An Earth Day Read: The Seed Keeper
Milkweed Editions has been responsible for publishing a number of remarkably distinct and breathtaking debut works over the years, and their recent release, Diane Wilson's debut novel The Seed Keeper, is no exception. As we celebrate Earth Day this week, her story of the essential bond between people and the earth is a particularly appropriate read.
The Seed Keeper begins with a poem that aptly sets the stage for the novel, as it is spoken through the voice of the seeds, who say they "surrendered our wildness to live in partnership with the Humans. / Because we cared for each other, the People and the Seeds survived." But as time went on, people lost their connection to the earth, moving away from this profound link, and the seeds are running out of time to be carefully and lovingly restored to the earth. Wilson's novel leaps through time but is essentially focused on Rosalie Iron Wing and her family in Minnesota. Rosalie grows up learning some of the ways of the Dakota from her father, but she is orphaned and moves through the foster care system. By the time she reaches late adolescence, she feels largely disconnected from her land and heritage. While marriage to a farmer makes her life more secure, it in many ways further disconnects her from her roots, as represented by her activist friend Gaby who fights to protect the local river ecosystem. The stirrings of a native connection to earth, which arise when Rosalie begins to garden on her land, take her through an intense journey (both spiritual and physical) in learning more about her personal and tribal history.
Though Rosalie Iron Wing is the clear protagonist of the novel, the story is really that of the seeds themselves, because they are what survive and connect generations of Dakota women and their families. They are what persist through war, upheaval, horrific boarding school experiences, the ravaging weather, and physical separation. In searing and often melodic language, Wilson weaves Indigenous history into her fictional narrative. The story's roots lie in the actual actions of Native women to save and sew seeds into their clothes, so that when they were forced from their land, they had a way to ensure the survival of their families wherever they ended up. In addition to this focus on the connection between people and earth, Wilson probes the horrible realities of Residential Schools and the ruthless separation of Native children from their families and heritage when they were absorbed into the foster care system.
Wilson is a descendant of the Mdewakanton (a sub-tribe of the Dakota) and longtime director of the nonprofit Dream of Wild Health and the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance. It's not surprising, after reading The Seed Keeper, to discover that the author is not just a writer but also a doer: someone who believes fiercely in the connection between Indigenous peoples and the land and who has made that relationship her life's work.
To whet your appetite, check out Milkweed's book trailer for The Seed Keeper below.