Monday, March 4, 2013

Faith in a Seed

Faith in a Seed
One of the things that I have loved about farming is the way that the year is broken up into different seasons each of which carries with it distinct changes in both my day to day activities and the types of thoughts that occupy my brain. As a child I always liked the way that the various holidays that were interspersed throughout the year provided a somewhat similar sensation. The themes (and foods!) that accompanied the special dates marked on the calendar gave me some sense of continuity and I liked the way that, as I grew older, and my understanding of the world grew deeper, the yearly return to these themes (and foods!) always gave rise to new questions and deeper conversations. Passover changed from a holiday that marked the story of a baby in a basket and a tyrant bent on promoting his own glory at all costs to a discussion of the difficulty of moving one’s self from bondage to freedom. It became the story of the ways that a life of known bondage can seem less scary than the possibly difficult trek through the proverbial desert. It became the story of the righteousness of ALWAYS seeking to help the oppressed. The holidays would give me a chance to feel how much I had changed and would supply me with bigger and bigger questions to wrestle with. Although the dates tend to slide around the calendar a little more, there are points of my farming year that provide a very similar function for me and, in many ways, I suspect that these moments in the life of a farmer are what, over the course of human history, provided the impetus for the way we celebrate, in our various traditions, the trip our earth makes around the sun.
The time of year that we are now entering, for me, is dominated by the SEED and while one might assume that the months dominated by the fruit (July and August) would be a farmer’s favorite, I think that these early months of the year, when I am busy finalizing planting schedules, ordering seeds, working in the greenhouses and, eventually, planting seeds into the earth, are among the most thought provoking and contemplative for me. As I type this on my computer, resting on the floor by my left foot are a few small brown boxes that, amazingly, contain the potential for thousands and thousands of pounds of food. It is easy to look on the surface of my desk at the various things that occupy it (excluding the variety of empty coffee mugs): the ultra-fast computer with a touch screen, the wireless mouse and keyboard, the iPod that could easily contain years of photos and music, and feel overwhelmed by how amazing these pieces of technology are. Even though I have grown up with computers since I was reasonable young, I am still blown away, at times, when I consider that, at the click of a button, I can listen to any song I want, find out the current temperature of any city in the world, send a note to just about everyone I know (or have known), or resear
ch the history of any known civilization that has ever walked the earth. In spite of the fact that these possibilities ARE fairly amazing, on closer reflection, in terms of the wonder they SHOULD generate, these all PALE in comparison the little, dry, oddly shaped contents quietly resting on the floor.
Seeds. It’s hard to imagine a world without them… although the fossil record does show that there was a long expanse of time before even the most primitive seed-like forms came onto the scene around 385 million years ago and there are still a few plants that eschew them. As hard as it might be to imagine a world without seeds it is impossible to imagine humanity (or even any larger mammals) without them for, as we all learned in grade school, it was human’s ability to harvest, store and later “improve” seeds that allowed for less of our time to be spent hunting and gathering food which eventually (and I’m skipping a few steps here) allowed us to invent iPods. Seeds’ reputation, like that of many things we really ought to hold dear, suffers from their ubiquity. Consider this: each one of these tiny seeds actually holds an amount of information that positively DWARFS the collected information held on all of the bright and shiny gizmos that clutter my desk! If that isn’t amazing enough for you, consider that they also have the ability to transmit all of that information forward through time, spread that information to wherever it might be “useful” on the surface of this planet (and possibly beyond) and have mechanisms to potentially adapt that information to a variety of circumstances in which that seed might find itself germinating. They hold in them the methods by which our livable atmosphere developed AND the information contained in them holds the entire key to our ability to harness the energy of the sun which we require to build every cell that makes up our bodies! Seeds hold the organizing power that can build mighty trees or the sweetest melons from merely photons and just a small handful (metaphorically) of simple atoms! Each of these seeds holds a record of what worked well for its antecedents and provides the possibility for a good life for a good number of its descendants. The arrival of the seed as a tactic for reproduction allowed plants to spread over the surface of the planet and, with the help of flowers (which came on the scene after seeds), allowed for an AMAZING diversification in the variety of plants on Earth. With the arrival of the seed plants had the ability to protect the information that they had from harsh environments AND they could pass on some basic nutrients to help their progeny get a foot (or, more accurately, a root) in the ground. When it comes to conveying the lessons of the millennia to future generations, the things that have worked and contributed to success, you’d be hard-pressed to find a school, holy-book, or philosophy that has worked as well as seeds.
In comparison to seed bearing plants’ 350+ million years of experience, humans have a scant record on this planet with just 150,000 or so years of monkeying around (pun-intended). In general it has been good for us to look to those who came before us to learn, through them, some lessons that might help us survive and thrive. Typically this is done through the reading of history and through the lessons that are passed on to us through culture and our religious teachings but I think that it would also be good for us to look outside of human history and take some lessons from seeds. What can we learn from seeds? First, they show us that potential is often invisible and unknowable. The seed of the tastiest tomato is wrinkled and small and unassuming. While producing a fruit that is visually appealing may or may not be in the best interest of a plant, at the beginning, nearly all seeds show very few outward signs of their potential. This is a good lesson for humans for, too often, when we are judging things, we are looking in the wrong places for signs of their potential and we want, very early in the game, to KNOW the outcome. All a seed has is a variety of ways of reorganizing the world around it; of taking the resources that are in leaf and root’s reach of whatever odd place it might land and furnishing a life from them.
The second thing that occurs to me is that, in the development of seeds, plants use their energy to do three things, typically. In most angiosperms (the most common type of seed and flower producing plant), when the pollen grain fertilizes the ovum half of the energy is spent on creating the cells that will generate the foundation of the new plant. The rest of the energy is spent two ways. First, some of the cells develop into what is called the integuments, the stuff that protects and keeps the zygote viable until it is in a good position to germinate and then gives it the energy to make a start. Finally, energy is put into converting the ovule into a protective coating. Often this becomes what we call fruit. Plants/seeds have “discovered” over their long history, that it pays to be a team player and, while it is important to put enough away to provide for the survival of its progeny, an organism can also reap rewards through a type of generosity… through finding ways of overlapping its goals with that of other organisms. By producing fruit, or an excess of seeds, plants use some of their energy to feed other organisms who, in turn, then use a part of this energy “gift” to help the otherwise immobile seed disperse. Seed-bearing plants are rarely stingy and it has been of great benefit to them, whenever possible, to give freely. Although some percentage of their seeds will be lost or damaged in the process of being eaten and discarded by critters, by “working” to benefit others they greatly benefit themselves. While we often hear about how unnatural Socialism is, this biological form is dominant and the world could not function without it.
Finally, the seed is a lesson in the benefits of engaging with diversity. Seeds are the result of bringing together haploid cells (cells containing half of the genetic material needed for a new plant) from all over to create something that will tend to bear traits that vary somewhat from seed to seed. If a seed were to be fully bound to be an EXACT reproduction of the genetics of its parents, it (the species) would not thrive (over time) and would relatively quickly fail. Since all seeds (like all people) are genetic crosses, they vary in ways that give rise to a diversity that leaves their species better prepared to survive under wider variety of circumstances. Most seed-bearing plants are superstars when it comes to producing serious diversity over just a few generations. They tend to accept pollen from many neighbors, even far afield, and produce an abundance of seeds. The world is constantly changing and, in order to thrive, a seed must give room to those changes. While not every change that occurs in a seed is a good one, the benefit of allowing for change, even taking into account the chance that, from time to time a change will occur that will make an unviable seed, or reduce the success of the plant, far outweighs the risks. To my mind seeds seem to find a perfect balance, in aggregate, between preserving what has been good in the past, what is good right now and what might be good in the future. Too often, it feels as though I hear people defending things/ideas that, while they may have been useful in the past, have well outlived their usefulness. Enormous amounts of energy are put into their defense to the point where denying that the world and our knowledge of it has changed, and is ever-changing, becomes of greater importance than finding solutions that work. Equally as problematic is the desire to fully discard those things that have served us well in the past if it is not immediately apparent where their place is in the present. We can look to seeds as models of finding some balance.
What actually bothers me the most about the sudden abundance of GMO (genetically modified organism) seeds is that we are, through their use, greatly diminishing the amount of genetic diversity in our landscape and, even worse, at times creating “seeds” that will produce plants that will not be able to produce ANY viable seeds themselves! We are trading something that has worked well for us for all of human history, something that has, in fact, helped make us HUMAN, for a system that is largely designed to make things a little bit easier, food a little bit “cheaper” (read my last post for my opinions on this), and agriculture a little bit more profitable (for the seed and chemical companies). While I understand that many of the people involved in the creation of GMO seeds may have the best intentions, considering that, once these fundamental changes to the genetic composition of seeds are “released” into the world they can never be taken back, it seems a bit like we are trading our birthright for a bowl of GMO lentils (does anyone get this joke?).
In just a few days Malena and I will start spending our days sowing seeds, as people have done for countless generations, and in doing so, we will set into motion, yet again, another year of farming. Within a few short hours of the seeds being buried in the soil, the water, in combination with some heat and a variety of molecules in the soil will begin to change the seed’s hard “shells” and the potential held in each of them will begin to be realized. Step, by step, with root hairs and leaves, the plants will develop and reach out into the world around them gathering what they can and, without any fanfare at all, remaking the world yet again. I can’t wait!
Mike Jacobs