The Music of Seeds

by

Waylon looks up at me with dirt-lined lips turned up in a smile, and I fall in love with him even more. It’s early spring, and my 8 month old son toddles on the ground, holding himself up on table legs and crawling from our feet to the corner of the greenhouse where bulk soil sits ready to be made up into blocks. He is learning the world through taste: the grittiness of soil, the cold smooth texture of stones, the slight give of wood against his teeth. He grabs a seed packet and smiles at the rattle as he shakes it, waving his arms and finding my eyes to share with me this wonder—and it is a wonder, for as he discovers the music of seeds, he also holds the past and future in his hands. Of all the things I wish to teach him, this is the foundation we grow upon: our food starts and ends, and starts again with seeds. To plant and grow and save seeds is to be part of the ancient rhythm of our ancestors and is to insure the future at the same time. Before money and artifacts and whatever else might end up in a will, seeds have always been our most important inheritance.

For centuries, seeds have been passed down through families and communities; we’ve come to call these seeds heirlooms, set apart from newer open-pollinated and hybrid varieties. Heirlooms are traditionally regional seeds, adapted to a specific climate and altitude and all the environmental factors that influence one particular area of land. Of course, they travel too, as many seeds came with families emigrating from Europe to America, and in this way they carry both the history of taste and the history of movement across the land. Heirlooms have names like Vermont cranberry, black turtle, Jacob’s cattle, and dragon lingerie; bull’s blood, Detroit dark red, and fordhook giant; painted lady, dinosaur, freckles, rouge d’hiver, ronde de nice, and rose de Berne; Cherokee purple, brandywine, des vertus marteau, and spaghetti. The names pull at my curiosity and compel me to plant them, if only to discover the stories hiding just beneath the seed coat.

As the sun beats into the greenhouse and the cold spring wind blows outside, my husband, Edge, and I stand, each with a pile of seeds in one palm, pinching them between our fingers and releasing the little ball into the soil, where it will be lightly covered and watered. Today our work is spinach: Winter Bloomsdale, an heirloom known for its cold tolerance and for its ability to grow well in early spring, is seeded alongside an open-pollinated and a hybrid variety. In a few days, the outer shell of the spinach seed will soften, and a tiny sprout will push up at the soil, breaking through to the sunlight and the warmth of the greenhouse. Roots will grow downward, at first just tiny hairs navigating the soil, and with time they will thicken and anchor the plant to earth. In a month or so, we’ll prep the garden beds and transplant the seedlings, and there they’ll root and grow until harvest day comes.

While Waylon babbles and explores by our feet, I think of the intersections between people and seeds. If people were seeds, our children would be hybrids, crosses that (hopefully) bring out the best of each parent, and grandparents would be heirlooms, anchoring us in the wisdom of the past and offering the resilience that comes with generations of experience. We’ve evolved together, seeds and humans, plants changing in response to the selections our ancestors made, and our taste buds and guts responding to those changes. Until very recently, saving seeds was part of learning how to eat and there is no greater lesson that we can teach our children than how to eat. How we eat reflects how we interact with the world and what kind of roots we have set down. With teaching how to eat comes teaching how to grow food, how to nurture the soil, how to nurture oneself, and how to keep the cycle continuing. From all that, we learn how to reach out and feed someone else, too. At the very base of it, how we eat reflects how we love.

***

The first seed I saved was calendula; its form surprised me, the hard, ridged spiral tapered at one end brought to mind a fossilized crustacean from ancient seas, not a flower seed. It was here I began to discover the wonder in seeds. Next came marigolds, their seeds like tiny paintbrushes waiting to brush the soil and set in motion the three-dimensional work of art that is a flower. Wonder continued to grow in the varied shapes and colors, in the possibility for renewal long after the plant had composted back into the soil, in the strength of the seed coat to hold such possibility through the long winter, and in the willingness of that coat to soften and sprout come spring.

From that first brush with calendula seeds, I’ve taught middle-school students how to save seeds and have seen their eyes widen as they, too, collected ancient shells and tiny paintbrushes in paper bags; and I’ve learned far more while working for High Mowing Organic Seeds, both in the fields and in the office. With everything I learn, the wonder of seeds grows within me, and now as Waylon rattles a seed packet on a cold spring day, I see a seed of wonder sprouting in him, too. More than ever, this wonder needs to be cultivated. In the past century, amid the rumble of industrial agriculture, over 93% of our seed varieties have gone extinct, and with them the stories of our ancestors slip from the soil and dissolve into a whisper. With every seed we save today, we step toward reclamation, not of those lost varieties, which we won’t get back, but reclamation of our own power to feed ourselves and sustain our communities with seeds.

Edge and I are still amateur seed savers, just at the very beginning of our journey. Though Edge spent four years on a farm that had a dedicated seed field, and I’ve had my hands in seed saving at High Mowing, this is only the second year of running our own farm, and so far most our crops have gone to the CSA rather than to seed—with the exception of garlic, the largest cloves of which we save for replanting. This year, all 40 pounds of our garlic seed came from our own land. Then there are the flowers—calendula, sunflowers, zinnias, and more—which I let go to seed and scatter in the beds. The garden saves them for me, and come spring I traipse through the rows, discovering where new blooms have set root. And finally, there are the beans. When a few beans sprang up in our greenhouse one spring, I let them grow among the peppers, unsure of how they ended up there, and watched as they bushed out and then flowered, and finally developed slender pods. After the peppers had produced all their fruit and began to shrink back in the cold of fall, I found the bean pods dry and dangling off the plant. Plucking one, I cracked it open in my palm and discovered the speckled red and white of Jacob’s Cattle, an heirloom that seemed to have planted itself. This bean has been growing in New England for centuries, and as I pour them into a jar to store for the winter, I imagine the seed as it softened and sprouted, finding itself in soils it has adapted to over generations.

We can learn a lot from heirlooms about rooting to a place. Stay in one place long enough, and you will become part of it, too. You’ll know the weight of snow melting in the spring, the contours of the fields and how water drains through the soil; you’ll know the smell of a rainstorm approaching, and the texture of the wind when it pulls in a warm front. To know a place so intimately is to set roots down from our own feet; when we give our children the same gift, they too will sprout and flourish like an heirloom seed.

***

Waylon is still a babe, but already I am shocked at how quickly he grows. Someday he’ll dig himself up and transplant himself into new fields, just as I had to do before eventually finding my way back home; but for now he is rooted here, a boy growing out of Vermont soil. This is my hope for him: that by the time he’s grown, he knows the difference between silt and loam, how to gaze across a field and see where the water runs simply by looking at the grasses, how to turn the soil and plant a seed, and how to save those seeds come fall. May he carry this land like a genetic imprint in a seed, for this land, these seeds—this is his inheritance. And so I let him keep shaking that seed packet, its rattle the music we grow our days in.