Swedish artist/scientist/writer/organizer Åsa Sonjasdotter recently released her new book "Peace with the Earth — Tracing Agricultural Memory, Refiguring Practice", published by Archive Books. This book was partly founded by The Seed Box and we asked Åsa to tell her about her work and the new book.

Who is Åsa Sonjasdotter?

Åsa Sonjasdotter

Åsa Sonjasdotter.

I am an artist, researcher, writer and organizer who grew up in the city of Lund and on the island of Ven in Skåne where I still live, as well as I live in the city of Berlin, where I have been active in the community garden Prinzessinnengarten for about ten years. The experiences from my upbringing in the country made me interested in ways to include more-than-human relations into my artistic practice, especially the way they take shape within agriculture. An interesting detail about agriculture is that its central to many human cultures, not least the Western. At the same time, cultivation is difficult to locate within modern knowledge systems. Cultivars – cultivated life forms such as vegetables, cereals, pets, etc., are not really explained in modern, Western philosophy, where a distinction is made between the natural and the artificial world. Cultivars are neither completely natural nor completely artificial, but rather something in between, or beyond, these distinctions. I am also fascinated by the way cultivated life forms respond to the human intervention of breeding by literally bursting out in an abundance of expressions in form, color and taste. This is so very surprising, and I wonder if the term ‘domestication’ is appropriate here, or if the abundance in aesthetic expressions is a sign of that something far more sophisticated is going on?    

Tell us about your book!

Peace with the earth coverThe book “Peace with the Earth: Tracing Agricultural Memory, Refiguring Practice” tells stories of three staple crops as they have been grown on the island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, at various times throughout history.

I was lucky to be able to carry out the research thanks to an institutional collaboration between the Baltic Art Center in Visby, Gotlands Museum and Konstfrämjandet Gotland as well as with funding from The Seed Box. I was invited as an artistic researcher at Gotland’s Museum during the year of 2018, where I was able to study the institution’s archives and collections in search for remains that carry memory about the island’s special history of cultivation, as well as I learned from the rich memory maintained by people and stored in the landscape.

Based on this research, I built stories based on three central crops; emmer grains, potatoes and turnips. All three crops have a unique and special history for the island, at the same time as they have great nutritional and culinary qualities.

The three crops were propagated at the Bunge open-air museum on Gotland. I presented the history of the crops and their potential in an exhibition at the Gotland Art Museum, where objects from the collections were combined with quotations from historical and contemporary sources. Visitors could bring seeds, grains and tubers from the crops, for further cultivation in gardens and fields.

The project was carried out in response to the Swedish suffragettes, ecologists and peace activists Elisabeth Tamm and Elin Wägner’s pamphlet ”Peace with the Earth” (Fred med Jorden), published in Swedish in 1940. (An English translation is published at Archive Books in 2020). The appeal was perceived as regressive when it was written, but their analysis has proved to be correct. The challenge to find sustainable forms of cultivation and relations with the Earth has not been solved by the industrial agriculture, the opposite is unfortunately the case. Industrial farming has in a very short time contributed to an insect extinction as well as to grave soil depletion.

In my in-depth research on Gotland, I found out that in older times, it was the kitchen garden in combination with gleaning that most often helped the farming family survive throughout the year, as a large part of the grain harvest and livestock surplus left the farm in the form of taxes. The role of the kitchen garden on the farm is not documented to any appreciable extent, yet it often formed the family’s basis for survival. According to sources, it was often children, the elderly and the women of the farm who took care of this part of the cultivation. The question of its fertilization is interesting: was it nurtured by the household waste, including the human waste? It is well documented that the manure from the animals on the farm was used to manure the grain fields. If I were a farmer having to pay most of the grain harvest in taxes, I would have used the nutrient rich human waste to manure my kitchen garden. Human manure is up to five times richer compared to for example cow dung.

For a future sustainable cultivation system, gardening in various forms combined with sophisticated composting of all waste, the human waste included, appears as a sustainable model. Gardening yields up to five times per square meter compared to grains, so it’s as well a very efficient way to use farmable land. The emphasis on the overlooked possibilities of gardening combined with proper composting of human- and kitchen waste is my way of responding to, and bringing further, Tamm and Wägner’s appeal for how to live in peace not only on, but with, the Earth!

Read more about Åsa Sonjasdotters work here.