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I bought this book on impulse. There was that charming cover with earthen bowls nestling beans and seeds and vegetables, with labels handwritten in pencil. It was April and the urge to put seeds in the ground had become overwhelming, even in the face of a sure spring blizzard and plummeting temperatures. The ground was not warm enough yet on the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies, so I decided to read about seeds rather than put them out too early.
It was an easy choice, as I admired the author, Janisse Ray. Her memoir, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, published in 1999, opened my eyes to the dying ecosystems of longleaf pine forests that used to cover the Southeastern United States. Ray was able to merge personal narrative and environmental investigation into a tantalizing brew, and rightly received plenty of critical attention for that first book. The New York Times declared: “The forests of the Southeast find their Rachel Carson.”
And I loved Janisse Ray’s coming-home memoir, Wild Card Quilt, in which the author returns to her grandmother Beulah’s farm and her childhood hometown to make a life with her young son after many years living far away from home. Ray’s eye for destruction and despair is as unflinching as her determination to preserve a fading culture from extinction.
So reading her newest book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, seemed just the thing to do as I waited for another early spring week to pass before the Front Range growing season began. She had me at the first sentence: “I am standing under the saddest oak tree that ever was.” Ray prefaces the book with a young man’s memorial service, the son of a friend who fell off a balcony to his death while partying with his buddies. As she funeral guests stand there sharing stories in the Florida Panhandle, an offshore rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico, releasing millions of gallons of oil into the surrounding waters.
Ray drives home listening to bluegrass music on the radio and hears the lyric: What will you be building when you are called away? What she is building on her southeastern Georgia farm is what she calls “a quiet life of resistance,” the life of “a radical peasant” growing as much of her own food as possible from seeds that have not yet been obliterated or supplanted by the genetically modified varieties that drive the corporate machinery of industrial agriculture in North America.
I have been reading about this stuff for years, ever since Monsanto started suing farmers for patent infringement when their GMO seed was transported by wind and germinated in unsuspecting, neighboring fields. When the heirloom tomato craze emerged a few years back, I grew some purple ones, barely understanding the concept of seed stock or how heirloom varieties were preserved over time. I have followed the growth of organics over the last decade and have watched with interest as people I know turned to saving and trading seeds.
But those people and those things have always seemed, somehow, beyond the reach of an urban gardener with a tiny backyard plot. I couldn’t see what difference it really made if I grabbed any old packet of seed off the rack at Home Depot for my piddling plot of green beans, squash and tomatoes. If I wanted heirlooms or exotic varieties, I would rely on politically correct farmers in the Arkansas Valley to grow them and buy their vegetables at farmers market.
The beauty of The Seed Underground, recently tapped as a winner of the American Horticultural Society’s 2013 Book Award, is that it takes all those conversations about big agriculture and the pioneers of the seed-saving movement and locally grown food and biodiversity, and makes them as clear and simple as pushing a bean into freshly turned soil. “Seeds may be a small part of life,” says Ray. “But they represent everything else. All our relations.”
Ray makes it clear that we are losing our seeds fast in this country as well as our native plant wisdom. But she also offers clear information on how a home grower can take the first step toward “relearn[ing] the ancient wisdom of the wild garden” and “developing the heirlooms of the future” by saving and trading seeds. Or simply by buying seeds from companies that grow them with an intention of preserving biodiversity.
I learned more reading this book than I have in 25 years of backyard gardening. Now, it’s time to get my hands dirty and get some seed in the ground.
Some good sources of vegetable and flower seeds for gardens in the Rocky Mountain West:
Seeds Trust (seedstrust.com) – originally located at 6,000 feet altitude in Idaho, now relocated to northern Arizona.
Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com) – growing seeds in New Mexico, dedicated to preserving and re-introducing hearty plants that will thrive in the arid Southwest.