Category Archives: Writing – Non-Fiction

A Creation Story – Part VI: Continuity

Want to start at the beginning? Good call.

VI
“A seed hidden in the heart of an apple is an orchard invisible.” – Welsh proverb

​The story – our story – begins and ends with a seed. Planted long ago in the then-fertile soil of the Near East, it contained a new idea. Hitched to these miniscule things, the story went, we will build a different future. While before seeds dwelled on the periphery of our lives, now we will build our settlements around them. Our future will have permanence and grandeur, bread and barley beer – we will put down roots and thrive in place; we will raise up granaries and monuments to our gods and give thanks for the blessing of a seed; our children will disperse through the land and create their own prosperity. We will become seeds and, by doing so, we will share in their power.

​As stories go, it was a powerful one. But, as the stories of the powerful so often do, it left out all the details and skirted over the realities of a sedentary lifestyle. When people settled down into agricultural life, their nutrition declined; inequality increased, the religious monuments built on the backs of an underclass; and these first agriculturalists of the Near East so abused their land that it utterly collapsed and has never recovered.

​The seed’s own cycles of creation, growth, dispersal, decay are echoed throughout human history. One group of seed-people emerges and grows strong, spreading widely over the land, only to collapse and leave room for the next. Is societal failure inevitable, then, just a misnomer for
decay, one part of a cycle that continues forever onward? Can we see ourselves as the equivalent of annual plants on a different scale, dying away regularly only to slightly rearrange the information of our predecessors and start again? If this were so, shouldn’t we have learned something of ourselves and our environment by now? Perhaps we have. Perhaps we haven’t. Seeds are the story, but we never have grasped the whole story.

​The paradox of seeds – both resilient and fragile, reliable and fickle, lasting and ephemeral, they embody the complexity necessary to exist in and understand this world. From the founding of our culture, we have expected too much and understood too little of them. Of human existence, seeds speak volumes – both of our past, and our potential futures.

​As for pasts – to me, every backward-looking what if question is gratuitous. Those with the most to gain from rewriting the past usually have the least time to consider what could have been, struggling just to deal with what is. That being said, I have my own what if, though I know it is unanswerable: what if seeds as we know them had never developed? Would anyone be here at all?

​The more interesting what ifs, the ones worth more of our time and energy, are the forward-looking ones. The future is wide open, limited only by the gaps in our imagining. From the rooftops of the Welsh coast to the Norwegian arctic expanse, from the Near East to archaic Greece to Walden Pond, from the first settlers to discover Hawai’i to their descendants striving to enliven their culture, humans are, and always have been, trying to shape the future in their own terms. Some are explicit about it; some less so.

​After millions of years together, the past few thousand in close quarters, we are irretrievably dependent on the awesome design of seeds. This is not a bad thing, necessarily – they are graceful, unique, and engaged, qualities worth striving for in our own lives. The lessons they can teach us – to contemplate before taking action; to break free of the soil and change the world when conditions demand it; to know and hold sacred the things that sustain us, protecting them from harmful manipulation; to work in tandem with the environment and all it contains – these lessons are equally important. We haven’t learned them yet, but it’s only been some ten thousand years. The wisdom of a seed works on its own timescale. Our futures unfold together.

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This is the conclusion of A Creation Story, but there will be much more in this vein, published regularly in this space. If you’d be willing, I’d love to hear what you thought about this, or where it helped your thoughts to wander.
 

A Creation Story – Part V: Dispersal

Want to start at the beginning? Good call.

V


“As I went by a pitch-pine wood the other day, I saw a few little ones springing up in a pasture from seeds which had been blown from the wood…In a few years, if not disturbed, these seedlings will alter the face of Nature here.” – Henry David Thoreau, 1860

​By their very design, seeds are earth-wanderers, traveling away from their homes by extremely various means – wind and water, ant and animal, explosion. They follow a biological imperative to disperse, spreading their family’s potential far and wide. The Greeks had a term for this movement – diaspora. Tying plants and people together, its literal meaning is “a scattering of seeds,” which the Greeks were excellent at doing. Long before the days of high philosophy and fluted marble columns, they sent out groups to found colonies from Spain to Ukraine, hugging the coastline of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Every emigrant joined this growing diaspora, transmitting Greek culture to far-flung lands.

​With plants, people, or colonies, after that grace period of transition, support from home always runs out. At this point, seedlings create their own energy through photosynthesis; the Greek colonies began growing food and producing their own pottery. Ceramic styles and shapes diverged quickly from those of the founding city as the members of this diaspora began adapting to their new homes, influenced by their new environment and influencing it in return. Cultural adaptation rapidly changed the faces and the designs of each colony, giving rise to a riotous diversity of the sort nature always creates when given the smallest opportunity.

​Planting a colony is our human way of controlling the landscape, its inhabitants and its processes; planting a seed is our human way of controlling the biological processes of plants. Seeds can and do disperse themselves, as any gardener can attest after long hours pulling up chickweed and quackgrass. This is, after all, one of the problems seeds evolved to solve. Those of lettuce are light and flat, inviting a gust of wind to carry them away. Trillium seeds have a tasty appendage that lures ants into carrying them into their nests, planting them underground in the ants’ nutrient-rich waste piles. But nature’s choices of location are far different from ours. We want to decide where the lettuce will grow, wind be damned, and the vital decision of trillium placement certainly mustn’t be left to ants. Driven by thoughts of order and control, we intervene in the natural process of dispersal. A paradox – this desire for control binds us to nature and the soil, exposing us to forces far beyond our control, vision, or understanding. We become reliant on the natural mysteries that surround us.

​Planting a seed, then, is the supreme act of faith. Its processes are veiled, hidden inside and underneath. This act is the opposite of instant gratification, requiring patience and resolve.

Thoreau had it right when he wrote, “Though I do not believe a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” He wrote it in a fascinating, unfinished treatise on plants, one that combines literature and science so artfully that it makes me wish for those two schools’ reconciliation – his wholeness echoes the beauty of a seed, progressing ever onward from stage to stage.

Continue forward to Part 6, posted here in mid-August.

 

A Creation Story – Part IV – Uprising

Back to Hawai’i for Part four of A Creation Story, where we see what happens when dormancy comes to an end and it’s time to rise up.

Want to start at the beginning? Good call.

IV

“As long as there shall be stones, the seeds of fire shall not die.” – Lu Xun (1881-1936), Chinese revolutionary

​The most powerful moment of the spring arrives when the first seedling, planted days before in an act of unmitigated faith, breaches the surface and reveals its first leaves. This particular spring, I watched that first seed push its way upward on a balmy March day, tucked under glass in a hotbed filled with soil and fresh horse manure. Hotbeds have long nurtured uprisings, and I joined that tradition in some small way by giving this seed and its first leaves the chance to grow.

​When a seedling first reaches the light of day, its leaf, coiled inside the seed for weeks, months, or years, finally starts the journey for which it was created. Or so it seems to the above-ground observer – the true beginning occurs days earlier. After some time in contact with the moist soil, during which water streams through the seed coating and swells every cell, the plant inside begins converting its store of food into plant tissue, growing the root that will eventually burst through the seed coat. Before the breakthrough, we call the part that will become the root a radicle, and it certainly is. It breaks free of the safe, protected confines of the seed coat so that its partner can then break upward through the soil. With dramatic action, the seed breaks out of dormancy and reveals its intentions to the world.

​In Hawai’i, the story progresses along similar lines. Not only are the people of the taro real, they are fighting to keep tied to their elder brother. For fifteen hundred years, native Hawaiians have bred taro on their islands. They came with taro tops, clones of the plants grown back home, but it was the tiny, infrequent seeds of the plant that allowed them to breed new types. Starting with one, they bred hundreds of varieties, each adapted to a different environment. From flooded bottomlands to dry volcanic slopes, Hawaiians cultivated their staple plant, allowing plant and planter alike to spread through the islands.

​The islands’ fertility eventually attracted other peoples, ones not familiar with or interested in the story of the taro, how it nurtured, sustained, and shaped its cultivators. These new arrivals had foreign motivations, manifested in the grand plantations they carved out of the landscape. They brought their own seeds to star-daughter’s domain; rice especially conquered and displaced taro, and its younger brother – native Hawai’ians’ control over their indigenous lands waned into dormancy. Today, there are still many dozens of varieties of taro in Hawai’i, but this is only one fifth of what once grew there. Many disappeared decades ago; a taro leaf blight wiped away many more in the early 1990s. Closely related to the fungus that caused the Irish potato famine 150 years earlier, the blight swept through the Pacific with the speed and fury of a typhoon.

​In 2002, the University of Hawai’i acquired patents for three blight-resistant taro varieties they
had bred using traditional methods. Intended to help the Pacific taro industry recover from the devastating disease, which caused Samoa’s taro crop, for instance, to decline 98% in the space of one year, the new varieties could have been a boon to growers. But, in order to grow them, taro farmers had to pay annual royalties to the university, who retained ownership of the plants. In 2003, the University quietly went a step further and began genetically modifying taro strains. When word seeped out, backlash began. Native Hawaiians voiced strong opposition to the research and its implications. Said Walter Ritte, a native Hawaiian and opposition leader, “…we are making it perfectly clear that there is a kapu [ban] placed on all genetic modifications and patenting of our genealogical brother the taro. There should be limits to academic research when it conflicts with indigenous culture. No one can own our traditional knowledge, intellectual property rights or our biodiversity.”

​To take a patent out on a living organism is a sticky business to begin with; doing it on a plant that generations of Hawaiians labored to create, then charging them for its use, is even harder to justify. Many in the islands felt wounds of foreign imperialism reopening, the old question of our seeds versus their seeds returning with a new twist. As a product of centuries of refinement and selection, taro seed stock now transmits the values, beliefs, and history of its people. An attempt to own and control it by anyone has far-reaching implications, further than a university looking to recoup research expenses and make a quick profit wanted to see.

​Spurred to action by the behavior of the University, some Hawaiians began rising up. Human uprisings operate on a different time scale than those of seeds, however, and require significantly larger hotbeds. The movement took a few years to gain momentum and traction, but the info campaigns, activism, lobbying, and protests culminated in 2006. In May, with heavy symbolism, protestors chained shut the doors of the University’s medical building, demanding an audience with the board of regents meeting inside. Later that year, the University withdrew its taro patents forever, allowing free distribution of the varieties in question. Though they have not fully stopped the University from experimenting with taro through genetic modification, the movement has had much success.

​They are not alone. Indigenous and non-indigenous peoples alike are rising up to protest the abuse of the seed, something many still hold sacred, worth protecting. The Anishinaabeg tribes of the White Earth reservation, ricekeepers of northern Minnesota, have fought to protect their staple wild rice from commercial exploitation, patenting, and genetic modification. Groups of peasants and smallholders around the world are refusing to tolerate corporate tyranny and the trampling of their natural rights. Breaking free of the confines that hold them away from the light, whether they be cultural repression or unfettered capitalism, people are rising up and dispersing their knowledge to ensure that their cultures, and their seeds, can continue to do the same.

Continue forward to Part 5 – posted in early August.

A Creation Story – Part III: Preparations

A traveling tale, and some thoughts and lessons on knowing when to take action, learned from the seeds, the soil, and a traveling Welshman.

Want to start at the beginning of this piece? Good call.


III

“Our real poems are already in us and all we can do is dig.” – Jonathan Galassi

​Years after my first visit, I returned to Norway as part of a summer of traveling through the Scandinavian countryside. My companions included a polyglot Frenchman with a trumpet at his side, a dreadlocked Romanian wanderer, and a Welsh ninja named Tom. Equipped with split-toe stealth boots, billowing samurai pants, and a sheathed hori-hori, Tom drew the most attention during our travels. Granted, his hori-hori was a gardening tool, and the samurai pants kept him cool while working outside in the fields, but the boots I never fully understood.

​Before leaving Wales to roam through Europe, Tom spent hours immersed in the woods and prairies around his house, gathering seeds of native species, some in great peril from habitat loss, and sowing them in his home soil. He told me often of the respect he held for the tiny seeds and their ability to overcome adverse conditions, abilities not quite up to the uncommon adversity humanity had brought to their doorstep.

​For some time, Tom had held his society in contempt. In his coastal home town, overfull with university students for much of the year, he mourned the loss of open space as the built-up area grew ever outward, limited in its ambitions only by the sea. He described the new offices and apartment buildings sprouting up around the town’s periphery with the scathing tone usually reserved for the cheat or the corrupt.

​Tom sought to correct the situation as best he could. He used his ninja skills to gain access to the roofs of the town’s newest buildings, mostly flat concrete slabs. Tom never disclosed his methods to me, which left me free to envision him firing grappling hooks and silently scaling four-story structures, his pockets full of soil paste and homemade seed packets. More likely he took the stairs.

​“When given the chance,” Tom told me, “the first thing nature does to our squares and straight lines and monocultures is wear down the corners, curve the lines, and diversify.” On top of the buildings, he helped nature’s processes along, smearing his paste, a mix of garden soil and microscopic seeds, into cracks on the roof. He favored buddleia, the butterfly bush, for its vigor in the Welsh climate, as well as other “pioneer species” with strong roots and wind-blown seeds. Once established on quiet rooftops or anywhere else, they are nearly impossible to remove. Their tiny seeds scatter on the wind, far above the daily cares of the city.

​Whether Tom’s actions were right or wrong, this story always left me with a vision of tiny plants opening up, stretching towards the light, and sending their indestructible taproots down into the ceilings of the buildings that hosted them. “I think we tend to forget,” Tom wrote me recently, “that humans themselves have become a monoculture in the city,” paving over most of the natural habitat, stamping out the weeds and the wildlife.

​Recalling this story now, I think of the tension I often saw in Tom, a tension between ideas that I often feel myself. He was pulled between what is possible and what is actual, just like the seed that finds itself in moist, warm soil, on a concrete roof overlooking a city, any city. The conditions seem right; maybe it really is time to break out of this shell. On the other hand, there’s only this one chance. Once the shell is broken, it can never be put back together. If tomorrow brings no sun, or temperatures plummet, or this ground dries up into a desiccated barrens, the illusions of safety and security will crumble irrevocably. Tom’s actions on those nights speak to the challenge of taking meaningful action. Doing nothing is so clearly easier, the power of the comfortable and familiar weakening the resolve. Just as the seed, in between its dormancy and its emergence, is aware of the potential of its situation, but has not yet acted on that awareness, every living person has the choice to remain in a state of awareness only, or to progress forward into the phase of action. Tom took that step on those nights of planting roofs. But not everyone does; nor do all seeds.

​This stage, of awareness without action, can last for decades or even centuries in a seed – conditions can be perfect, the seed primed for growth, but it will stay there in the soil, just in case. We have mostly bred these traits out of our crops, preferring uniformity and control over a genetically encoded safety net. But the natural world is full of such places. They are called soil seed banks, and they keep the landscape from ever becoming bankrupt. Perhaps some humans fill these roles too, remaining calm and disengaged as a species-level strategy to prevent us from ever being cut down all at once. Perhaps they soften the peaks and valleys of human-sized uprisings with their inertia. Perhaps.

Continue forward to Part 4 – posted at the end of July.

A Creation Story – Part II: Dormancy

Part 2 of A Creation Story shifts to Norway, where the collective seed resources of the world are being frozen into dormancy deep under ground in the polar North.

Want to start at the beginning of this piece? Good call.

 


II

He had been eight years upon a project for extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in vials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.” – Jonathan Swift (1706), Gulliver’s Travels

Though I have no immediate kin left in Norway, my time there feels much more like a homecoming than that summer in Hawai’i. After searching genealogical records and knocking on strangers’ doors, I am able to find the exact place my family left behind, four generations ago. Relatives still live there, and they invite me in, tell me the history of the land and my family. Our homestead, Jarstad, means the place of rich, fertile soil. It rolls up the hillside, from the shore of the glacial lake to the peak marking the next farm. My relatives show me this land, tell me of the signal towers that stood above the valleys, with cords of wood ready to be lit in case of approaching danger. They tell me of the Norway my family left so many years ago, hoping for an escape from disease and toil. They tell me about the Norway of today, far removed from that place of small pox and cholera, a land of practicality and interest in the future that reminds me of what I learned of the first Hawai’ians.

Platåberget, it’s called. Plah-toe-bair-git. I roll the name around in my mouth, exercising my jaw in new directions. My ancestors would laugh at my pronunciation, tell me to roll my “r”s just so. They may have taken some wild unrecorded journey to the foot of this mountain, snow-covered and pristine like so many others in Norway. As I traveled through the country, I wondered what Ole and Knud, names that braid through every generation of my family, would have thought of the project buried three hundred feet below this crag; with a little context and a down parka, would those earliest Hawai’ians have understood it, too?

On February 26, 2008, far above the Arctic Circle, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened its reinforced doors to the genetic diversity of the world. On that winter day, the first seeds entered the cold-chambers under Platåberget, to be protected forever; long enough in human terms, at least, to qualify as forever. These seeds made their own modern journey, across oceans of ice and human habitation, unscathed by the world’s tremors. Arriving at Platåberget, they entered the ground – not to awaken and grow, but sealed into a deep-freeze concrete slumber.

International media quickly dubbed the project the “Doomsday Vault,” a contingency plan for the end of the world. For them, these seeds are the stuff of titanic battles, underground bunkers, and the apocalypse – the Svalbard project’s resemblance to both a supervillain’s plot line and hideout is probably the only reason it received any attention at all.

Seeds held in the Svalbard Vault are duplicates of those held in genebanks – glorified seed lockers – around the world; they can be withdrawn freely at any time to replace lost or diminished stock. The leaders of the project view it not as an ace in the hole come the apocalypse, but as the ultimate global safety net. To them, seeds are everything, important enough to spend millions to protect. This has as much to do with protecting the human legacy encapsulated in those seeds as it does with the seeds themselves. Their actions serve as an acknowledgement of the story behind each type of seed, the inherent value in their individuality. Each member of each variety holds a power unto itself, the power of the potential contained within its walls.

For those that will dwell in the vaults, it is a period of suspended animation; we don’t know whether seeds in such a state are truly alive, or if they only retain the potential for life. Scientists say that seeds respire, but at rates almost undetectable – their pulse monitor would flatline.

One thing is clear – in the safety of such a place as Svalbard, it would be easy to forget everything that existed outside, to relinquish oneself to the vast, secluded ocean of dormancy, waking up moments, or centuries, later to find that, outside, each moment had lasted a century or more, each century a moment or less, and the world had both changed and remained the same in one’s absence. Opening that door and emerging into the cold, bleak sunlight of an Arctic morning, what would be left to know?

 


Continue forward to Part 3 – Preparations

A Creation Story – Part I: Beginnings

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.


I
Years ago, I had the chance to live for a summer on the island of O’ahu. I was sure that my brother, who had just moved to Hawai’i, needed someone to sleep in his living room, on a mattress behind the couch, and I was only too happy to fill this niche.harvest table

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.DSCF2757

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.

Plants in transition - a proto-seed

Courtesy of Wikipedia

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.