A Tribute to Blane Bourgeois
One of American's great modern seed saver is remembered for his commitment to the preservation of heirloom seeds.
I first met Blane Bourgeois after a pilgrimage of sorts some 10 years ago. As my kids and I approached his house there was suspense; would he be friendly? Would he invite us to visit? Or would he shoo us away? We had not prewarned of our visit, as it was hard to reach Blane by phone, so we were taking our chances and just dropping in. We made our way south of Salem, Arkansas, following an old timer’s directions; passing the mentioned “old church on the right,” we saw the little gravel road veering off sharply to the left. We turned and hit the next corner; this was Blane’s road, Mulberry Lane, we had arrived. The trees shadowed the way and it was pretty obvious when we came to his property that everything was planted in a most amazing fashion … diversity abound. Tall purple perilla plants waved in the breeze against Jerusalem artichokes, giant leeks, Mongolian buckwheat, pole beans, and mints of every sort. Blane was in the front yard when we pulled in. He greeted us with a “Cool, man … welcome!” His gardening outfit was a blue hospital scrub shirt, jeans, clog-like sandals, and a weathered straw hat. It wasn’t long before our bond as fellow seed collectors was solidifying; we knew that we had found a new friend.
Motioning to a vegetable patch out yonder, “That’s where the tomatoes are,” Blane escorted us out into his gardens and pointed out hundreds of rare varieties he was growing out for seed. His tomato plots had dozens of heirloom varieties and he was busy harvesting his early potato crop.
Everywhere on the property there were potted plants, seedlings and the initiation of the next gardening project. Blane took us into his little house. It was a home stuffed with botanical and musical wonders; books were piled table-high on the floor, a myriad of vials, jars and sachets of essential herb oils, herbal extracts, and packets of dried herbs were arranged haphazardly in cabinets all over the house.
Seed packets were ubiquitous and there were hundreds, if not thousands, of them spread throughout the house, greenhouses and sheds! Several freezers were in the kitchen, not with food in them, but rather seeds. Blane and his girlfriend of the time, Kelly McClure, worked extraordinarily hard to protect this collection of food crops; between the both of them they maintained over 2,500 varieties and landraces of vegetables. Blane’s seed saver career started after he finished his degree in marine biology. He recounted his first day on the job, “I was hired by Chevron as a Marine Biologist; the first task they put me to was determining how much chemical ‘pollution’ shrimp could take before dying! That was my first assignment. I thought that was odd, I wanted to study marine life to protect it, not to spend my time figuring out how much poison it could take before dying! I quit and never turned back.”
After leaving his short-lived career as a Chevron marine biologist, Blane went back to the family homestead and lived like Ralph Waldo Emerson, immersed in the nature around him. For many years, Blane’s girlfriend, Kelly McClure, shared the “natural” life and the accompanying tasks with him. Together they ran Horus Botanicals. This little seed company would become known for the couple’s unique heirloom collections and botanical oddities, many of it having never been available before or since. Years later, when Kelly and Blane parted ways, Blane was so overburdened with all the grow-outs that he was to become hermetic; he gave up his efforts to supply commercial seed requests and stopped communicating with most people. He dedicated his time to growing vegetables and writing music. Blane loved music and could play a phenomenal number of instruments. One of his favorite artists was Loreena McKennitt. I remember her songs very well; once my kids and I “camped” at Blane’s cottage and we were treated to one of Blane’s favorite McKennitt songs, “The Mummer’s Dance,” from the album “The Book of Secrets.” Blane turned his stereo up full blast and it played over and over through the night. It was that “song night” that my kids consider to this day one of their fondest “seed friend” memories! The lyrics of that song are especially relevant to Blane’s life and I quote a few of them below to show why.
“When in the springtime of the year/ When the trees are crowned with leaves/ When the ash and oak and the birch and yew/ Are dressed in ribbons fair/ A garland gay we bring you here/ And at your door we stand/ It is a sprout well budded out/ The work of our Lord’s hand/ The songs of birds seem to fill the wood/ That when the fiddler plays/ All their voices can be heard/ Long past their woodland days.”
Blane’s love for nature permeated all that he did. His philosophy was simple: try to live in harmony with nature and appreciate all of the amazing beauty around us. Recently, while visiting Blane’s mother, Nell Bourgeois, I asked her about Blane’s passions, “How did Blane get into nature and gardening?” She answered, “Blane followed his grandparents as a child, my mother, Bessie Alma Kimble, was an original seed saver. Blane used to work with her in the garden even as a little boy. He loved to go into the garden with her and plant beans. She had old fashioned varieties, even way back then. Bessie kept several varieties of butter beans and crowder beans, which in part explains why Blane was so passionate about them in later life — it reminded him of his grandmother. Even though she lived an early life of poverty and hardship, she was a woman of great joy who could see the positive in life, she shared that outlook with her grandson.” Nell continued, “Blane was perpetually curious; he started collecting bugs when he was about 3 years old, he never hurt them, he just wanted to study them. As he grew up his heart stayed as sweet; Blane was an extremely humble person who never said a bad word about anyone.” She wiped a tear from her eye remembering her son.
Blane died on Oct. 23, 2011. I had lost contact with him because he had become very aloof in responding to emails. Mutual friends and I had only assumed he was “out of touch.” In late 2013, while speaking to Jere Gettle, Jere shared with me that his FedEx driver had mentioned “that seed saver guy” in Arkansas had died and asked if Jere knew about it. We investigated and found out Blane had indeed passed. A few weeks later, and independently, Blane’s sister, Karen Bourgeois, and his widow, Joy Thompson, contacted Jere asking him if he would be willing to accept the responsibility to take on and care for Blane’s entire seed collection. Jere happily agreed and called me; we met at Blane’s home to pick up the seeds.
We were greeted by Karen and Joy, and between the ice chests, five-gallon buckets, and freezers filled with seeds, an entire 14-foot flatbed trailer was packed. We shared memories of Blane with Karen and Joy and thanked them for considering Baker Creek in their desire to preserve Blane’s work. We left with hugs and tears and promised them we would do everything possible to pass Blane’s botanical treasures on to the world.
It took a couple of weeks to inventory all the seeds Blane had in his collection. I myself noted hundreds of varieties that I had entrusted him with. Going through the packets was nostalgic and bittersweet. One cultivar in particular stood out, it was Blane’s own selection of an unusual cowpea, which he named the ‘Atchafalaya Swamp Pea.’ There were approximately 2 pounds of seeds, but they had been preserved since they were harvested in 2007 in an unrefrigerated ice chest. Were they viable? Baker Creek’s own Katie Adams was put to the task to test germination. Her preliminary trials at 78 degrees Fahrenheit were negative, all the seeds molded and not a one sprouted; I had feared that we would lose this precious cultivar. Katie persevered with her task and a couple of weeks later succeeded in germinating about 10 percent of the ‘Atchafalaya Swamp Peas’ at 70 degrees! We were delighted. Martin Walsh, from Baker Creek, organized grow-outs of this “pea” and I am now proud to report that Blane’s pride and joy, his ‘Atchafalaya Swamp Pea,’ is safe and secure and soon ready to be shared with gardeners all over America and the world! Blane would have a smile on his face if he knew that, and I have a smile on my face because I knew a great man who taught me a lot.
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