Friday, June 13, 2008

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Changing the World From Missouri to Mexico, One Garden at at Time

I wandered into this magical emporium in April and met a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, or rather El Juanito Semilla de Manzana, and I've been thinking about Jeremy Gettle ever since.

"Jere" Gettle is the (very) young founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company, located near Mansfield, Missouri, and he is out to change the world, one garden at a time.

Upon entering, Jere walked right up, introduced himself, and inquired where we were from (trying to get a friendly fix on our zone) so he could best help us with our gardening needs. You can imagine my surprise when Jere related, in an Ozark drawl not unlike my own, that he has traveled to Mexico on several occasions and knew just what would work for me back in central Mexico.

From the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds 2007 Pure Seed Book (catalog):

Last December, several of us from Baker Creek traveled to central America by car, visiting
Mexico, Belize and Guatamala. We frequented roadside markets, tribal villages and any location we thought might sell heirloom produce. We brought back over 30 varieties. We have started to carry some in this catalog and hope to bring more into circulation soon!

Above: Jere's ode to Mexico at Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company.

The place was bustling with long-haired girls equiped with wicker baskets (we are in Amish country here) busy pulling mail orders as fast as they could move. Regardless, any time I paused trying to select from the dizzying seed assortment, someone was immediately there to offer expert advice about the attributes of one variety versus another.

From the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds 2007 Pure Seed Book (catalog):

We feel these trips are very important right now, as our government and large corporations continue to work together to push many untested gene-altered varieties on third world countries threatened by the World Trade Organization. Scientists who speak out are threatened as well, and organic farmers continue to suffer losses; their crops are contaminated with these plants which contain foreign genes that continue to show allergic reactions in mice and rats in many studies.

Let me tell you, I was in heaven. There was a slice of history and geography in every bin.

"This heirloom was collected in Surinam in 1980..."

"This unique Japanese pumpkin was developed in the Bunka era of the Edo period (1804-1818)..."

"This old German heirloom was offered in Philadelphia by the mid-1800s...".

"We were sent this rare tomato in the late 1990s by Iraqi seed collector Aziz Nail, who was living in France..."

"...Tasty leaves are tender when picked young. Easy to grow from seed. From Opopeo, Mexico..."

I slowly made my selections, but every time we arrived at a total I ran back for just a few more packets. Jere assured me that Baker Creek ships to Mexico and I could conveniently order on-line despite living in Mexico. We exchanged contact info, and Jere asked me to be on the lookout for anything unusual and to seed save until he got here in December. Working in rural Mexico, for us the threat to Mexico's historic strains of indigenous corn is never far from our minds.

Above: Frijoles Vaquitas purchased in the mercado which I want to share with Jeremy Gettle.

He then continued selecting seeds---all donated---intended for kids to plant backyard gardens this summer throughout southwestern Missouri. All Jere asked in return is that the excess produce be donated to local food banks where a projected serious shortage of donated food is anticipated.

From the Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds 2007 Pure Seed Book (catalog):

"What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"We will bankrupt ourselves in the vain search for absolute security." Dwight D. Eisenhower

"No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, no culture comparable to that of the garden...But though an old man, I am but a young gardener." Thomas Jefferson

"Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both." Benjamin Franklin

A seed store in Missouri or a global movement? A lanky, Gene Autry-loving twentysomething or a visionary? A seed catalog or a personal manifesto on life, liberty and the pursuit of good food as God intended?

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company and Jeremy Gettle are all of the above.

We parted with the customary, "Hasta luego", and personally I cannot wait until we meet again in Mexico.

USEFUL NOTES verbatim from the Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company catalog:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Company Ordering Information:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
Phone Orders: 417-924-8917
Place On-Line Orders:

Hours: open Monday-Friday, 8 am - 4pm.
Closed weekends and holidays.

Our Seed Site:
Jere Gettle's Photo Site:
Our Garden Forums:
Our Magazine Site:

Please contact the following companies and tell them Americans want GMO-free food and that Americans deserve the same GMO-free food that the same companies are selling in Europe!

CALL Kelloggs 1-800-962-1413
(Kellogg's has received up to 28,000 calls and letters about GMO's per month!)
CALL Nestle 1-800-452-1971

to your US House Representative and Senator, asking what he or she is doing to support truth in labeling and a pure food supply.


Find farmer's markets & natural food stores. Find local producers at this site, and go to They have great lists of brands that are GMO-free.

We support "The Campaign" Grassroots Political Action, Ph. 425-771-4049 and The Organic Consumers Association-, Ph. 218-226-4164.

"Back in Europe we have that choice. Our food is labeled and it hasn't increased any costs to the consumer or the farmer." Sir Paul McCartney

Parting thought...Mexican folk art can be nourishing.


Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Hidden Atotonilco---The House of Exercises, The Ejercitantas Enter

We are deep inside the House of Exercises in Atotonilco, when our guide announces that the ejercitantas---the female pilgrims---are arriving. Our exploration of the dining and cooking areas, the sleeping quarters, and even the vast gathering hall where self-flagellation is performed has been permitted, but now the pilgrims are arriving and it is time to go. Much to our surprise, our friend and guide leads us towards the sounds of singing, and soon we are amidst a blur of babies, women, rebozos and forward-striding feet streaming in with the morning light.

Although this is a period when only women may enter, I am surprised to see men, obviously in an official capacity, escorting the women inside. We learn that these are the highly respected celadores.

In the organized heirarchy of La Celaduria de la Casa de Ejercicios, there are eight posts, all men, known as the celadores mayores. These men are part of a long lineage---their mothers and fathers, reaching back to their great-great-grand parents and beyond, who served before them in this post---that once assumed, is held until death.

The eight principals train and oversee an ever-growing network of celadores and celadoras located in every part of Mexico, and I am told, throughout Latin and South America as well as other parts of the world. One of the primary duties of these far-flung officials is to bring three groups a year to the House of Exercises. Amazingly, this network of devoted volunteers personally travels with and escorts each group of pilgrims to and from Atotonilco, regardless of distance. Once inside, the celadores shepherd their flock through the days and nights of exercises and confession, serving as trusted advisors and confidents though not of the church. This is the aspect that makes the House of Exercises truly remarkable.

The celadores devotion to duty became evident when a friend, living in remote Michoacan, related the following experience. While sequestered in the House of Exercises, our friend's sister became gravely ill and it was clear she was near death. Family members traveled to Atotonilco to accompany her home, but the extremely responsible celadores demanded proof that these were indeed her brothers, while thoroughly confirming the circumstances of this early departure. Leaving the private enclave mid-week was serious business. Our friend was permitted to leave, escorted to Michoacan by her brothers and a celador. Once in Michoacan, the celador made certain that she was safe at home and had everything needed in this time of confirmed that our friend's sister was indeed dying.

I had mentioned that once a celador or celadora, always a celador until death. But what if a mere man (or woman) does not wish a lifetime of priestly responsibilities? Of the current eight mayores, there was a crisis when a celador mayor wished to resign his post, perhaps tired of hearing his neighbors' sins. The people objected, loudly, recounting the many ways that this individual had lovingly guided them through years of personal trials. Today he remains a celador, and is considered among the kindest and best in their storied ranks.

The multitudes continue to file past us, and I am speechless as easily one thousand enter with no end in sight. Our escort smiles remarking, "Muy poco gente". So few people in comparison to the month of July, when 5,000 enter every week.

We are engulfed in the moment. The faithful masses. The ringing bells. The joyous singing. All under the caring vigil of the celadors and celadoras. Every pilgrim anxious to begin the spiritual marathon ahead. Overcome with emotion, tears are now streaming down my face as reluctantly, I leave the mystical world of La Casa de Ejecicios del Santuario de Jesus Nazareno en Atotonilco.

Parting thought...Mexican folk art is celebratory.


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Hidden Atotonilco, The House of Exercises---Penitance of Pilgrims, The Misereri

In the mysterious House of Exercises in Atotonilco, we pass before the likeness of a second El Senor de la Columna, unknown and unseen except by the tens of thousands who enter the Casa de Ejercicios annually. This second El Senor---the original rests in a protective glass case inside Santuario Atotonilco---wears the same disciplinas used by penitent pilgrims: the instruments of misereri, the name used here for the exercises of self-flagellation.

Our guide explains that beginning on Thursday evening, the nightly self-flagellations take on a particular passion, drawing bruises and yes, blood. I must remind myself that I am here to understand, not to judge.

To my surprise, my first impression of the great gathering hall is one of relief. In contrast to the previous dark hallways, I sense no tortured ghosts and the room feels as mundane as any meeting hall. It is a newer room, and the institutional glow of linoleum tile no doubt is coloring my perception.

Our escort explains that on Thursday, the pilgrims don black clothing and crowns of thorns. There is a palpable anxiety and nervousness among the pilgrims as the day of confessions approaches.

Friday is a day of pain and anguish when all sins are confessed. Here, under a dome of acoustic tiles and whirring ceiling fans, thousands sit and whip themselves until the weight of earthly sin is lifted. The second El Senor de la Columna is borne in private processions within the Casa de Ejercicios, when Christ's final hours are made real.

Only the giant chimenea, constructed to contain thousands of burning candles, portends of anguished late night disclosures with one's god.

There are two assigned priests for the Casa de Ejercicios, assignments completely separate from Santuario Atotonilco. They hear confession and administer mass, but have little involvement or say in the vast system, la celaderia, that oversees the coming and going of pilgrims and the operation of the House of Exercises itself.

Sometime between Friday and Saturday, a transformation, both literal and spiritual, occurs. Forgiven of their sins, the pilgrims remove the black clothing and crowns of thorns, changing to all white clothing and donning white veils decorated with flowers (men included when in residence).

The purified pilgrims next follow the path of Christ beneath the narrative paintings of the exquisite Santuario, described as the Sistine Chapel of the Americas. When you visit Santuario Atotonilco on a Saturday to find the doors temporarily closed to the public, this exultant procession is taking place.

As pilgrims approach the entrance of the Santuario, it is as though Padre Luis Felipe Neri de Alfaro, the founder of Santuario Atotonilco and the House of Exercises, is speaking aloud to them through the ages. Directly above the Santuario's front doors are especially powerful paintings of heaven and hell, as if to remind that beyond these doors, the choice is yours.

While the life, works, and beliefs motivating Padre Alfaro will be explored another day in this blog, one astonishing fact must be shared now. This extraordinary information goes towards explaining why a self-punishing spiritual retreat founded in a remote, tiny village in central Mexico has grown...thrived.

From the 2008 official calendar for Santuario de Atotonilco:

"Muere en Atotonilco el dia 22 de Marzo de 1776, un viernes Santo a las 6:00 de la manana cuando en Jerusalen son las 3:00 de la tarde hora en que murio Christo."

This is the stuff of myth and legend.

Padre Alfaro died on March 22, 1776, 6:00 am on Good Friday, when in Jerusalem it is 3:00 pm, the hour that Christ died.

Lost in thought and filled with visions of white processions and heaven and hell, we suddenly are aware of the sounds of bells and voices raised in joyous song in the distance.

"Hurry, hurry!", our guide urges. We must leave. The ejercitantas are coming!".

Parting thought...Mexican folk art is reverant.


Saturday, May 31, 2008

Hidden Atotonilco, The House of Exercises---Sleeping Under His Gaze

Journeying deeper into the secretive world of the House of Exercises in Atotonilco, we speak in hushed whispers as if fearing discovery. Though escorted by "authorized personnel", the feeling that we are trespassing will not leave. We have entered a maze of dark halls and all sense of direction is lost.

The longs halls, named the Aposento, are where pilgrims sleep and the "general category"---sleeping side by side on petates on the floor---is by far the most popular of several accommodation options.

Every meter of the Aposento is lined with metal railings. The better to lean over and accept the self-inflicted lashes of whips? Hardly. I have to grin at the practical explanation that these are for the simple purpose of hanging up pilgrim's clothing. Such an imagination I have. At this point, the fabled exercises of bloody self-flagellation seem a complete exaggeration.

The broad corriders are punctuated with nichos filled with spent candles and crippled figures, fractured under the loving touch of so many fingers.

Other passages bear scripture, poems and orations: the last words seen before falling asleep and the first glimpsed in the morning.

Sunday is a day of coming and going, and pilgrims can shop in the mercado in front of the church for soap, toothpaste, and other essentials (including menacing whips and crowns of thorns) needed for the week. At 5:00 pm the doors swing shut, sequestering pilgrims from the outside world until they again emerge the following Sunday.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are days of fellowship, discussion, and prayer...all in preparation for yet to be disclosed events beginning on Thursday. We continue walking and talking when our guide matter-of-factly states that, "Every evening is when the ejercitantas---the female pilgrims---perform the misereri. The serious work". My imagination heads to that dark place again, but we are interrupted by the sight of something familiar yet completely strange and out of place. It is...El Senor de la Columna.

"Yes. Yes, there is a second Senor de la Columna", offered our escort, obviously pleased at our complete surprise at this discovery. "The people needed a second Senor because the one in front is too old and valuable to be used in the Casa de Ejercicios." His pained expression and haunting eyes pierced through me, the same as "the original" El Senor in the Santuario.

The second El Senor de la Columna rests in a courtyard where the House of Exercises and the Santuario Atotonilco meet, guarding the entrance of the vast Aposento. The pilgrims literally sleep under his tortured gaze.

We next learned that this El Senor is part of a procession performed every week while pilgrims are in residence. The exultant private procession emulates Christ's path to Calvary and redemption. In the House of Exercises, every Friday is Good Friday.

Heading into another darkened hallway, the conversation turns towards the mystical experiences of Thursday and Friday: the final days of Christ's life and the culmination of hours of misereri for the pilgrims. Misereri...I say the word.

"This is what the whipping is called. The misereri is performed every night at eight". And with this clarification, our friend leads us into the heart of the Casa de Ejercicios where the penitencia has been practiced since 1765.

Parting thought...Mexican folk art can be secretive.


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Hidden Atotonilco, The House of Exercises---Feeding the Faithful

Behind Mexico's historic Santuario Atotonilco exists a city unto Casa de Ejercicios...the House of Exercises. As tens of thousands enter and exit the mysterious walled compound annually, outsiders are left whispering and wondering about whips, flagellation and the fabled religious practices of the pilgrims within.

Recently, I had the privilege of entering these storied walls...and the experience was fascinating. Follow me inside for a rare glimpse of the hidden world of the Casa de Ejercicios.

It is May, the Marian month, and for the duration only women will enter the House of Exercises at Santuario Atotonilco. We quickly proceed past the ticket booth into the inner sanctum, imminently aware that we have only a few minutes before the faithful enter and we must leave.

Posted ticket prices are:

Camas $270.00
Cuartos $350.00
General $200.00

Our guide and friend explains that in addition to a life-changing religious experience, the price includes accommodations as described above, Sunday to Sunday, and all meals.

Living by Atotonilco, we are acutely aware that thousands are coming and going...literally thousands...and yet, the size and vastness of each area (such as the dining hall above) astounds. Every aspect is designed for a shared experience of eating, sleeping, praying, confessing, and bathing. Bathing, just as the "original converts" once did in the thermal springs of Atotonilco inspiring the founding of the Santuario and House of Exercises on this very spot.

We mentally do the math beginning to grasp the expense, labor and organization required to feed the faithful. And then we entered the kitchen.

The row of gas-fueled, humongous casos---pots bigger than any bathtub---is impressive and the kitchen seems to stretch on forever. Typical fare includes frijoles, lentils, caldo (soup), pappas con jitomate, and atole y pan. Simple, good food. Formerly, pilgrims brought cooks from their home villages, but today the Casa de Ejercicios employs local workers (approximately twenty in all) to prepare meals and perform other daily tasks. If today's menu is not to your liking, pilgrims can shop from a fully stocked, nun-operated convenience store within the compound.

Feeding thousands means dirty dishes from thousands, and this too has been planned for. Forty feet of sinks do the trick.

Everything is in place to feed the ejercitantas, as female pilgrims are called, and we excitedly push forward towards dark tunnels and the mysteries of penitence.

Parting thought...Mexican folk art is mysterious at times.