“Hey, I’ve almost got a full ounce!” Abe announces proudly, holding up his ziplock for us to see.
“Go for the kilo, Abe,” Diania tells him.
“Yeh, Abe,” Marian chimes in. “Go for the kilo.”
Abe Sanchez, contrary to what you might think, is not harvesting forbidden, illicit or illegal drugs in the backcountry of North County San Diego. Along with Diania Caudell (Luiseño), Marian Walkingstick (Acjachemen), Irving Morales (Luiseño), and Maureen Castillo (Cupeño), Abe is harvesting the tiny black seeds of the chia plant. I’m along to document the harvest.
The group are basketweavers passionately interested in anything related to traditional native basketry. In southern California, chia seeds were harvested using a seedbeater woven from willow and other local basketry plants. The seeds were collected in a burden basket or basket tray, then winnowed to remove the chaff using a woven winnowing tray.
. . .
After Irving and Maureen take their leave, the rest of us find another gathering site. Nothing deters our little group. The barking dogs are merely a counterpoint to the rhythmic sounds of the seed beater whacking the heads of the chia with the seedbeater against the bucket.
Chia seeds are a gift, Abe tells us.
Some writers speak of seeds not only as gifts but as jewels, an indication of how valued and revered seeds are. Show me a seed, Henry David Thoreau wrote, and I am prepared to expect wonders. Thoreau’s persistent faith in seeds is echoed by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, who writes that a few handful of native seeds contain more information than the Library of Congress. For ethnobotanist Kathleen Harrison, “each seed is encoded with . . . a long, winding, subtle story . . . the voices of the ancestors speaking in each of those seeds.”
Although the pink plastic fly swatter works well enough as a seed beater, it doesn’t have the beauty or resonance of a woven seedbeater. And the plastic red bucket from Home Depot, although inexpensive, light and functional, lacks any connection to the gathering site, unlike traditional collecting baskets, woven with the local juncus, deergrass, Rhus trilobata and yucca.
But this expedition is an exploratory one, and everyone’s in learning mode. We don’t imagine that there’s anyone else in the entire cosmos out gathering wild chia today.
“We’re doing an ancient thing her,” Abe tells us. Everyone laughs.
Yes we are, in spite of the pink plastic flyswatters, red plastic buckets, or the digital video camera. We are harvesting precious wild chia seeds.