Magazine article The New Yorker

Magic Beans

Magazine article The New Yorker

Magic Beans

Article excerpt

MAGIC BEANS

Ken Greene taught school in California for five years. In 2000, he came east to work on a master's degree, and he took a part-time job running the children's programs at the public library in Gardiner, New York, a small town eighty miles up the Hudson from the Bronx. His field is special education, but he had been reading everything he could find on biodiversity. "We've lost a huge percentage of the vegetable varieties that existed in the nineteen-thirties," he said recently. With help from the three- and four-year-olds who attended his story hours, he turned the library's tiny front yard into a garden, mostly for heirloom vegetables, and in the fall the children helped him collect seeds from the plants they had grown. "I loved the fact that the seeds had stories--genetic stories, cultural stories--and I added the seeds to the library's catalogue, so that people could check them out, like checking out a book." The idea was that borrowers would later bring back other seeds, from their own gardens. By 2008, the project had become so all-consuming that Greene quit his teaching job to pursue it full time. He and his partner, Doug Miller--who left his own job running a teen-crisis hotline--founded the Hudson Valley Seed Library, on the site of a long-defunct Ukrainian summer camp not far from Gardiner. "People who attended the camp, back in the seventies, sometimes come by to reminisce," he said. "The No. 1 thing they talk about is where they lost their virginity."

Greene has a dark beard and thick circular earrings that look as though they must be painful to insert. "When I was young, I was really, really small," he said. "I think that gave me an appreciation for seeds. Seeds are tiny, but they're powerful." He and Miller converted a derelict cabin into a barn, and they turned the bunk beds into trellises for peas. The H.V.S.L. now has six full-time employees, a seventy-plus-page catalogue, and members all over the country. There are four hundred seed types in this year's collection, among them Hank's X-Tra Special Baking Beans, which Greene propagated from a single jarful that he was given in 2004. The jar came from Peg Lotvin, his boss at the Gardiner Library. Her late father had been a farmer, in nearby Ghent, and the beans in the jar were all that remained of a cherished project of his. …

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