One of my favorite quotes about seeds comes from writer-filmmaker-cum-social entrepreneur Kenny Ausubel who co-founded Seeds of Change with his wife Nina Simon in 1989. The seed- growing company’s mission, “to restore ‘backyard diversity’ into the food web through marketing organic, biodiverse heirloom seeds to gardeners,” continues to this day.
Around the same time that Ausubel was doing that, he was also helping to put together Bioneers, a non-profit group that holds an annual conference which, it says here, functions as a “hub of social and scientific innovations with practical and visionary solutions for the worlds’ most pressing and social changes.”
Their annual award-winning radio and audio series, “BIONEERS; Revolution From the Heart of Nature” is available free for the listening. For more than thirty years, the group has been an exceptionally joyous celebration of human ingenuity and creativity, connecting people with solutions and with each other.
[You might also want to check out the group’s website and audio | podcast series. (Click on the different-colored titles above.)]
Anyway, here’s the quote:
“Seeds carry life from generation to generation without end. Through the seeds speak the voices of the ancestors. Each time we plant a seed, we become ancestors for the generations to come.”
And isn’t that a beautiful vision?
One short YouTube video featured on the Bioneers organization’s purpose page is “Bioneers: It’s All Connected.” The clip, which was uploaded in 2019, is taken from a series called, “Seeding the Field: 30 Years of Transformative Solutions” that showcases the best moments of the Bioneers conference through the years.
WE ARE ALL A PART OF A PROCESSION
The way of seeing that Ausubel and his Bioneers talk about in the video resonates with one of the foundational mindsets held by various native peoples of Oceania. The traditional Oceanic ways of relating to the world around us are a part of our culture and part of who we are as people.
Feelings of connection to Life-Its-Own-Self are a large part of the meaning the ones who live in the Real Old-Style give to being human.
This way of seeing and the way of moving through the world that it engenders arises from a deeply felt connection to earth that humans can intuit, a connection to place and to every living thing in that place. The mindset gives us access to an energy that even modern sorts like us can tap.
The energy of that connected way of moving through the world flows up through our feet, our legs and our human na’au (guts), upwards and outwards through our hearts and into the works of our human hands, bodies, minds, and spirits.
This energy flows out into the world through our mouths and imbues our stories and poems and songs with tremendous power. It touches every action we make, no matter how ordinary, with magic and it can help us to shape the world around us into beauty.
Me, I think that is a good way of seeing.
A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE
My grandfather was a home gardener dedicated to the rituals of food production as only someone who had raised up a large brood of young ‘uns with a bad-tempered, shrewd and sharp-tongued wife could be.
The thing is, I never did see Papa buy any seeds or plant starts for any of his gardens. I still remember all the jars of seeds lined up on a shelf in the old work shed.
When he wanted to grow something new, Papa traded seeds with neighbors and friends who also had gardens and work sheds of their own.
There were never bags of store-bought fertilizers, fancy soil amendments or additives and such piled up in some corner of that shed. There were always piles of composting leaves and garden detritus under the mango tree. There were always chickens. There were always friends with cows and horses around and fellow fishermen and hunters as well.
Inside and around the work shed, there was an abundance of simple digging tools and beat-up handmade wheelbarrows to haul stuff around. Assorted sharp implements and hand tools, an array of empty pots, and lots and lots of buckets and hoses and pipes were all neatly arranged in that shed.
Papa made a lot of food in his gardens.
A STRAY THOUGHT: WERE HUMANS DOMESTICATED BY PLANTS?
The plants in Papa’s garden came from all over the world. They were brought here by voyagers, traders, refugees, colonists and other settlers who came here from other far-flung places.
Every immigrant there ever was carried with them the starts of useful plants with which they were familiar. Once they were settled into their new place the homesteaders would send away or trade for the plants they remembered and knew how to use as well as for plants whose usefulness they wanted to explore. How else do you build a comfortable-for-you life?
Throughout all of our story-making days we humans have lived, we know that this is one of the ways plants have spread all over our planet.
Sometimes I think the plants domesticated us humans so we’d carry them around to all of the new places we found. After all, plants use everything else they can to spread and propagate themselves, including insects, birds, animals, and even wind and wave action.
It occurred to me that we humans are also very useful to the plants with which we interact because they need us to take care of them in the new places where we take them. It seems to me that plants depend on us humans to help them adapt to these new places as well.
That one’s a bit of a mind-boggle.
[Oops! Sorry. Let’s get back on track here.]
THE WORLD CHURNS
By the time I had the wherewithal and the inclination to do some home gardening my own self, the world my Papa knew was dead.
People were no longer saving seeds from the plants they grew in their gardens. Instead, there were all these mail-order seed catalogs with glorious pictures of lovely fields of plants. The seeds I got never seemed to do quite what I thought they were supposed to do.
And while there was a plethora of choices to be had in every one of those catalogs, I noticed that they really didn’t have a lot of the stuff my Papa used to grow in his gardens.
People no longer made their own dirt. You could buy way-better-than-dirt planting stuff as well as stuff to make new and improved dirt. These things all came in big old bags that took up a lot of room.
I also came to realize that the whole home gardening thing had become a model for “better living through chemistry” somehow, and it was actually dangerous for many living things to hang out in gardens.
There were all kinds of evil-smelling chemical warfare potions that decimated bugs and other living things and other mysterious (but very scientific) magic stuff that was supposed to pump up plant production to greater heights or something.
The Industrial Revolution had gone agrarian and I had not really noticed it.
THE POLITICS OF SEEDS
The story about that is interesting. It is, predictably, the one about who gets to decide what we do with our resources. Surprise, surprise!
Starting in the mid-1800s, the notion that living organisms and their genetic material were resources that needed to be regulated and controlled started gaining ground. A series of government based programs, policies, offices and associations were formed to discourage everyday people from saving their own seeds.
All these agencies and whatever worked really hard to get regular people to give up such subversive activities as keeping their own legacy seeds, making their own dirt and caring their own way for their own plants. After all, said all those people-in-the-know, Science was on their side!
The bureaucracy that grew up around the plant-growing control effort spent a lot of time putting obstacles in the way of little farmers who just wanted to grow food and flowers and other useful things in the Real Old-Style. Similar stories in other countries played out in the same way. It also gave corporations and other non-living entities the ability to own the right to control what kinds of plants could and should be grown and (not so incidentally) allow these entities to charge rent on the use of the seeds that they controlled.
Similar stories in other countries played out in much the same way.
(Personally, I think the model the power dudes used was the fairy-tale where the farmer’s daughter conned the rich guy into believing that she could by golly turn wheat-straw into gold. Too bad Rumpelstiltskin wasn’t around.)
All of this power-jockeying culminated (in the United States, at least) in 1980 when the US Supreme Court decided that it was henceforth illegal to save seeds from patented plants.
BIODIVERSITY IS MOTHER NATURE’S BEST DEFENSE
Even though the law only affected commercial farmers who now have to pay rent on the seeds they use to plant their fields, the trickle-down for home gardeners and other regular people was the loss of an enormous wealth of knowledge and cultural practices that helped ensure the biodiversity of our food web.
Biodiversity (the number of different types and varieties of plants and animals in the world) is the backbone of the resilience and sustainability of our very complex food systems.
Think “Irish potato famine.” That’s the go-to model for why it is a bad idea to grow just one iteration of any important food crop.
Simplicity, minimalism, and do-what-everybody-else does is not the best move to make when you’re trying to dance with Mother Nature and come away from the encounter with enough food to feed a bunch of hungry mouths.
Scientific studies made since the power move to take control of the world’s seed stocks have shown that the commodification and patentability of seeds was responsible for the loss of countless varieties of plants. Some of these studies estimate that we’ve lost close to 75% of the different iterations and variations of the plants we used to grow, mostly because we did not save the seeds. ARGH!
Instead of millions of people all over the world saving seeds and helping the plants they grow to adapt to their specific local conditions, in the intervening years since the paradigm-shift, the places where we can get seeds for growing the plants we need to live have dwindled down to a few hundred.
BIG IDEAS ARE GREAT, BUT WHEN DO WE EAT?
Once the effects of the decision to turn food and other useful plant materials into gold mines was understood, there were all kinds of fix-it things (also mostly government-sponsored).
Some of the fix-it things are mighty impressive, like scientifically engineered seed vaults like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that opened in 2008 in Svalbard, Norway and the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation located in Fort Collins, Colorado.
In practical, everyday terms these “solutions” apparently tend to benefit scientists who want to play around with plant genetic materials to make new wonder-plants or bring back the best of the oldies-but-goodies and stuff like that. I think the bean-counters who like checking their lists and counting them twice must have a grand time with it all.
My reaction when I encounter the stories about the fabulous collections of seeds the human race has got stashed in case of the Apocalypse always seems to come down to, “Wow! That’s awesome! When do we get to play with those things too?”
My own gut-feeling about all that is that if the world blows up, how the heck are we going to be able to break into those temperature-controlled, ultra cool seed vaults? It’s not a gardening shed, ya know.
To get an idea of the variety and scope of the worldwide efforts to encourage seed biodiversity, click on the button below.
It will take you to an 2020 overview by writer Katie Howell titled “27 Organizations Working to Conserve Seed Biodiversity.” The list includes initiatives and efforts by many good people to help work on the problem of mitigating the rapidly shrinking inventory of plant resources around the world and to improve on what we’ve got left. Mostly these are assorted seed libraries, seed banks and lots of educational efforts as well.
Like the seed vault things they are magnificent. Looking over them, however, I am mostly stymied by what (besides throwing money at them) I could do to help their efforts.
EVERYDAY PEOPLE DOING EVERYDAY THINGS
Fortunately, there have been many people like Kenny Ausubel and other deep-thinking sorts who have started organizations that are working at a more grassroots level to encourage the resurrection and revitalization of the practice and process of developing diverse home-bred, locally and regionally specific seed varieties.
These varieties are more likely, over time, to become adapted to local and regional changes in climate, incoming pests and brand-new diseases, improved growing practices and technological advances as well as rising energy costs or space limitations.
Part of that process of local adaptation comes down to saving and sharing seeds. The people who are growing plants for the seeds live with those same changes and environmental conditions. They have an incentive to work on preserving or encouraging plant characteristics that can deal with them.
One of the organizations listed in Howell’s post is Seed Saver Exchange (SSE). It is the largest American non-governmental organization bent on encouraging bio-diversity through seed-saving by helping gardeners get and share seeds that they can use to build up the biodiversity of plants in their area.
Founded in Minnesota in 1975 by husband and wife team Diane Ott Whealy and Kent Whealy, they now are based on 890 acres in Winneshiek County, Iowa at Heritage Farm.
Along the way the Whealys and their crew have created a network of more than 13,000 members. Among the members, the Exchange grows over 20,000 heirloom and heritage varieties that do well in a wide variety of different regions around the world.
This 2015 YouTube Video, “Seed Saving Advice to Beginners,’ is an introduction to their award-winning book, THE SEED GARDEN BOOK: The Art and Practice of Seed Saving, which is now in its second edition. The book was edited by Lee Buttala and Shanyn Siegel.
If you are not up for a whole book about saving seeds, you might want to click on the button below for a quick tour of hacks for doing that very thing by the online magazine Modern Farmer. The post it takes you to is titled, “SEED-SAVING 101: Ten Things to Know If You Want to Start Saving Seeds.”
Here’s a poem:
Here they are,
Just hardened dried bits of defiance,
Tightly holding on to the memories of
Old stories lived through ages past
Reiterated again and yet again.
The dreams of glories
And splendid harvests come and gone.
In tiny little bundles of promises,
Whispering, urging me to make
Yet another leap of faith,
One more time.
Take the chance, they whisper.
One more time, they sigh.
The fecund earth stands ready and
The world holds its collective breath once more.
Waiting for the seed’s release
Just as the seed yearns towards its becoming.
A still point at the intersection of choice.
Once again the seed hits the dirt
And the story can continue.
And every time, without fail, I do recall
The snarling words of Konstantinos,
That old recalcitrant Greek rebel-poet:
“What didn’t you do to bury me…
But you forgot that I was a seed.”
By Netta Kanoho
SOME OTHER POSTS TO EXPLORE:
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