The arrival of seed catalogs in our mailboxes is a much-anticipated event in the lives of gardeners and farmers—second only to the subsequent arrival of the precious seeds we will sow into our organically tended soil. In Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics, and Promise of Seeds (Rodale, 2014), Scott Chaskey tells the story of the interrelationship between seeds and humankind. He takes us back to “the magnificent event that introduced flowering plants to the world 140 million years ago” and leads us on a journey to the present.
Along the way, Chaskey introduces us to a host of characters—philosophers, explorers, scientists, and poets—who have been instrumental in shaping our food system. Some are familiar to us: the monk Gregor Mendel, who pioneered plant breeding; Charles Darwin and his theories of evolution; and Henry David Thoreau, naturalist and philosopher. Less familiar, yet very important to the story, is the Russian plant explorer Nikolai Ivanovich Vavilov, who understood the importance of protecting biodiversity. He traveled the globe, collecting seeds of more than 250,000 species, and established the first seed bank.
Following in Vavilov’s footsteps are Cary Fowler and Pat Roy Mooney, who exposed the dangers of patenting seeds. Fowler is an advisor to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which maintains a global seed bank deep in a mountain in Norway. As corporate interests seek to control the distribution of seeds for profit, Chaskey makes the point that many conservationists—Fowler and Mooney among them—feel that “plants and seeds are part of the common heritage of the human race.”
Chaskey is a poet as well as a seedsman, plowman, educator, and caretaker of the earth. He draws from his experience as a farmer of more than 30 years to enrich his story and make it accessible to everyone who grows and eats food. He states at the outset that this is a “story that is rapidly evolving and in which the stakes, from the point of view of those concerned about biodiversity and ecological integrity, are high.” He argues that the protection of biodiversity contained in seeds is absolutely necessary for our future well-being.
“There is a fabric of relationships available to us encoded in seeds, part of a timeless refrain that invites us to participate to renew the story that has shaped us,” Chaskey writes. It is indeed seedtime.
Originally published in Organic Gardening magazine, April/May 2014