At last the real "farm" work of the season has begun! The last week has found us sowing our first seeds of the 2009 growing season and, by Tuesday morning, the first sprouts poked through the soil and began their climb towards the sky. It has now been 13 years since I planted my first seeds as a farmer and while, in some years, the act of planting those first tiny seeds has felt weighty, in others it has felt, especially as the years roll by, a bit ho-hum. Like many things in life, where repetition can take away some of the "magic", seeding flats in the greenhouse, while always fun, can also feel a bit mundane. However, this year, while I was holding a bag of broccoli seed in my hand, my mind began to hum and I was reminded of how much of a "miracle" these simple little seeds are.
Beginning work on my second day of planting I picked up my broccoli seeds and, for some reason, the fact that, in my one hand, I held enough seed to plant something on the order of 15,000 broccoli plants, set my mind to contemplating seeds. Fifteen Thousand plants could yield around fifteen thousand heads of broccoli. That is enough broccoli to feed a lot of people and yet, there it was, in a little plastic bag, weighing just a few ounces and costing, perhaps, $40. Each one of those seeds was filled with potential, some more than others, and nearly all of them COULD, given the right conditions, grow roots, stems, leaves and even the immature flower clusters that we eat. Each would be planted into the soil, some in richer soil than others, and each would contend with a mixture of the conditions that mother nature provides and the extra care we are able to provide for it. Some will fall prey to wind or insects or rabbits but many of them will, quite likely, flourish and end up in your CSA box sometime later this summer. At the moment of planting, much like each of us at birth, they are pure potential, the most recent product of one of a multiplicity of lines extending back to that first single celled organism that did whatever it did in that much discussed "primordial ooze". To be sure, that broccoli seed can't be a beet, a melon, or a tomato but, with a little love and a whole lot of luck, it might be the best head of broccoli you've ever tasted. Only time will tell.
This thought, of course, got me to thinking further about seeds; what is it that seeds really do? As a small child I thought that seeds were filled with a tiny version of the future plant and that, somehow, magically, with a little water and sun, it would expand. This is obviously not exactly the case. Seeds are, like all living things, patterns for reorganizing the world of which they are a part. What do I mean by this? A seed begins with very little aside from the plan encoded in its DNA; just some simple cells differentiated in just a few ways. Seeds have an "seed coat" (Testa), cells that will become the leaves and act as food for the emerging plant (cotyledon), cells that will become the roots (radicle) and cells that will become the stem (plumule). All of this, in the case of a broccoli seed, fits into a package no larger than the head of a pin! What makes each seed special is, of course, the instructions it contains for interacting with the world around it. We tend to think of plants as exceptionally passive things but, like all living organisms, from the first moment of growth, they begin to remake the world. The plants' cells "grab" molecules from the air, soil, and water and reshape them into new molecules to build the structures that the plant needs to fulfill its potential. Each plant's very existence leaves the world changed and each and every seed is a slightly new approach to remaking the world.
This thought is, of course, not merely applicable to seeds! It is about all of life and it is about all of the work that we do. It is inescapable; with each breathe, each step, each action we are reorganizing the universe playing out countless permutations. The thought really struck home when I began to tie it to one of my other passions, restorative justice. For the past 2 years, in addition to my agricultural exploits, I have been involved in a program called "Circle Sentencing". Circle Sentencing is an alternative, for juveniles who have committed crimes, to incarceration. Rather than put them away for a while, surrounded by other offenders, often far from the community in which they committed their crime and will, likely have to return to, we attempt a different approach. The goal of this is the idea of "resorative justice", a process in which the person who has harmed takes responsibility for their actions and the person who has been harmed may take a central role in the process, in many instances receiving an apology and reparation directly or indirectly from the person who has caused them harm. Additionally, our goal is not only to have the youth understand/pay for their crime but also to leave them with stronger and positive connections to/with the community in which they live and better skills for being constructive members of society.
So, you are probably wondering what the heck this has to do with seeds? Each of the kids in our program is just like each of those seeds I plant each spring. Each of them is, at birth, filled with potential and, while each is distinct, some might make great artists, others doctors, teachers or mechanics, the greatest factor for their outcome seems to be the soil into which they are planted and yet, for good or bad, they WILL reorganize their world. Unfortunately, many of them are born into fairly thin soils and it is a struggle for them to get what they need to thrive. Unsurprisingly, they are, for the most part, the children of families that are struggling to get by, more often than not, with at least one parent that either is, or has been, incarcerated. As these children begin their work of reorganizing their world, their potential is, too often, limited by the "field" in which they have been planted. It occurs to me that we must, each of us, be, as one of our own acts of reorganization, "organic" gardeners to one another; working to improve the fertility and tilth of the "soils" not just of our own fields, but also our neighbors both for now and for future generations.