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Remembering Gabriel Howearth, Gardener Extraordinaire and Seed Saver

By Connor Yearsley

 

Editor’s note: The In Memoriam section of HerbalGram includes tributes to people who were significant in the field. Those tributes sometimes include relatively short quotes from the friends and colleagues of the subject of the tribute. However, because of the extensiveness of the responses from people who Gabriel knew and inspired, the editorial staff decided to make an exception and publish these remembrances, in their entirety, online here. A tribute that includes additional biographical information about Gabriel is scheduled to be published in HerbalGram.

Gabriel Howearth

Gabriel Howearth, a master gardener, pioneer of the organic farming movement, and co-founder of Seeds of Change (originally a seed-saving company), was involved in a tragic accident near Lo De Marcos, Mexico, on August 6, 2021. He was a passenger in a truck that was swept away during a flash flood. The truck was found later but Gabriel was not, and he is presumed dead. His family has given permission to go forward with publishing tributes to Gabriel. Some of his many friends and colleagues remember him fondly here.

Kenny Ausubel, author, filmmaker, and co-founder of Seeds of Change and Bioneers, a nonprofit organization that promotes practical and innovative solutions to global environmental and biocultural challenges (email, September 29, 2021):

My dear brother Gabriel. He had a way of showing up out of nowhere on a wave of synchronicity and disappearing just as mysteriously. He has now left us as mysteriously as he came, washed away in a flash flood, but not before changing my life and so many others and bringing great work, vision, and healing into this broken world.

I first met Gabriel in 1985 in his magical ark of a garden at San Juan Pueblo, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I live. I was making the feature documentary film “Hoxsey: How Healing Becomes a Crime” about the once-famous herbal cancer treatment, and I was deeply researching botanical medicine. After a visit with Chris Bird, who co-wrote the book The Secret Life of Plants (Harper and Row, 1973), he called me up and asked if I would be up for making a short film about an unusual garden in New Mexico that his friend, Gabriel Howearth, had planted.

Standing in the enchanted biodiversity garden in “the Land of Enchantment,” Gabriel oscillated between looking like a hippie surfer and a biblical prophet. Although I had recently lived on a small farm for six years, I had never seen anything like this. It was a biodiversity wonderland, with some of the first quinoa and amaranth in the United States, seemingly endless exotic medicinal herbs, and entire societies of impossibly diverse tomatoes, corn, beans, squash, and everything under the sun. Gabriel knew and loved each variety as if it were his extended family. The garden was bursting with vitality, imagination, and breathtaking beauty.

Gabriel had been a student of the famed biodynamic pathfinder Alan Chadwick, who told his disciples that if they really wanted to learn about farming, then they should go study with First Peoples. Gabriel headed south into Mexico and Latin America, learning all he could. Part Tarahumara himself, he felt most at home with Indigenous peoples. As people came to trust him, they shared with him the most precious of gifts: the gift of seeds. After all, through the seeds speak the voices of the ancestors, and in turn, when we plant them, we become ancestors for generations to come.

Gabriel had asked around the Pueblo if anyone had any old seeds, as was his standard practice. As I stood behind the camera, I saw the native farmer James Chancellor holding up brilliant red corn seeds flashing against the turquoise sky. James began weeping. He had found the seeds in a small pot buried in an adobe wall. He asked around the Pueblo, and an elder said it was the sacred red corn of San Juan Pueblo. It had not been grown in 40 years. It was a homecoming and a turning point in the renaissance of Indigenous agriculture in New Mexico and beyond.

I learned that these traditional open-pollinated native seeds were an authentic ark of seed biodiversity, a thin green line against starvation. Some were the “wild relatives” of modern varieties and can be used to revitalize crops in the face of inevitable environmental challenges and changes. I learned that, like the Hoxsey herbal treatment, they were under threat by chemical and pharmaceutical companies. And the seed industry did not want them anywhere near its industrialized agribusiness. Who wants non-patentable organic seeds that farmers can save themselves from year to year?

And astoundingly, at that time, apart from a small handful of nonprofit conservators, organic seeds were unavailable. Can you have organic crops without organic seeds, the first link in the food web? That same question still hangs in the air today.

Gabriel and I went on to found Seeds of Change in 1989, as the first national organic biodiversity seed company. The intention was to spread “backyard biodiversity” through backyard gardeners and small farmers. We were part of a new wave of eco-agriculture, organic foods, and, above all, seed diversity. This has now become much more common and, in some cases, mainstream, though nowhere near where it needs to be.

Various advisers and friends at the time had told us not to start the company. The seed industry is tightly closed and conservative, they said. There is no way to break in. They were right. So, we didn’t break in. Instead, we went around it, putting out our own catalog and picking up national allies such as the famed Smith & Hawken and Gardener’s Supply catalogs. It was Gabriel’s idea to sneak in through retail health food stores, which had not really carried seeds before. It worked mightily. We had trouble keeping up with the demand, and we told the story of seed diversity to everyone who would listen.

A year earlier, in 1988, Gabriel and I had formed a nonprofit whose first project was the Native Scholars Program. This project’s purpose was to help conserve traditional Indigenous knowledge of seeds and farming practices. That knowledge was as endangered as the seeds. And it was not for sale.

In 1990, we held the first of what would become the Bioneers conference as a kind of sister nonprofit project to Seeds of Change. The purpose of the conference was to spread practical and visionary solutions for people and planet. Gabriel was instrumental in the early programming and brought amazing speakers and allies into the mix. It was the World Series of organic agriculture. He himself was an inspired and brilliant teacher, and he always attracted a flock of students, so many of whom went on to do the work.

Like many “plant people,” Gabriel was generally better with plants than with people. He had challenges navigating the world of enterprise, and his Neptunian way of going with the flow could wreak havoc in the material realm. At the same time, he had a way of causing things to happen that really needed to happen, even if it got messy sometimes. Bless him, there was never much question about his good-hearted intentions and deep love for both people and nature.

After Mars Inc. acquired Seeds of Change in 1997 and we both parted ways with the company, Gabriel kept doing great work in Mexico, until tragically he contracted meningitis under remote conditions with poor hospital care. It crippled him. Nevertheless, he set his will to healing and kept working. His creativity and imagination were boundless. He was at once magnificently terrestrial and unearthly, until a flash flood carried him away after attending a concert with friends in Mexico.

Gabriel lived for the healing of the planet he so passionately cherished and revered. So many of us have benefitted from his vision, inspiration, and activism. In the early days of the original Seeds of Change biodiversity farm in Gila, New Mexico, I will always remember him as the vital, unstoppable force of nature out there on the land for 18 hours a day with an all-star team of tanned master gardeners. I called it the Olympics of organic farming.

May his spirit shine on and continue to inspire and activate us. I love you, my brother Gabriel. I miss you dearly. Thank you, thank you, thank you. “Vaya con Gaia,” as you liked to say.

Rosemary Gladstar, herbalist, author, and founder of the United Plant Savers, a nonprofit plant conservation organization (email, October 5, 2021):

I first met Gabriel in a garden in Applegate Valley, Oregon, in the early 1980s. From that first meeting, I recognized him as a brilliant, impassioned plant genius. He had a profound knowledge of plants, farming, and gardening, which seemed like an innate part of his spirit. In many ways, he reminded me of a wild-haired, barefoot version of Luther Burbank, another plant genius who gardened with a passion. However, Gabriel’s vision was not about creating new plant [varieties] or hybrids, but rather preserving our heirloom varieties and the traditional cultures that grew them. And he was on a lifelong mission to accomplish this task. Even when he was struck with life-threatening meningitis in the late 2000s and could hardly walk or talk, Gabriel kept pursuing his life mission, kept his gardens going, and continued to teach and share his knowledge with others.

For all of us who happily garden with heirloom seeds today, we have Gabriel, in large part, to be grateful for. He was one of the original “seed savers” and, along with Kenny Ausubel, founded Seeds of Change, one of the first seed-saving organizations in the United States. A true visionary in every sense of the word, Gabriel brought his vision alive in the extraordinary gardens he created and left behind to continue to educate others and beautify the Earth. I bow my head knowing this brilliant, humble plant emissary is no longer with us, but I’m grateful to know his legacy lives on through his gardens, his teachings, and the hundreds of varieties of seeds and plants that he helped preserve for future generations.

Christopher Hobbs, PhD, herbalist, botanist, mycologist, author, and director of the Institute for Natural Products Research (email, October 6, 2021):

Gabriel was a major influence on my life’s work with herbal medicine and, beyond that, for my work with personal and community health. Around 1982, a busload of “herbies” got on a school bus from Forestville, California, at the incipient herb school The California School of Herbal Studies, which was founded by Rosemary Gladstar. After all these years, I can’t remember much about the trip, except meeting my close friend Kathi Keville, as well as Rosemary, and Daniel Pinney, the driver of the bus. Once we got to one of our first stops in the Applegate Valley between Grants Pass and Medford, Oregon, and arrived where Gabriel had created the first medicine and permaculture garden I had ever seen, my memories are much more detailed.

These memories of Gabriel working with the land, just back from the coast with a huge truckload of seaweed, are indelible in my mind. The garden was so fertile and abundant. The vegetables were so vibrant and instilled with a feeling of health and vitality. I felt the energy go all through me.

As a botany nerd myself, I was astounded that, since I essentially thought of him as a kind of shaman farmer, he started channeling Latin plant names, botanical lineages, biogeographical associations for exotic heritage varieties of vegetables, fruits, and some medicinal plants. And it was just pouring out of him effortlessly. At that point, Gabriel was so vital and fluid in the world and full of charisma and a natural teacher with people who were already gathered around him when we arrived.

I remember him pulling a carrot out of the ground, brushing off the dirt, and saying, “this is the medicine,” as he took a big bite. Today, this is a common idea that many have written and spoken about, citing the quote “Let food be your medicine,” which is often attributed to Hippocrates, and so forth. This idea has directed my life and work to a great extent, and, although I knew this concept intellectually at the time, I have never met anyone besides Gabriel, from that time to the present, who so fully embodied this and so perfectly represented the idea with his energy and passion and healthy, vital body. It was verging on the Zen stories of people who, for years, study on spiritual matters but still remain in their suffering until some mundane event happens that triggers something in them, and suddenly they are enlightened in that instant. I felt that he was imparting this very important and precious understanding to us with his whole being.

Over the years, Gabriel and I spent time discussing plant families, lineages, traditional uses, lore, and much more about plants that we came across while walking through gardens. It was always a joy to be with Gabriel in a garden. In my travels, I have never met a person who knew as much, from scientific facts to esoteric knowledge about aloes, tropical fruits, so many different medicinal herbs, the best cultivation methods for each plant, how much water they could tolerate and needed, companion plants to grow with them, and garden design, the big picture.

Spending time with Gabriel in his botanical gardens and preserve, Buena Fortuna, was a pure pleasure. We stayed in his tree palapas for several days and were able to wander and discuss the many aloes and so many other species and ate passion fruits that had fallen to the ground from numerous wild vines in the diverse tropical fruit trees.

When I finally got down to southern Baja to visit after years of trying, he had had a serious infection from polluted water, a staph infection, meningitis, and a stroke and nearly died. He was so full of vital force that he managed to come back from all of that and was once again able to speak and walk, although tentatively at that time. Over the intervening years, we would get together at his mom’s house in Grass Valley, California, when he would come, since it was only an hour’s drive for me.

He slowly was improving with the many treatments, herbs, and medicine diet and was able to walk more freely. Especially this year (2021), his speech had improved dramatically. Such challenges could turn most of us into a mass of regrets and negativity. Gabriel was such an inspiration in that he was always spreading words of love and positivity, promoting the good things that we can do and that he saw were being done to make the world a better place. He cared tremendously about this mother of ours and for social justice and preservation of species and habitat. I saw many of his posts on Facebook these last few years, and they were always full of hope and wisdom.

Sara Katz, herbalist and co-founder of herbal products company Herb Pharm (email, October 1, 2021):

I think of Gabriel as an evolutionary link between plants and people. The herb and vegetable garden beds he created throughout southern Oregon in the 1970s, and in other locations subsequently, were ephemeral wonders of beauty and abundance.

Gabriel was an inspired and tireless gardener and teacher. Enchantment with Gabriel’s deep plant knowledge was one of the attractions that led Ed [Smith, co-founder of Herb Pharm] and me to move to Williams, Oregon, in 1979. Gardening side by side with Gabriel, my fascination for medicinal plants deepened into an understanding of plants as sentient beings, with vital roles, relationships, and personalities.

Gabriel was prescient in his understanding of the importance of biodiversity and saving seeds and in his appreciation of plants’ relationships to each other, to humans, and to the whole. Gabriel was the first person to teach me how to build soil. He owned no property, but every summer he created magnificent flower, vegetable, and herb-filled mandala gardens in four or five locations throughout the Applegate Valley in Oregon. Gabriel seemed to know every gleanable fruit tree from Vancouver to San Diego, and, as he lived with us off and on, our home in summer overflowed with a cornucopia of vibrant garlic, hot peppers, peaches, pears, grapes, and medicinal herbs. In fact, that’s how I think of Gabriel: a human cornucopia of plant knowledge and love.

Kathi Keville, herbalist, aromatherapist, author, organic gardener, and director of the American Herb Association (email, October 8, 2021):

I loved walking through my herb gardens with Gabriel. He was such a plant person. He knew all the scientific names of herbs and vegetables along with the lineage and evolution. He spiced this up with a delightful stream of gardening ideas and quirky botanical jokes. Plus, he was an herbalist with a master green thumb and created amazing, beautifully designed gardens everywhere he went, always encouraging sustainability and saving seeds. Through all the things that life threw at him, he maintained the same great enthusiasm that he had decades ago when he first stopped by Oak Valley Herb Farm in northern California. We were instant friends. Gabriel was true inspiration. The earth sustained him and gave him faith to trust that everything is in place and for him to beat the odds to conquer his infirmities. He spontaneously uplifted everyone around him. Now that he is pure spirit, I’m reminded to carry all that I’ve learned from him, including that inspiration.

Arty Mangan, restorative food systems program director of Bioneers (email, September 29, 2021):

Landing in New Mexico, Gabriel was invited by the elders of San Juan Pueblo to help them, as Gabriel was quoted as saying in a 1990 Los Angeles Times article, “regain their once-thriving and now fast-disappearing culture rooted in the soil….Part of the San Juan project involved searching for many types of old seeds that had been preserved for generations in gourds, pots, and other vessels as well as in the adobe walls of buildings and in the root cellars of traditional Indian pueblos throughout the region. Someone found some seeds of the sacred red corn of San Juan, which hadn’t been grown for 40 years, and planting it again felt like a spiritual homecoming for me.”

The work at Gabriel’s cutting-edge farm became the inspiration for Seeds of Change, which was co-founded by Gabriel and Kenny Ausubel and later led to the birth of Bioneers. Nina Simons, co-founder of Bioneers, on her first visit to that farm was so inspired by its beauty and diversity that it changed the course of her life. The way she describes that experience is, “Nature tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘you’re working for me now.’”

They understood the immense importance of open-pollinated heirloom seeds that are adapted to a specific place and are in the public domain. Concerned that multinational corporations were offering fewer and fewer varieties and about their attempts to monopolize the seed business, Seeds of Change’s mission was to inspire a legion of backyard gardeners to grow and save heirloom seeds and preserve food crop biodiversity. It was the genesis of a grassroots seed-saving movement that today expresses itself in seed exchanges, seed-lending libraries, and small local seed companies attempting to offer an alternative to the mega-corporations’ increasing control of the food supply.

Forest Shomer, seedsman and owner of Inside Passage Seeds (email, October 1, 2021):

Asked to write for this tribute, I was pleased to rediscover that the seed-centered relationship between Gabriel and me dates from 1978, shortly after he returned from South America. His name appears as a seed contributor in my 1979 Abundant Life Seed Foundation catalog. We probably met while I was touring through Oregon, giving seed-saving workshops. He was living near Grants Pass in the Rogue River Valley at that time.

It was as if we got our marching orders from the same source (Kokopelli). We had an instantaneous, almost-telepathic link: the kind where one does not need to explain things to the other since both have kindred, innate, complementary understanding. While my focus was, and is, completely seed-centered, Gabriel had that and a kinship with the vegetative state of many species, which was fostered by the many years he lived in tropical and subtropical climates. 

Some of the early intersections between us included a seed conference I hosted in my hometown of Port Townsend, Washington, in February 1984; the early stirrings that resulted in Seeds of Change in December 1986 when Gabriel lived in Santa Fe; and a conference in Aspen in 1988, as Seeds of Change was launching. Doubtlessly, we were both on the teaching staff of one or more of the same Breitenbush Herbal Conferences during those years. 

But these are merely historical footnotes. The important thing is that we drew water from the same well. I can recall no time in our long association that we were “out of synch” or in some incoherence, mind to mind. Relationships of that kind are too rare, so I recognize what a blessing it was to have such a long, enduring ease of connection. 

We last communicated a few weeks before Gabriel’s disappearance, trying to strategize a meeting in one place we had never been together: Baja California Sur. As one of my teachers is remembered to have said to his student at their final meeting: “From now on, we shall meet in the hereafter.”

Nina Simons, co-founder and chief relationship strategist of Bioneers (email, September 29, 2021):

Gabriel Howearth and Nina Simons

I first met Gabriel in 1989, when I visited a farm in Gila, New Mexico, where he was growing, in close proximity, hundreds of open-pollinated, organic, heirloom and traditional food, flower, and herb plants for seed. Later, that farm became the first farm of Seeds of Change, an organic biodiversity seed company that was founded by Gabriel and my husband and partner, Kenny Ausubel. I worked with Gabriel for several years, as I was so deeply inspired by the breadth of his knowledge base and the depth of his commitment to the biodiversity of life, especially of the plant world. I so admired his experience from working with native peoples around the world. For me, the quality of his spiritual connection to gardening and conserving biodiversity as a lineage from our collective ancestors and for adaptation in support of human survival changed my life. I feel immensely fortunate to have had the opportunity to write seed catalogs with him and learn some small amount from the encyclopedic wisdom he carried with humility and devotion. I have no doubt that his legacy will endure and spread, as his work inspired many among our plant allies to become conservators of biodiversity and to care for the legacy of thousands of years of seed cultivation by those who have come before.

Ed Smith, herbalist and co-founder of herbal products company Herb Pharm (email, October 4, 2021):

Ed Smith, Rebecca Briggs, Gabriel's wife and child, and Gabriel Howearth

I first met Gabriel Howearth in southern Oregon in 1979. Like me, he was a back-to-the-earth hippie who revered Mother Nature and was impassioned with organic gardening and growing and wildcrafting his own food and medicines. At the time, I was a mere beginner, while Gabriel had been at it for several years and had already taken it to a much higher level. As fate would have it, this was at the same time Sara [Katz] and I were starting Herb Pharm, so Gabriel influenced us greatly, and his inspiration and influence are still with both of us and the company more than 40 years later.

Gabriel was much more than an avid gardener, herbalist, and nature lover. He was an agricultural shaman, who, in the evenings, after a hard day of gardening, would take his sitar into his gardens and sing to the plants. Indeed, he claimed to see the plant fairies and nature spirts, and I believed he actually did.

All of Gabriel’s gardens were works of art and were far more beautiful than the usual parallel rows of mere crops. Instead, his magnificent gardens were hand-sculpted mandalas planted with a very broad array of veggies, fruits, medicinal herbs, colorful flowers, and a few psychotropics.

Gabriel also knew many abandoned fruit orchards between the Mexican border and southern Oregon, and he often showed up at our house with a pickup loaded with crates of cost-free apples, pears, plums, apricots, avocados, etc., and we spent the next day or two cutting, drying, and canning them for our winter stash of deliciously healthy foods. And then there were his huge freshly-harvested salads that were made with innumerable raw veggies, herbs, and flowers and would feed dozens of people. You always feasted well when you hung out with Gabriel.

I miss Gabriel terribly, but I’m comforted knowing that his teachings and his life continue to inspire so many of us in our botanical work, our gardens, and our hearts. 

Greg Smith, founder of Earth Matters Hemp Hawaii (email, October 21, 2021):

I met Gabriel years ago, in the 1980s, when I was farming in Mexico and growing seeds for Seeds of Change. In 2016, I had not seen him in years, and he came to the Big Island of Hawaii to rehab from his [illness]. That day, I was on my farm putting together my CSA [community supported agriculture] boxes and he showed up at the farm. I did not recognize him at the time due to the extensive damage done [by his illness]. I said, “Can I help you?” He said he had a farm down in Baja. I said, “I know someone who has a farm in Baja. His name is Gabriel.” He said, “That’s me!” Wow, what a blast from the past. He wanted to know if he could work on the farm in exchange for vegetables. From then on, he came to the farm daily, worked with the plants, and weeded the gardens. He could barely walk without assistance and could barely be understood when speaking.

During the next few years, he regained his ability to walk, and his speech improved greatly. He helped with our farm events, teaching workshops and mentoring the young apprentices on the farm. Anyone who ever worked with Gabriel in the garden knows what an amazing spirit he was. He would scoot on his butt through the veggie rows and, with his one good hand, completely weed the farm. Once he finished, he would go back to the beginning and start all over again.

He once told me a story about his visit to Cuba to meet Fidel Castro. He went to Cuba with a bunch of commercial farm and fertilizer salesmen. He was the organic farmer representative. After the meeting, Fidel asked Gabriel to stay, and, because Gabriel spoke perfect Spanish, he spent the next two days talking to Fidel about organic farming, composting, making fertilizer, and, of course, how to grow seeds. He was a major influence and inspiration to many people and my good friend.  

Mark Wheeler, founder of Pacific Botanicals, one of the first production-scaled herb farms in the United States (email, September 27, 2021):

I first met Gabriel when I moved to the Applegate Valley in Oregon to farm full time in the late 1970s. Gabriel and I immediately bonded through our love of plants. He was a gregarious sort and always attracted a bevy of followers who were drawn to his extensive gardens and knowledge of the plant world, which he shared readily. I remember one of the many years that he had to move his gardens because a landlord was disgruntled about the steady stream of visitors who came to enjoy his company and learn. The next year, we made a huge circular mandala garden in the shape of an eye and planted medicinal plants in specific areas of the circle that would match an Iridology chart corresponding to the use of the plant.

Over the years, he taught and inspired hundreds of people in the art of seed saving and plant propagation. I remember obtaining crowns of elecampane, marshmallow, and many varieties of medicinal plant seeds from him. He was very knowledgeable about their uses and preparations. Later, he co-founded the seed company Seeds of Change when he moved to the Gila Valley in New Mexico. His intent was to provide a wide variety of organically grown seeds that were not readily available and to preserve seed varieties that were becoming increasingly rare. Throughout his life, he made it a point to help anyone he could to grow plants, gardens, and farms. His legacy is one of education by enthusiasm of his love of plants. His life touched and influenced thousands.

Image credits (top to bottom):

Gabriel Howearth ©2021 Jan Mangan
Gabriel Howearth and Nina Simons ©2021 Jan Mangan
L to R: Ed Smith, Rebecca Briggs, Gabriel's wife and child, and Gabriel Howearth. Image courtesy of Ed Smith

References