The first segment of a 6-part essay that follows the story of seeds, from their origins to their modern-day crisis of identity. What do you have in common with a tiny seed? More than you might think. In Part 1, you’ll hear some of the Hawaiian creation stories, with a quick segway to the prehistory of seeds, several hundred million years ago. Published originally in 2012, I’m aiming to make this piece more widely available. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
One night, after long classes in Japanese History and Geography, I laid down in my web of thoughts and covers, wondering why I was learning about shoguns and vegetation patterns when I knew so little about the place where I was living. As these thoughts drifted and dulled, a cane spider dangled overhead in the darkness. It launched itself onto on my face, confirming my suspicions that this land held many secrets; that there were more pressing matters at hand. Over the next few weeks, I heard the ancient creation stories that held the threads of my temporary home together.
Long ago, Hawaiians say, the sea people arrived on the shores of their true home, that place where they still dwell today. In their stories of the beginning of the world, earth-mother, called Papa Honomaku, and sky-father, Wakea, came together from the void to give life to many children; their youngest, the star-daughter, they named Ho’ohokukulani.
Parents and children alike were happy together for some long time. But sky-father lusted after his perfect, shining youngest daughter and deceived her, and she became pregnant. Earth-mother cursed them both and cast them out of her domain. They sailed across the horizon waters by canoe, carrying seeds, plants, and animals for their new life, not knowing what sort of place they would come to. After many moons of sailing, sailing into waters unknown, sky and stars arrived on these new shores.
In time, they built their home together. Just as they finished, star-daughter’s pregnancy came due. Too soon. The baby had no human shape – a torso only, no arms or legs – and died. Earth-mother’s curse had brought the child back to her kingdom. Sky-father and star-daughter buried their first son, named Haloa, on the east corner of their home. They tended carefully to his gravesite. They watered it and kept weeds from growing there. After some days, a tightly curled leaf emerged from the ground – their son had begun to grow, and soon he was a strong, healthy taro plant. Sky-father and star-daughter tended to his needs, and he in turn cared for theirs, giving them food and medicine, shade and purpose. Through his growth upward, he connected earth, sky, and stars.
Not so long after, this son gained a human brother, and from him all the people descend. Ever since those days, the people have learned from their elders to respect and care for the taro plant, their elder brother – each has helped the other grow and spread throughout the land. Neither could live without the other.
The people of the taro are real. In the Hawaiian language, taro’s close ties to the people are entrenched: the point where the stem, a thin round stalk, meets the leaf, that is the piko – the navel. The stem itself is the ha – the breath. All the tiny oha that sprout around the mother plant are its ohana – family. Ohana literally means “all from the shoots.” Not only do Hawaiians speak of taro in terms of family; they speak of their families in terms of taro.
Rooted deeply in all of this is that first seed, carried across oceans of time and space. On those long-ago voyages, the ones that brought Hawaiians homeward, they carried the equivalent of carrot tops – just enough of the taro root (or seed stock) to regrow, with its shoots and leaves attached. Carefully wrapped in cloth, sealed for protection against the salt spray, seed bundles were most precious among their cargo. Equal parts practicality and blind faith – attempting to find unknown land across the vastness of the Pacific, these sailors made sure they would have dinner after they arrived.
If I tried to craft a rough version of our own Western creation story, it would begin in the verdant plains of the Near East. There, as in several other hot spots around the world, people began to build permanent settlements instead of following the herds and the rains. The seed allowed this to happen. Humans learned they could control its processes, planting wild wheat and barley in thick stands, saving the seeds they liked best for planting the next year. Such a lifestyle demanded permanence, a repression of the journeying life. Populations boomed in the settled areas, and the new gospel spread outward to incorporate most of the world.
If you’re with me on this journey, we can think back even further to the first plant that packaged its future in terms of a seed. Three hundred and fifty million years ago, when plants had only lived on land for a blink of the eye in geological time and the landscape was still dominated by rock and salty water, seeds appeared for the first time. Before this, plants sent their spores, single lonesome cells, flying on the wind by the million. And before that, plants depended on water to transmit their spores, which cruised the sea with flagella similar to those of sperm. This limited the domain of plants not to a stone’s throw, but a short swim, of the coast.
For spores, chances were always high that they would drown or land in a less-than-ideal setting and never develop. When seeds evolved, they revolutionized the plant world, allowing them to colonize deeper into the land. In this jump from spore to seed, plants effectively leveraged their offspring’s survival rate from one in a million to one in a hundred. Explaining how requires a look inside.
While spores contain only a single cell, a half set of chromosomes and no provisions, every seed holds a multi-celled scale model of its parent plants; most also house a generous food supply to give the plant both a head start and a safety blanket. In this way, Wakea sky-father and Ho’ohokukulani star-daughter were recreating that first voyage of the seed, packed with preparations for a long journey into the unknown, and enough cargo to survive the adjustment period. With these advantages, both expedition parties, the seed and the sea-people, were able to thrive in their environments. Seed-bearing plants, and humans, have become ubiquitous in the landscape. We have invested so much time and energy in the care and development of seeds that we would not recognize ourselves without them.
Continue to Part II – Dormancy.