In a seed I see infinity, everything that has been and will be. The sun and it’s fellow celestial bodies, time, gravity, every element and all of evolution are enveloped in a single seed. A container for the expansion of life, a vessel of botanical hopes and dreams; a time capsule patiently waiting to unfurrow a generation’s biotic progress. When conditions are right, a seed is stirred to animation and the ancient phenotypic traits of countless plant ancestors is unveiled. I see germination as the evolutionary culmination of our universe condensed to a single moment. The inconspicuous packets we call seeds are amongst the most powerful objects in the world, biologically, socially, geologically and atmospherically. The future of humanity rests in these minute evolutionary treasures.
Seeds, and all life for that matter, share an ancient common ancestry. From viruses to the infinite universe of human imagination, the myriad forms and aspects of organic animation have descended from an archaic biological singularity. Contemporary life is a dynamic continuity of an enigmatic first ancestor. The same forces that shaped this original ancestor are shaping you right now, the rules of life have never changed. Every plant animal and fungi arrange their complex beautiful structures from the same simple elements that comprise mountains, oceans, and stars. But unlike stars, organisms are engines of self replication, bound by the genetic decorum of their predecessors.
Whether you’re a hammerhead shark, an oyster mushroom, or a flax seed, you cannot shake the timeless omnipresent mechanics of evolution. And you are simply a continuation of single celled life’s trial and error attempts to get somewhere. We are, weather we pay any attention or not, fierce seething pools of evolutionary movement.
The primal unrelenting drive to take one more breath, ingest one more calorie, and secure another attempt at reproduction echoes from every cell in every organism. It is this ceaseless push too live that ensures the most suitable genetics will flow to the next generation while natural selection culls the rest.
While selectively breeding a squash this summer I thought about that term, natural selection. And it dawned on me, that I was natural selection in that moment of controlled pollination. I, the seed saver, had taken it upon myself to consolidate the finest genes in my squash for use the following year. I, an embodiment of evolution, was ebbing evolution in another species. And it dawned on me, in this awkward moment, that individual life forms are nothing more, than a momentary tangible expression of the mind bendingly spectacular phenomena we call evolution. Evolution is the fruit of life. The squash and I were just vessels for evolution. Tools to be implemented by evolution for its own mystifying ends. And the squash seed that I shaped will give rise to the next year’s round of evolution. This cultivator/cultivated relationship is an astounding evolutionary quirk. The squash and I are teaming up and as a result drastically altering our environment. This capacity for human induced environmental manipulation thru symbiosis appears to be expanding the longer Homo sapien exists.
We humans have assembled an unprecedented body of knowledge regarding the mechanics of our universe. Seed saving is an ancient expression of our knowledge, creativity, and capacity to develop mutualistic relationships. I feel human creativity is among our planet’s greatest achievements and our curious minds, are a prefered vehicle for biological progress. Vast evolutionary headway unfolds thru us. I stand in my garden at times, marveling at what evolution has done thru me, smelling tasting and hearing the wonders brought to fruition on this previously parched and infertile hillside. We are the eyes of the world, lenses thru which life discovers its next step.
When deeply engaged in my garden I find it difficult to distinguish who I am. The lines get blurred between me, the plants I tend, the clouds and the rain, the life teeming soil and the almighty sun. I often tell folks who are trying to get to know me, that we haven’t actually met until they’ve immersed themselves in my garden. A common theme of most (if not all?) spiritual traditions is oneness or nonduality. Fiercely engaged craftspeople know oneness. I feel oneness thru gardening; perhaps that’s why I dedicate most of my free time to it? I especially feel oneness while actively participating in a plant’s breeding process. In these moments of controlled pollination I am a pollinator within the ecosystem. Yes, that’s right, just like the bees and flies and hummingbirds who are readily recognize as parts of the ecosystem, I too am a pollinating organism. The fact that I am doing it in an attempt to improve a plant’s genetics and save seed does not discredit my role as a pollinator. We humans are no less a part of the biosphere than any other entity. This realization I feel is a step towards knowing oneness.
In seed saving we experience the singular nature of the universe first hand. The seeds are just as much a part of my continued survival and development as they are a part of the plants survival. It’s as if the plants in my garden are photosynthesizing organs of my body, and my hands feet and eyes are momentarily adopted by plants to combine their finest genetics year in and year out. This relationship, a story millennia in the making, resides in every agricultural seed and every agriculturalist. And while a deeply spiritual practice, it of course, has practical implications.
Seed saving may very well be the most influential technology ever developed. We speak so readily about the conception of the wheel, the adl adl, the domestication of fire, but what about the act of selecting and storing seeds. At some point, some human somewhere, saved a seed from a plant they liked and stuck it in the ground, ripples from that act have morphed into tidal waves felt today. Ultimately, someone saved seeds, now there are robots on mars! Little did our archaic ancestors know they were planting seeds of deep space exploration!
Seed saving is an inherent prerequisite to agriculture and the development of civilizations. If we are to have annual crops from one year to the next we must store their seed year in and year out. There will be no agriculture next year without the saving of seeds this year. This simple seasonal routine has had, for better or worse, an unprecedented influence over the planet Earth. Agriculture has swelled our environment’s capacity to support an ever growing human population. But to what end? And for how long can homo sapien continue on it’s exponential path of proliferation?
Now brace yourself reader! I am going out on a limb here when I exclaim, I enjoy the human race and I love being human. I am fine with there being a lot of people on this planet. After all, more people means more ideas, creativity and art. Who doesn’t want more art. But of course more people comes with an ever growing environmental cost. We all gotta eat, and preferably not at the expense of killing everything in our paths. So time for a cliche question. How do we support our current population, or dare I say propagate an even larger population, without burning up everything in a cataclysmic fireball of extinction? Well, there’s a lot of people trying to answer this right now, but In my opinion one saving grace is going to be a refinement of the very creature that got us into this whole civilization mess in the first place….agriculture.
Agriculture is analogous to a highly intelligent undisciplined teenager. It’s easy to get stuck on surface level shortcomings while failing to see its deeper genius. Yeah, agriculture kind of sucks, but it has sweeping potential. We are failing to approach farming from a place of deep contemplative observation and constructive creativity. Our species as a whole seems to be overlooking agriculture’s potential for healing and regeneration. I’ve heard my peers spout off arguments like…..agriculture ruins the soil and water or agriculture has destroyed our once healthy hunter gatherer diet or agriculture results in too much work and no leisure! All of these arguments are valid, and I strongly agree with them, most of the time. But as we permaculturists know, it is possible to develop societies, agriculture included, that put the planet and it’s people first. Just because factory farms exists doesn’t mean it’s impossible to design a farm that builds soil, cleans water and produces food worth eating. And one of the primary issues that must be addressed in this movement towards regenerative agriculture is seeds. We must rediscover our seed saving heritage. Again, the art of plant breeding and seed saving is written in our DNA. Human beings are gardeners.
If we are to develop regenerative regionally appropriate forms of agriculture we must develop crop varieties suited to where we stand. In a quest to develop an appropriate model of agriculture I have prioritized genetics over all but soil and water on my site. Water and minerals are the hardware of my site and genetics are the software. It is the DNA contained within seeds that sparks raw mater to animation. Without genetics, soil and water would be, well, soil and water, or probably just mud, actually. I see genetics as the instruction manual for how soil and water should arrange themselves, so we can have amazing things like consciousness. Consciousness that can ponder the beauty of a flowing mountain spring and marvel at the universe contained in a handful of forest humus. And without DNA that organic matter rich humus would cease to exist and the cool mountain spring would be degraded to a mud hole.
Our entire existence depends on the Earth’s photosynthesizing primary producers. The performance of these producers depends on their genetics. This is the simple essence of plant breeding, and ultimately produces seeds worth saving. Problems currently solved thru the hamfisted application of pesticides could be solved thru plant breeding. Once upon a time every agricultural community had plant varieties that were specifically adapted to their region and its unique challenges. The more centralized and mechanized agriculture has become the fewer people there are maintaining the genetics of their regional cultivars and now most of our hard won heirloom DNA is irretrievable. Most of our ancestors seeds are lost!
So now what? I say develop new cultivars, now! I am a young but adrenalized plant breeder. Locating and securing useful plant genetics is among my greatest interests. I have only been at it for a few years, but one must start somewhere. After more than two decades of buying cultivars and seeds developed by people I don’t know in places I’ve never been to, I figured it was time to start plant breeding where I stand. I am part of a tight knit community that is indigenizing itself to the mountains of North Carolina. Regional plant varieties are a big step towards our becoming this place. This may sound like a lofty and even intimidating mission, but we must remember, this is what our species does. Homo sapien is a creative race of ever adapting engineers that have a history of relocating.
Developing regional cultivars is as elegant, or complex, as we make it. One can simply grab the seeds off a tree they like and the process has begun. Although most scholars would disagree, I consider this act to be natural selection. Perhaps a bastardization of a scientific term? But if we aren’t nature, what is?
While my process for plant breeding begins with the simple act of tracking down and securing seed, it quickly evolves into something a bit more sophisticated. Our one acre forest garden has no room for unproductive genetics, so, I have developed a ruthless eye for culling. Any individual that doesn’t make the genetic cut is promptly turned to soil at the first sign of frailty. After thinning a generation I get to know the remaining individuals. I name them and take detailed notes. With the continuity of biotic evolution in mind I closely observe every individual. I stroll through the forest garden daily to take mental note of how and what everyone is doing. Which plants are demonstrating resilience in the face of disease pressure? Which are weathering the frequent droughts of my particular microclimate? Which plants are demonstrating consistent vigour despite the site’s poor soil? And eventually, who’s provide large consistent yields?
Any individual that strongly demonstrates even one of these traits is useful in breeding. Let’s say I have a chestnut tree that is highly gall wasp resistant and another chestnut that has large fruits but is frequently plagued with gall wasp. Through controlled pollination we can, in time of course, develop individuals who embody both these traits. This is the beauty of controlled pollination. It takes just a little more know how, and a little more planning. But controlling whose genetics are going where greatly increases the breeders odds of yielding offspring worth saving. This is the bottom line. Controlled pollination streamlines our efforts saving time, labor and space. This is a process my community has started with a variety of plant genus’ on a variety of sites.
While in the wake of globalization we have lost most of our heirloom varieties, it is simultaneously easier than ever to develop new and genetically diverse regional plant varieties. A passionate seed saver accompanied by the Internet has an unprecedented potential for developing the perfect cultivar. As seed savers living in a globalized world the planet has become our genetic palette to paint the perfect garden. The potential for breeding is truly staggering. We are immersed in a bizarre conglomeration of information and technology that has the power to yield great progress if we just grab the helm. In a matter of seconds we can locate the people and materials needed to necessitate a particular breeding program. Just a couple short decades ago this would have been unimaginable for many of us.
Aided with the internet I can track down germplasms of greatest significance to my breeding project. One need only Google the genus they are after accompanied by the words breeding program and odds are a university or private breeder’s website will pop up. Chestnuts, hazelnuts and tea (camelia sinensis) are the three plants I am most passionate about breeding right now. These plants do well on my sight and yield a variety of high value products. So I am tapping the internet to great depths on these subjects. I am locating the nation’s top breeders and getting to know them one email at a time. I’m finding that fellow breeders are generally more than willing to share genetic material from their germplasms. Weather working for a university or a private nursery, seed savers and breeders are usually thrilled to help. Many breeders have compiled germplasms whose genetics span the globe. I have met breeders who have traveled the world in search of the perfect genes for their breeding project. Thanks to these Indiana Jones’ of the gardening world you and I don’t need to travel to China or Croatia to get the gene were after. Many of the genes we need are just waiting for us in a nearby germplasm. Developing relationships with germplasm managers will vastly deepen your potential as a gardener.
If you have interest in seed saving and breeding please do it! The more seed savers the better. Plant breeding, and probably anything worth doing for that matter, requires a passionate community to succeed. I don’t want to be the person who saves tea seeds but instead one of the folks who are adamantly breeding tea. No one can breed all the plants we need just as no one can save the world. I am simply continuing work that was started by my elders. Or arguably, continuing the work passed down through my deep ancestry.
Momentum has already been built in the revitalization of seed saving, we just need to steer it. The importance of seed saving cannot be overemphasized. If we permaculturalists are to save the world we must first save seeds! Seeds are store houses for our plant breeding efforts. An elder plant breeder can literally place a lifetime of work in the palm of your hand. Now in my 30th year of life, I daydream of the time when I can drop a Chestnut from my weathered wrinkled hands into the palm of a youth and say, this is it….this seed is life and evolution….this is everything I have done….please continue this tradition, I was just a step along the way.