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The “Gift Alchemy” of the Fava Bean
Companion–Platform’s “Vicia Faba” seed packet for the Are.na Gift Shop (2023). [An open green seed packet, five white plant stakes, and a single brown fava bean seed.]
Meg Miller:
The “Vicia Faba” is a unique gift for our gift shop. Not only is it a gift itself, but as a seed and a living thing, it also contains the possibility of producing more seeds and thus future gifts. Can you share more about the seed packet and the ideas behind it?
Lexi Visco:
When a human steward receives their seed packet, there is one fava seed and five plant stakes inside. The idea is that this person will grow the fava plant and take care of it — forming this one-to-one relationship with it through observation, care, and presence. But also, we are hoping they grow it with the intention of later gifting its seeds to others, since that is how this gift will continue to proliferate.
Companion–Platform’s “Vicia Faba” seed packet for the Are.na Gift Shop (2023). [Two poetic product shots side by side; one is of the broad, brown fava bean floating against a blurred background, with the words "This seed is a gift" below it. The other is a white paper plant stake in the soil, "This plant is a gift" printed on it.]
Calvin Rocchio:
When your plant grows fully and it comes time to harvest its seeds, you can send the prepared seed and the plant stake to four more people in the world. The idea is that you’re not only sharing the seed and the plant stake but also your experience of growing your fava and any expertise, wisdom, or memories you accrued along the way. That’s why we thought it would be nice to have a guest book in the form of an Are.na channel as a space where people can gather both documentation of their plants and any tips for future stewards.
“Vicia Faba” seed packet backside. [The back of a green and blue seed packet, dense with text that instructs on how to plant, save, and gift the seed. A pearled border lines the instructions, as well as other information like when to seed, what light it needs, and how high it will grow.]
While fava plants are quite hardy, they are also very expressive in their needs. We tried to find just the right balance of imperative information on the back of the packet to provide a good place to begin, but with emphasis on having a close, observational relationship with your plant by discovering its needs as an individual, rather than on a species level.
Lexi:
That’s where our idea of “tamagotchi energy” enters [laughs]. Formally, the tamagotchi and the fava bean are both round and have a similar relationship with your palm. They also foster a similar one-to-one relationship: You learn how to care for the being so it can flourish. Through daily attention, you will learn how to keep it happy and enable its growth.
The “Tamagotchi energy” of the fava bean. [A warm, dreamy photo of a white hand holding the single light brown “Vicia Faba” seed in its palm. Greenery is behind, and some blurry green stems hover in the foreground slightly.]
Calvin:
It teaches you what it needs — the plant solicits your attention and care.
Laurel:
I’m curious! How might a human steward go “above and beyond” for their fava?
Lexi:
Ideally, this person genuinely feels excited to visit their fava regularly. Visiting feels really exciting and important — go visit your plants!
Calvin:
Definitely. Also by proxy, developing a relationship with the space that you’re planting the seed in feels important. We also think deeply about the different spaces in different parts of the world that these fava beans might be traveling to, and this notion of having access to what might be considered a garden. We feel very excited that you only need a small plot to plant your fava in. It could be in a variety of public spaces, or even a very, very small space that you have continued access to. It can become a special place you return to every day, just by planting this individual plant in this particular place.
Lexi:
There is something exciting about directing your attention to an individual plant and starting off on a very small scale. In the end, you will have way more than four seeds — a fava plant will have many, many seeds. It’s a nice opportunity to scale down your learning or observations. Then, you can apply that to a larger scale the following season. Hopefully you’ll have many, many seasons with this fava.
Laurel:
How did you choose the fava bean, specifically?
Calvin:
On a high level, we knew we were going to distribute a species over a broad space — depending on who would be interested in our seed packet and where they might live — so we needed a species that can easily grow in a number of different environments and would also have a net positive impact on those environments.
The fava bean is incredibly hardy and can grow in a number of different climates. Its “hardiness zone,” the measure of climates across the US in which it can grow, is very wide. It’s one of the widest we know of. It’s an incredibly productive nitrogen fixer as well. So even a single plant can have a very productive impact on the soil in which it’s growing, by capturing and fixing nitrogen from the air and adding it as a nutrient to the soil around it.
Lexi:
It also felt important that it was edible for the human stewards. Fava beans themselves are very delicious, but so are the flowers and the leaves.
Meg:
I have a question for Laurel. Why did you think of Lexi and Calvin for this project?
Laurel:
A couple of years ago, in the mail, I received this amazing surprise from Lexi and Calvin — a seed packet they created in collaboration with Salmon Creek Farm. It was very beautifully considered and designed. Inside, it not only contained seeds (a mix of over 25 different species) but also a variety of printed ephemera that shared information about the seeds, instructions for planting called “Score for an Inaugural Garden,” and the process of its becoming.
This concept of a seed packet felt well suited to what Lexi and Calvin’s studio, Companion–Platform, does in general, so I imagined it would be a generative jumping off point to re-imagine it while weaving together themes we are exploring in the Are.na Gift Shop.
Meg:
After we spoke to Lexi and Calvin about the possibility of a seed packet, that’s when the idea of “gift proliferation“ and continued gifting came about, right?
Calvin:
That stemmed from this idea that a gift could be the beginning of something rather than an end in and of itself. Lexi and I have been using the term “gift proliferation,” which has resurfaced a number of times through working with people via our studio.
Lexi:
We liked a gift that encourages a certain kind of reciprocity between the gift itself and the keeper of the gift — in a long span of time that also involves keeping the gift (plant) alive, letting it proliferate and flourish!
Calvin:
The Are.na Gift Shop felt like a fertile space to ask questions like, “What can a gift be?” or “What can a gift become?” A single seed inherently has this “gift alchemy” — as contained within a single seed is the possibility for many seeds. This idea goes back to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s beautiful essay about the serviceberry and thinking about the gift economy and reciprocity. When one has access to abundance, why wouldn’t you share it outwards with others? We wanted to think about how this project can be the beginning of a network of gifting that grows outwards and proliferates.
Meg:
Laurel and I were also curious about how you bring your interest in ecology and gardening into your design practice. Your work seems to have a strong ecological focus.
Calvin:
From the very beginning, we’ve been devoted to this idea of partnership, or mutual flourishing, when we work with a client. We’ve been very fortunate to often work with individuals, artists, organizations, or farms that we learn so much from while working together. We love this notion of ecology, because in its etymology, it’s very expansive and inclusive. It goes beyond the bounds of what might be considered part of the natural world; it also includes beings who are operating within generous forms of exchange. 
The first thing we made as a studio was a short, prosaic essay about the hyphen in our name. Before we had the words “Companion” and “Platform,” we knew that we wanted to utilize the “–” hyphen. We wrote an essay about all of the forms in which we could imagine this hyphen taking as a model.
Lexi:
[reading from the essay] “Our name is just as much the hyphen as it is the words it sits between. The hyphenated space of Companion–Platform stretches, expands, reaches, tangles, and tetters. Sometimes a platform, and other times a seesaw, but always a space for practicing hyphenated ways of being in the world today. The hyphen is an open invitation to set wild and seemingly disparate feeling things side by side, opening up perspectives from which to reconsider what formerly felt familiar, steady, and contained. We have come to know the hyphen as a garden, a tendril, a hum, a hyperlink, a seesaw, and a platform.”
Calvin:
We also spend as much time outside as we possibly can. If there’s even an inkling of an opportunity to be away from the computer, we take our minds and bodies outside. We are always looking and observing. Observation is an integral part of our practice. We’re continual students of ecological systems. That can be the operating system of an organization, but it can also be systems in the natural world, whether they are watersheds or dandelions, or patterns of pollen distribution. We are always learning from these ecological systems. Within our work we try to find opportunities to push what could be considered a metaphor to the level of model. We look to ecological systems as models for our practice and the work that we make for others.
A patch of Lexi and Calvin’s garden. [Wildflowers in bloom; thick, lush green punctuated by shocks of purple, red, pinks, and orange.]
Laurel:
You are both gardeners. What’s your garden like?
Lexi:
We are students of many gardeners. We’ve had the good fortune to work with and alongside many wonderful gardeners and have learned from time spent with them working in their gardens. We are also students of our own garden. How we work as gardeners comes from the direct observations that we experience in our garden.
Calvin:
In terms of the space of our garden, we’re very lucky to live in an old building in our neighborhood — a small apartment building. Because of the time our building was constructed, it sits on a relatively large piece of land. A few years ago, we reached out to our landlord and asked if we could build a garden in the corner of the building. We began to spend more time out there, talking to our neighbors, and we learned more and more about the history and lineage of care that had been given to that particular corner. Previously, there was a woman who for decades had taken care of the gardens around the building. Since she stopped, everything had become overgrown, tangled, and a bit messy. There were all of these lineages and remnants of plants that she had planted. One in particular is a tree dahlia that has naturalized and now returns every spring. We do everything we can to weed around these dahlias, staking them up and caring for them. We enjoy thinking of the gardens that came before ours. 
We thought a lot about what it means to have a garden as a renter. It feels a bit different when you consider a garden as both a space and also a period of time, during which you direct care and attention to that particular space. There’s a degree of uncertainty as a renter, because you don’t necessarily know how long you’ll be there, and so many things we’re implementing in the garden are based on these longer arcs of time. Every decision we made was with this idea that maybe we will not necessarily be present to see the result of that effort or decision. So our highest level idea for the design and the things we were planting is that we would use plants that would likely naturalize in that space. After several years of planting and caring for some of these species, they would start to self-sow, and return every year. Even beyond our time, our effort or presence in this garden will begin to recycle, and someone else can enter that space, shift it, or change it or redirect it, but there would already be this family of plants that would continue to regenerate and return every spring.
There are some thinkers and other gardeners that we’re really interested in that have helped inform some of this thinking. Gilles Clément, a French philosopher and garden designer, has this very beautiful idea of a garden in movement, and a garden as a very permeable space, which can, through the distribution of pollen and seeds, continue beyond the bounds and borders of the garden. That’s another thing we’re thinking about, too, is paying very close attention to where some of these plants are spreading into the broader landscape. Being present and witnessing that movement of the garden itself, as it gets to travel outwards into the neighborhood.
Lexi:
Along those lines, maintaining a garden is permeable. The location of our garden faces the sidewalk. There’s easy access for the surrounding deer. We never fence off our garden. That felt really important to us: that the deer could come in, and that we’d all be in conversation together. Oftentimes in the summer, we see a lot of oak saplings sprouting up that are dropped from the squirrels above in the tree. There’s a nice collaboration that happens when nothing is fenced off. Of course, it’s a little harder to grow food because the deer also want to partake.
Calvin:
It’s a salad bar [laughs].
“Vicia Faba” seed packet frontside. [Ethereal green with blurs of blue, and a delicate drawing of a fava plant. The beading from the back border shows up again, and outlined insects hover around the words Vicia faba along the top. A fuzzy, full-color, miniature drawing of the fava plant sits in the bottom right corner.]
Laurel:
There are so many details I love about the design of the seed packet — like this beautiful blurry background and these drawings of little bugs that connect with the typography in a flourishing sort of way. Can you share more about these details?
Calvin:
There’s a wonderful thinker and ecologist named Janine Benyus, who wrote a profound book on biomimicry that we love. She often mentions our relationship to the beauty of flowers — for example, when a tree flowers it indicates where there will soon be food. Beauty has this sort of function of soliciting attention — to captivate the heart first and follow with function. That’s definitely something we think about often in our work. We deeply love ornamentation and flourish.
Lexi:
Another inspiration was this book by Remy Charlip and Jerry Joyner called Thirteen. It’s framed as a children’s book. There are a series of thirteen visual transformations that occur in slow, abstract, and dramatic ways. It’s not so much a formal reference, but the energy and real whimsy they use to represent a transformation felt inspiring to us.
Calvin:
On a practical level, we’ve collected seed packets for a long time. We have come to love the seed packet as a maximalist surface. The more seed packets you look at, the more you realize that people have found more and more ways to include more and more information. Some seed packets you unglue, and underneath there is more information! The information included on the surface of a seed packet is partially visual but mostly contextual and instructional. Something we were really excited about is giving voice to the personal and the emotional and finding ways to weave that in as seamlessly as possible into the imperative . The process of interacting with the seed and planting it is both logistical and hopefully resonant on a personal / emotional level.
A diagram demonstrating the “gift alchemy” of a fava, courtesy Companion–Platform. [A circle at the center is labeled “1 gift,” with arrows radiating outward and pointing toward eight smaller circles, also labeled “1 gift.” Contained within a single seed is the possibility for many seeds.]
Laurel:
By the way, I appreciate your email signatures and sign-offs, and how you often include additional photos at the very bottom of your emails.
Lexi:
Sharing photos is something we’ve started doing more recently. Calvin and I are always taking photographs of things we see out on walks, runs, bike rides, or backpacking trips to share with one another. When we share these photos in our emails, it feels like this opportunity for a certain connectedness. Minutiae and small details sustain our creative practices and feel like nutrients to us. Email signatures are not spaces that should be taken for granted—they are beautiful spaces for adding in this special and vital detail.
Meg, we’re profoundly grateful for your Are.na channel about good email sign offs. And Laurel, your project about 72 microseasons also feeds into how we think about ecological shifts that we’re experiencing and the place we’re writing from.
A very good sign off from Companion–Platform. [The bottom of an email in which Lexi and Calvin had signed off “warmth and gratitude, L + C.” Under the signature is a photo of a bird perched on an outstretched hand holding seeds, a snow-blanketed forest in the background. The text captioning the image reads “a Mountain Chickadee who stopped for a sunflower seed on Mount Rose this past weekend.”]
Calvin:
Also, to give credit on our email signatures, we worked very closely with an ikebana artist named John Rogers on a website that’s still in development. In all of our exchanges with him, even if he was simply sending one word answers to our questions, he would also share a small image from an observation and then write extensively about that observation. It always felt like a gift! To receive this abundance at the bottom of the email has been very inspiring to us.
Even in a quick email or exchange, it’s a fantastic opportunity to always share more than what’s being asked for. It’s about finding all these opportunities and access points to share what we’re experiencing in our lives. We’re always striving to find places to squeeze in a little bit more — a bit of whimsy, ornamentation, or flourish!
***
“Gratitude and reciprocity are the currency of a gift economy, and they have the remarkable property of multiplying with every exchange, their energy concentrating as they pass from hand to hand, a truly renewable resource. I accept the gift from the bush and then spread that gift with a dish of berries to my neighbor, who makes a pie to share with his friend, who feels so wealthy in food and friendship that he volunteers at the food pantry. You know how it goes.”
***
Companion–Platform’s seed packet “Vicia Faba” is now available on the Are.na Gift Shop.
Companion—Platform is an ecologically oriented creative studio with a special focus on web, identity, strategy, and image making. Founded by Lexi Visco & Calvin Rocchio
Laurel Schwulst is imagining & developing the Are.na Gift Shop.
Meg Miller is seeding, organizing & double checking Are.na Editorial.
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