Thursday, May 6, 2010

Industry, Maine: Will Bonsall

The smell of fresh bread greeted us as we stepped into Will Bonsall's kitchen. Light filled the kitchen and made the wooden interior glow and Will invited us to take a seat while the bread finished baking. As we embarked on this project and asked people who we should try to talk to, everyone in Maine would invariably ask us "Have you heard of Will Bonsall?"

Will Bonsall has many passions. Saving heirloom seeds and educating the public about how losing so many varieties of seeds impacts us are topics he speaks about frequently. In his youth Will moved to Maine to be a homesteader and become self-sufficient; he wanted his resources to be produced on his own land and to not have to go anywhere else to get what he needed for everyday living. Will became tuned into the fact that a lot of heirloom varieties of seeds were being lost as big farms started taking over most of the food production in the States. Will wants to keep varieties alive, and he spends most of his time directing Scatterseed project, which supplies a good deal of seeds, potatoes, and Jerusalem artichokes to the Seed Savers catalog and allows him to grow dying varieties of produce that might otherwise become extinct.

Will is the Seed Savers curator for peas, has about 800 varieties of potatoes, and is in possession of one of the world's most diverse collection of Jerusalem artichokes. In his cellar we saw hundreds of bags of potatoes; some varieties there are but a few individual potatoes down there on a shelf...and every year he must plant every one of them to produce clones...therefore, every year, on a small plot in central Maine, all of those potatoes are at risk in the ground, subject to weather and pests. He would like more people to propagate and save these potatoes and seeds, but for now he is known for his role as a saver...much as he wishes it weren't necessary.

Will talked about a picture of his grandmother he has, in which she is standing in front of baskets of potatoes from her farm at a fair, and realizing that many of those varieties are no longer available, extinct and forgotten. So he strives to keep mama nature alive and versatile, he laments the fact that more people are not saving their seeds, and he tells amazing science fiction stories if you are lucky enough to find yourself addressing envelopes and packing seeds in his office (which looks like the coolest treehouse you've ever risked your life to climb into). Will kept us entertained while we packaged rutabega, potato and pea seeds for a good two hours by taking us to Aspiria, a land he created that exists in the future and will be gracing bookstores in its book form in a month or so. Describing Will Bonsall as "fascinating" is a gross understatement, akin to saying Bill Gates has some pocket change.

It's remarkable to see what can happen on a given acre of land...he uses about an acre to supply himself and his family with food and two to three acres for the Scatterseed project.


sc said...

As someone who has worked on his farm years ago I was delighted to stumble upon this profile of Will! This is a great synopsis of his work and some beautiful pictures of the man in action. I should mention that his book is now in print. "Through the Eyes of a Stranger" tells a story set in the fictional Esperian society you mentioned. It paints a detailed picture of what a sustainable society could look like. Will is a gifted story teller, and I was impressed by what fun read it was. If anyone is interested I highly recommend it:

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful work this man is doing. In a sense he's a modern day Noah and he even looks the part. Thank you WIll from all of us who care, and on behalf of the uneducated who don't care but their future and that of their descendants depends on the preservation of our genetic diversity.

Anonymous said...

As his former neighbor we have all come a long way from purchasing our land from
Lucian Kenniston, a wonderful, humble man. I enjoyed your book Will, Through The Eyes".
I am building carbon nuetral, thick walled, triple glassed wondow homes.

Leda Beth Gray, Blue Hill Public Librar said...

Will is going to give a talk at the Blue Hill Public Library and I'm wondering if we can use that photo for our newsletter and poster(?) It is, by far, the best photo of him that I've seen. Enjoyed reading the post, by the way!

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