Sybille Palmer

Alphabet of Life Scroll- The Backstory

I was only 10 years old when I fully encountered the impact of commerce and industry on the environment. Our family left behind suburban New Jersey and returned to Germany. My father worked as a chemist for Bayer. We moved within sightline of this enormous chemical plant. It was 1966. All the fish were dying in the Rhein. The air was so polluted you could see it as well as smell it. It was shocking.

I was horrified.

I left Germany behind in my twenties and moved to Hawaii. Lived off the grid, explored an alternative lifestyle. We grew our own organic food and I realized how much more alive it tasted. How deeply nourishing it felt. I became aware of the healing power of food and began to study the Healing Arts.

In 2006 I read the “Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan. This book changed my life deeply and forever. I began to understand the larger context of food-systems. Pollan showed me how highly political food really is. How much Big Agriculture impacts our environment and thus the quality of our lives.

I began to read all kinds of texts on ecology. “Deep Economy” and “The End of Nature.” by Bill McKibben, “Cradle to Cradle” by Michael McDonough.  Books by Carlos Petrini, the founder of Slow Food. Of course I became a Slow Food member. I realized that voting with my fork is important. The way I spend my food dollars matters.

Pollan’s writing on “The Ark of Taste” showed me the importance of preserving our heritage, starting with seeds. This preservation effort also extends to protecting the ways of ancient cultures – their farming methodologies and ethnic foods. Without seeds we have no future. 

In the same year, and meanwhile living in Los Angeles, I met a woman named Amory Starr. She is a political economist and social movements scholar. She was exploring  using food to build community. She was inviting her class to dinner in her Venice loft. She had also started a monthly event called “The Viand”. After I attended the first time, I immediately asked to join as a chef.

The concept was simple:

5 chefs- 10 courses-20 guests-byo wine.

We handed out invitations both to friends and strangers. Specifically we made sure to include our favorite farmers and vendors, cheese mongers and such. We created maps of food sheds. We wrote a Zine every month, introducing guests to the concepts of Slow Food. Seasonal. Local. Organic. Letting the ingredients shine. Sharing food in the company of others. A small plates feast. It was an exploration, an experiment, and a joy. A new way to grow a community.

Amory went on to write a book about it:  “Underground Restaurant- Local Food, Artisan Economies, Creative Political Culture.”

Then- in 2009 the first Seed Show opened in Taos. I had moved there the year before and asked if I could submit work for the next show. I took part twice.

The show is based on the book “Seeds- Time Capsules of Life.” by Rob Kessler & Wolfgang Stuppy. It is a most inspiring read with amazing photography. I learned so much. It made me aware of the importance of Seed Banks.

The “Alphabet of Life Scroll” is a 34’ long piece, featuring the 9000 names of plant species facing extinction worldwide. To tie it in locally, I featured the images and names of the 13 plants endangered in New Mexico.

I also created a handout addressing the Holocene Mass Extinction. On it I included websites and suggestions on how to get involved and become informed citizens. It is my sincere hope that we will wake up and begin to make better choices. May it never become an Extinction Scroll. It would be such an immense loss.

Sybille Palmer, Taos New Mexico

Sybille Palmer Alphabet of life scroll installation
Detail of the Alphabet of Life scroll