Personal Pansies: Part One

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Iidentify with seeds. Intensely. I see myself in them. In the past I’ve been a Dino Kale seed, a Purple Podded Pea seed, and a Heartseed, to name a few. But right now, I’m a pansy. Here’s why.

When we are choosing a variety for a new Art Pack, we look for a seed that has a compelling story. Once we’ve grown the variety and are sure we love it, we share the story as we know it with an artist and they interpret the elements of that tale through their art. Our stories have covered everything from flower arranging to endangered species, plant breeding to the tragedy of forced human diasporas. More than a few of our Art Packs tell very personal stories about just one caring person’s efforts to save an heirloom from extinction.

We also recognize that we are often telling other people’s stories when we share seeds. So last year when we were looking for varieties, I decided to tell a personal story of my own while honoring the ways in which seeds, and the plants they grow, help us transform ourselves and the world we live in. But I felt nervous about putting myself out there. I’m used to being the storyteller—not the subject. And part of the story I wanted to share about human connections to seeds relates to my sexuality and gender identity, which is something I don't usually talk about in the context of our awesome little independent seed company. So I decided to face my fears head on. And with the full support of our fully double rainbow team here at the Hudson Valley Seed Co we decided to make the gayest seed pack ever.

There were some excellent contenders for varieties, but Pansies clearly won. The word “pansy” is used as a way to insult people—and in particular men, like myself, who don’t adhere to gender binary stereotypes. In and out of school during my childhood I got called many of the words used to disparage boys who are different—sissy, girly, over-sensitive, gay, and pansy.

My personal story with pansies started with hate mail. This was before the days of social media bullying, so it was literally hate mail—an actual handwritten letter. Imagine the time and commitment it took to actually compose and hand write hate mail! The letter was passed between peers before finally reaching me in the summer before starting my first year at a new high school where I didn’t know anyone. In it, the bully threatened that he would tell everyone to hate me and that he would make sure I would have no friends. Among other insults about my skinny frame and big nose, he called me out for being too feminine and called me a pansy. Although the letter shook me, I went to school that September determined to avoid him and make my own friends. Despite the deep self consciousness I carried I connected with other kids who had their own challenges in fitting in. Together we navigated through the weeds and thickets of high school.

Many years later, after Doug and I fell in love, built our little cabin in the woods and had begun our seed journey, Doug wanted to buy pansies at a nursery to plant at home. I refused, saying, “I don’t like pansies.” But Doug loves them. So we struck a deal. Since he did most of the work doing our taxes, and tax season is pansy season, I agreed to buy and plant pansies despite my reluctance. A pretty decent trade off for not doing our taxes! But this got me thinking. Why don’t I like pansies? The truth was that I unconsciously disliked them because of enduring that insult again and again when I was young. In a way, my disdain for the flower was a form of internalized homophobia.

But how did “pansy” become a put-down? For those of us who know the flower well, the epithet makes no sense. The seeds can survive winter’s freeze. The early spring sprouts shrug off biting frosts. They bloom in a chorus of color through the growing season. They’re not shy or shrinking. They’re not weak.

Pansies are tough.

So what is it about pansies? Their cheeriness? Showiness? That they’re colorful like a rainbow? Turns out, none of the above. According to word origins sleuths, it has more to do with the French word “pense” and the habit of the flower nodding its head downwards as if in thought. That’s where the name of the flower derived from. And because homophobia is also a weapon of sexism, being thoughtful was considered a negative feminine quality undesirable in masculine men.

My own thoughtfulness comes, in part, from growing up queer. Feeling different, being bullied. Enduring harassment in public, fearing for my safety, or wondering if I missed out on opportunities because I wasn’t masculine enough. Once I entered the farming, seed breeding, and university plant science arenas, I encountered agricultural cultures that were too conservatively straight to be able to incorporate the full me into their communities. I frequently had to make decisions about how I was presenting myself—do I try to fit in or do I be myself and see what happens? Do I unabashedly bloom like the thoughtful pansy that I am?

And this relates to the feeling of being reluctant to share too much of our personal lives. We’ve seen how the owners of other farms and seed companies regularly share about their marriage, children, or love as part of their marketing strategy, using terms like “family farm”, or posting coupled shots on their social media. For us we had to question—are we a “family farm” too? Would sharing in the same way cause us to lose customers, be unfollowed on social media, appear too different for farmers to want to buy their seeds from us, or draw out hate-filled comments on our posts? Some of these concerns are real—some are just instilled fears. But for me, this uncomfortable self-questioning is a constant reality of being queer.

As an activist within the seed world I’ve been trying to shift consciousness around seed ethics. I’ve been transforming my questioning into thoughtfulness, and my fear into action. These experiences from childhood through adulthood made me a pensive champion of the underdogs, of the invisible, and eventually led me to want to be a voice for seeds—so they could be understood, heard, and accepted for the foundation role they play in culture and agriculture.

So for this seed pack we went with my personal pansy story. But the next challenge was to choose the right artist. I wasn’t sure we would find someone to capture all of this just through our regular submission process. So I did my own online research and found out about something called The Pansy Project.

Paul Harfleet plants pansies at the site of homophobic abuse. He finds the nearest source of soil to where the incident occurred and generally, without civic permission, plants one unmarked pansy. The flower is then photographed in its location and posted on his website; the image is titled based on the words hurled in the abuse. The inflammatory titles of hate speech reveal a frequent reality of gay experience, which often goes unreported to authorities and by the media. This simple action operates as a gesture of quiet resistance; some pansies flourish and others wilt in urban hedgerows. I learned that Paul began by planting pansies to mark his own experience of homophobia on the streets of Manchester, and now he plants pansies for others both on an individual basis and as part of various festivals and events.

I was inspired to find someone using plants to bring attention to bigotry and violence against people who are just being themselves. But more than that, what I found so important about The Pansy Project is that it doesn’t just mark a moment, it transforms the experience. How do we take these places back, how do we take these words back, how do we draw attention to hate crimes in a way that is both arresting and hopeful, reflective and exuberant?

I reached out to Paul to tell him about the seed pack, not knowing if he would be interested or even read my email. He got back to me immediately. He loved the idea. And it turned out he is also an accomplished visual artist. So Paul was the perfect fit. I went from desk to desk, field to field, sharing Paul’s work with our team and everyone was excited to share Paul’s powerful partnership with a plant to make the world a better place for everyone.

Doug and I got a chance to meet Paul in person while he was visiting New York, planting and painting pansies around the city. And I interviewed him the way we interview all of our artists. Check back in for tomorrow's blog post to read our conversation.

The art Paul created for the Pansy Pack is all about the power of symbols. Plants—especially flowers and herbs, have long been used as symbols. There are lists revealing the “language of flowers” and what emotions, politics, and sense of identity different plants herald. When searching for pansy info, I came across many other individuals and organizations using the symbol of the pansy—Pansy Brigade, Pansy Magazine, Pansy Collective, and Pansy Club at the Beverly to name a few. Along with these groups, we’d like to help reclaim “pansy” from its use as an insult and allow the plant to speak for itself—strong, bright, thoughtful, tough, colorfully diverse, and fiercely pretty—and adopt the Pansy as a way to be proud of ourselves as LGBTQIA individuals.

Pansies are described as having faces because of their shape and the way the lines and petals converge to give the impression of eyes, nose and mouth. Even though the U.S. is a much better place for gay, lesbian, and transgender people than it was when I was struggling to come out, queer individuals around the world still face bias and bullies, threats and violence, being disowned by family and ostracized in society. This Pansy Pack helps us all face those challenges head on by shining bright faces into the world.

So whether Doug does our taxes or not this year, I’m planting pansies. Lots and lots of pansies. Because they are joyous flowers, bringing color to our lives after enduring our most colorless season, and because in each distinctly hued pansy flower face I can now see a smiling child who didn’t get bullied for not conforming, a thoughtful gender fluid teen who can walk down the street radiating their beauty, or someone happily married to the person they love regardless of sexual or gender identity.

We hope you’ll embrace this story as you have all of the stories we share through seeds and welcome pansies into your garden with love and open arms.

—Ken Greene, Co-Founder

To read part two of this post, an interview with Paul Harfleet, click here.

If you have a favorite pansy group or organization you’d like people to know about tag them in our Instagram post about this story. We’d love to send them a free Pansy Pack!

A portion of proceeds from sales of this pack will be donated to the Trevor Project. Founded in 1998 by the creators of the Academy Award®-winning short film TREVOR, The Trevor Project is the leading national organization providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer & questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25.