My late grandmother had a shed out behind her house that was always lined with jars of summer preserves, but she was dismissive of her jewelled shelves. She claimed she did all the work out of pure habit. When she was a girl, they did real winter preparations. It was serious business, drying the grains, shaving corn, getting flour milled. It was the stuff of survival, not the modern day practice that was just in case they got snowed in for a few days.
She was born in 1910 and grew up on a farm in Washington State. During the summers I spent with her in the 1960s and 70s, she was still performing remnants of her girlhood training during WWI and then the Depression: Putting up preserves for the long winters. When she was young, preserving the harvest from the previous season also included the seeds of the next’s years crops. Properly dried, put up in sacks and hung from the rafters (at least, that’s how she described it).
By the time I was visiting her, she was using store-bought seeds for her gardening, and didn’t truly worry about not getting through the winter. After all, there were always freezers and supermarkets. By my time, people had started putting up preserves as a hobby, not as a means of survival.
These days, preserving last years crops has taken on a whole new meaning. Around the world, seed archives have been created to safeguard plant species in the face of the climate crisis. As habitats change and disappear, as the climate heats up and becomes less predictable, we are stocking our shelves for tomorrow.
My grandmother Helen passed at age 101, but she would have been fascinated by the new preserves, the stuff we’re putting away for the long summer to come. We are placing hope in our future selves that we will be able to protect biodiversity then, even if we are failing at protecting it now.
All the images here are from the portfolio of Dornith Doherty, who is documenting these archives around the world in her Archiving Eden project.
Unique examples of the world’s plant life, not just for our consumption. They may have to last a lot longer than my grandmother’s winter preserves.