In the beginning, there’s the seed. That may seem simple enough, but it’s not. The seed our farmers sow is the product of millennia of careful selection and, increasingly, the result of high-tech genetic engineering—the much-discussed genetic modification. Even as we owe our abundance to the achievements of generations of scientific breeding, there are a lot of reasons to be worried about the newer science that is transforming seeds in ways that aren’t fully understood.
Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds by Sag Harbor’s Scott Chaskey offers both a micro and macro view of the science and the magic of…seeds. Chaskey is the longtime farmer at the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Community Farm in Amagansett and a man of letters—he’s a published poet. Who better to quote Rumi and Yeats and Claude Lévi-Strauss seamlessly throughout an entertaining tale of hard science and hardscrabble debate? As Seedtime’s jacket asserts, Chaskey masterfully weaves “history, politics, botany, literature, mythology and memoir into a beautiful and instructive book.”
What is it about seeds? Everything. They, as Chaskey lyrically and analytically explains, not only represent—but in fact embody—our world’s past, present and potential future. Seedtime traces the Green Revolution back to the 1940s and life itself back to those opportunistic angiosperms (flowering plants).
The book is a little meta, but it makes perfect sense. As Chaskey writes, “My impulse to write, and to care for plants, is born out of the same impulse…to bring the thing into being…The life force within a seed is equal to the force within a word poised for articulation; it draws the poet inside. Just as the memory held within each seed is activated and responds to light and the changing temperature of the seasons, when I write, I can feel the first breath of a melodic line before it is nourished into expression. The germination of a seed, given substance.”
But what happens when those seeds could cause damage? Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are being engineered by scientists who insert unrelated genes into an organism to give it particular qualities. They don’t exactly have it “down to a science.” Mistakes and miscalculations happen. Until now, gene splicing resulting in harmful plants and animals was only science fiction.
On top of that, our climate is changing. In the past, for instance during ice ages, the more suitable or adaptable plants survived. Animal life and our atmosphere depend on plants, and yet modern agriculture is effectively eliminating plant species at an alarming rate. We need all the biodiversity possible to try to adjust to a new climate.
As Chaskey quotes Cary Fowler, head of the Global Crop Diversity Trust: “We are in the midst of a mass extinction event in agriculture, at precisely a moment in history when diversity for further adaptation is most needed.” Climate change and the corporatization of staple crop seeds are building to a nasty climax.
There is an urgency to reading this book—as Chaskey tells us in detail, “the stakes, for those concerned about biodiversity and ecological integrity, are high.” This means for us, every one of us! Thankfully, Chaskey makes it clear that there’s hope. Hope in organic farming practices, hope in some governments, hope in seeds.
The book’s illustrations are by Liam Chaskey. Yes, that’s Scott’s son, his very own seed. Chaskey is a sower of great things both large and small and, lucky for us, he has invited us to share in his bounty. As he writes, “Seeds are often given wings, to assist their journey and to ensure another generation.”
This book is appropriately dedicated to Josh Levine, who lost his life while working on Quail Hill Farm in 2010, and to Levine’s children and to Chaskey’s children, “the next generation.”