wood that this principle encourages us to store. Energy, either loosely or narrowly defined, can take many forms: solar panels store sunlight and transform it into power; rain barrels store water in times of abundance, to be used in times of drought; libraries store information, to be shared with the community. 

My grandfather passed away in September, and he held within him an abundance of stories. I only heard a small fraction of them, and I wish I had asked to hear more. The wisdom, knowledge, and experiences of our elders is a kind of energy that should be stored, revisited regularly, and passed on to future generations.

The beauty of it is that it’s intended to be a part of a cycle: seeds are stored at the end of a season to be planted the next, and in time those plants will bear seeds. One generation offers their stories to the next, who will in turn pass on their own stories, and so on. As energy is stored, it’s reinvested into the future.

Deborah Haak-Frost is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers, and volunteers with *culture is not optional, a Three Rivers-based community development organization.