12 August 2011
The beauty of our language is that a word can be born of certain need, and then walk the road of chance and change. The metamorphosis of the human condition requires this flux and response. Many words become attached to their original worth, others are spritely with a longing for the new. But some are swept into a vortex that is strangely intoxicating and magical. Words build new lives just as their old selves stay around for usage.
As a humanist I am drawn to the word seed–a word that is much more than its affectionate devotion from gardeners. Its meaning has regenerated enough times that definitions seem to keep multiplying from noun to verb to adjective to idiom (go to seed).
As the quintessential core of life a seed has a range of meanings: germ, source, sow, kernel, fruit, ovule, progeny, spore. Its use is found beyond science (seed, seedless, seedling) in such areas as finance (seed money) and sports (a top seed).
Awareness is growing for seed banks and seed exchanges. And the heirloom movement, back- to-the-farm movement, and slow food movement depend on the seed as the source for their existence.
But this tiny four-letter word is also bounty for writers of multiple genres (e.g., the children’s book The Tiny Seed by Eric Carle). But it’s especially loved by nature writers.
Joy spread through my world when one of my favorite nineteenth-century thinkers was brought back into the twentieth-century spotlight. The 1993 publication of Henry David Thoreau’s Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings (his last unpublished manuscript that consisted of notes from his research) had me running to the nearest bookstore to scoop a copy. Thoreau who said, “The smallest seed of faith is better than the largest fruit of happiness,” would undoubtedly have little faith in the seeds of today’s GMO crops.
Faith in a Seed opened new insights into Thoreau as scientist and writer. He transports us through his journey to discover the actions and behaviors of seeds. In the process he shows off his keen analytical and observation skills as well as his curiosity and inquisitiveness. We see another part of the American legend with his extended role as student of nature–a student drawn to learn as much as he could about the cycle of life in plants and animals. And he does it with an elegant writing style and clarity of thought.
With environmental threats looming across our planet seed libraries, seed organizations and seed trusts have sprung into action to preserve conventional and heirlooms seeds. And so there is no shortage of books about how to save your own seeds (e.g., Basic Seed Saving Book by Bill McDorman). Check out: the Hudson Valley Seed Library at http://www.seedlibrary.org or Cary Fowler’s TED talk titled “One Seed at a Time, Protecting the Future of Food” at http://www.ted.com/talks/cary_fowler_one_seed_at_a_time_protecting_the_future_of_food.html and exhibitions such as the National Heirloom Exposition, Santa Rosa, California, at http://theheirloomexpo.com/
Even a word that rhymes with (and is born of the) seed is having its day in the sun: weed. As with other by-products of a seed, the weed can very much be in the eye of the onlooker. For a different view of this maligned part of Mother Nature, read the new publication Weeds, In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants (2011) by Richard Mabey. His premise is that our living breathing planet Earth has been battered and blunted by the human hand, and we need to appreciate each part of Mother Nature.
On my small plot of land (almost a quarter of an acre) I am an intuitive gardener. I use almost entirely organic seeds. I’m so passionate about the process of working with nature that every season has me preserving and re-assessing the habitats that I’ve created. The garden acts as a silent and overt partner in my effort to spread the word about re-introducing native habitats to our urban and suburban properties. It’s a mission developed and encouraged by the National Wildlife Federation and my local nature center.
I just planted another crop of my favorite greens: arugula, which I grow three seasons of the year. The seeds are teeny tiny (see my Lens photograph for this post, which shows the round brownish arugula seeds; I took the image with a macro lens, placing them next to geranium buds to show their diminutive size) and grow without any coaxing. They’re high producers with a taste that takes the palette on a celebratory journey. They come in seed packets with sweetly drawn images and details of origin. For my arugula-infused recipes I plant the English and Italian varieties, which, of course, can be found in those very twenty-first century seed catalogs. I love that the seed packet has gone so very commercial–they’re everywhere in the spring and autumn. This omnipresence has helped to create the booming back-to-the-garden movement. And thank goodness, because Mother Earth needs us to return much of what we’ve taken. We need to recreate the pristine land by planting seeds that nurture our cooperative existence and survival.