Authors: Janisse Ray
“Traveling about the country to introduce us to some of her devoted fellow seed savers, Janisse Ray teaches us more than we thought we needed to know about seeds: how remarkable they are, why they need saving, how to save them, and how many of them—each holding the future of some particular plant—have been lost and are being lost to our indifference. But in a world where everything we love—including seeds—seems to be under threat, Ray ultimately offers us hope. ‘Everything the seed has needed to know is encoded within it,’ she assures us, ‘and as the world changes, so it will discover everything it yet needs to know.’ A poetic, and always hopeful, book.”
—Joan Gussow, author of
This Organic Life
“What a dream of a book—my favorite poet writing about my favorite topic (seeds) and the remarkable underground network of growers who are keeping diversity alive on the face of this earth while putting delicious food on our tables! If books can move you to love, this one does.”
—Gary Paul Nabhan, coauthor of
and editor of
Renewing America’s Food Traditions
“If I get to feeling a little blue about our prospects, I’m liable to reach down one of Janisse Ray’s books just so I can hear her calm, wise, strong voice. This one’s my new favorite; a world with her in it is going to do the right thing, I think.”
—Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org
“This is an important book that should be required reading for everyone who eats. Big biotech companies are patenting and privatizing seeds, making it illegal for farmers to retain their own crops for replanting. In a series of engaging and lyrical profiles, Ray shows that by the simple and pleasurable act of saving seeds we can wrest our food system from corporate control.”
—Barry Estabrook, author of
Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit
“This is an unmatched treasure trove of information. . . .
The Seed Underground
is an excellent choice for readers seeking a depiction of the current critical situation in farming all in one, easy-to-read book.”
—Gene Logsdon, author of
A Sanctuary of Trees
also by janisse ray
Ecology of a Cracker Childhood
Wild Card Quilt: Taking a Chance on Home
Pinhook: Finding Wholeness in a Fragmented Land
A House of Branches: Poems
Drifting into Darien:
A Personal and Natural History of the Altamaha River
Copyright © 2012 by Janisse Ray
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be transmitted or reproduced in any form by any means without permission in writing from the publisher.
Project Manager: Patricia Stone
Developmental Editor: Brianne Goodspeed
Copy Editor: Eric Raetz
Proofreader: Susan Barnett
Indexer: Lee Lawton
Designer: Melissa Jacobson
Printed in the United States of America
First printing June, 2012
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 12 13 14 15 16
Our Commitment to Green Publishing
Chelsea Green sees publishing as a tool for cultural change and ecological stewardship. We strive to align our book manufacturing practices with our editorial mission and to reduce the impact of our business enterprise in the environment. We print our books and catalogs on chlorine-free recycled paper, using vegetable-based inks whenever possible. This book may cost slightly more because it was printed on paper that contains recycled fiber, and we hope you’ll agree that it’s worth it. Chelsea Green is a member of the Green Press Initiative (
), a nonprofit coalition of publishers, manufacturers, and authors working to protect the world’s endangered forests and conserve natural resources.
The Seed Underground
was printed on FSC®-certified paper supplied by Thomson-Shore that contains at least 30% postconsumer recycled fiber.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Ray, Janisse, 1962–
The seed underground : a growing revolution to save food / Janisse Ray.
ISBN 978-1-60358-306-0 (pbk.) — ISBN 978-1-60358-307-7 (ebook)
1. Seeds—United States. 2. Vegetables—Heirloom varieties—United States.
3. Fruit—Heirloom varieties—United States. 4. Vegetables—Seeds—United States. 5. Fruit—Seeds—United States. 6. Gardening—United States—Anecdotes. I. Title.
Chelsea Green Publishing
85 North Main Street, Suite 120
White River Junction, VT 05001
For Wendell Berry
No monument would be tall enough.
When they want you to buy something,
they will call you. When they want you to die for profit, they will let you know. So, friends, every day
do something that won’t compute.
—Wendell Berry, “Manifesto:
The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,”
The Country of Marriage
I AM STANDING
under the saddest oak that ever was. A young man who as a child climbed this very tree has died, fallen from a balcony during a party. For his memorial service there are no pews, altar, or casket. A circle of friends and family congregate in the yard of his grieving mother, who is my friend.
One tattooed man of about twenty-five remembers how his buddy helped him through bouts of depression. Another young man behind me steps forward to speak, stumbles, and throws his arm around my waist. His kind eyes are bloodshot and he breathes out small alcoholic clouds. He steadies himself and delivers a short poem, words scribbled large in blue ink on a sheet of paper, like hieroglyphics. No doubt the gibberish sounded wise when it was written.
This man is the age of my son, as could be any of them, young people searching for beauty and meaning, struggling to understand the events of the epoch. They are so young to be so familiar with grief. As we stand in the Florida Panhandle sunshine, a broken pipe from an exploded rig leaks millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Already sharks and fish are washing up dead along the coast one hundred miles away. We could be holding a funeral for the Gulf, or for the climate, or for any number of things.
I feel around me a cavernous hopelessness. But I do not feel hopeless.
Many systems that we collectively have been living amid and on which we rely appear to be failing. The easiest thing to do is to give up. But so much needs to be done; every mind and body is crucial for putting new systems in place. We need positive contributions. We don’t need people to drop out.
On the way home from the service I was listening to bluegrass when I heard this question:
What will you be building when you are called away?
This book is for everyone, but it is especially for young people, in hopes that, given all the bad, you start building. Not skyscrapers or oil rigs, but lives that make sense, that contribute to a lighter, more intelligent, more beautiful way of living on the earth, lives that are lived as far outside and beyond corporate control as possible.
That in doing so you find meaning.
That you attain higher planes before drugs or alcohol enslave you.
That you inhabit the country of love.
That you find happiness.
Here in the country, on a little farm in southern Georgia, I am building a quiet life of resistance. I am a radical peasant, and every day I take out my little hammer, and I keep building.
Seeds are only a small part of life. But they represent everything else.
All our relations.
“I have great faith in a seed.”
—Henry David Thoreau
AS THE PRICE
of gold and silver rises and the value of paper money nose-dives, the most priceless commodity we humans own goes largely unnoticed. When presented with this capital, most people have no place for it, do not know what to do with it, and do not value it. Thus it winds up in the trash.
Yet far beyond Wall Street, beyond the supersized stores of a disappearing industrial world now past its heyday, these precious goods travel from hand to hand in one of the most interesting economies in the world.
One morning a bit of this economy passes to me. The sun knocks around in the eastern sky, spilling yellow light everywhere, when I leave our farmhouse. I run along the fence and four cows gallop with me, acting more like dogs than cows. They are named for activists—Emma, Che, Geronimo, and Amy. When the pasture ends, they stop and I keep running.
Across the dirt road, rye in a field has gone to seed, and the sunlight catches and hangs there in its awns until the rye looks like an array of tiny hedgehogs. The mailbox is a mile away and I jog through a corridor of immense trees, their leaves new-minted and bright as limes. Toadflax blooms in pockets of bare sand. A trumpet vine encircles one pine, transforming it into a column of red blossoms.
I gather yesterday’s mail from our box on Old River Road and am running back when I meet my neighbor, puttering along in his faded black truck. Not that many years ago he would have been on a horse, and suddenly
I miss something I have never known. My neighbor rolls to a stop.
“Howdy to you,” he says. Mr. Stanley is a retired nurseryman, about seventy. Just after my family moved in, he came by to let us know that a certain camellia growing by our porch steps was rare, begging us not to cut it down.
“Good morning!” I say to him now.
“Mrs. Stanley and I were talking about you last night,” he says. In his shirt pocket is an open pack of long, dark cigarettes.
“All good, I hope.”
“Oh, yes.” He looks off up the road. “About 1880 or 1890,” he says, “my great-grandfather, Joe Stanley, crossed three kinds of corn and developed his own variety. Of course, that was back in the days before hybrids and so forth. We’ve kept it growing in my family ever since.” He looks back at me. “Last night Mrs. Stanley and I were thinking that we could share our seeds with you.”
I want to ask him to turn off the truck, which is idling, vaporizing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
“You come from a long line of plantsmen, don’t you?” I ask. “Is it sweet corn?”
“No,” he says, “for grits and meal.” Mr. Stanley gestures with his lighter. “In fact, that cornmeal we gave you at Christmas was from this. It’s a white corn.”
“That was delicious.”
“Well, we’d be glad to share the seeds with you.”
“I’d love to try them, Mr. Stanley. I was saying this morning that it’s time to plant corn.”
“Call me Howard,” he says.
“I better get on,” he says. “We’re repairing the split-rail fence today.”
“By the way, Howard, does the corn have a name?”
He makes a ceremony of clasping the steering wheel with both hands and looking at me. The morning sun could be maple syrup pouring through pine trees. “Yes, ma’am,” he says, humble as can be. “It’s Stanley corn.”
If you haven’t heard what’s happening with seeds, let me tell you. They’re disappearing, about like every damn thing else. You know the story already, you know it better than I do, the forests and the songbirds, the Appalachian Mountains, the fish in the ocean. But I’m not going to talk about anything that’s going to make us feel hopeless, or despairing, because there’s no despair in a seed. There’s only life, waiting for the right conditions—sun and water, warmth and soil—to be set free. Every day millions upon millions of seeds lift their two green wings.
I’ve waited for those same conditions, and now I’ve found them. I believe that you will too. We are in the springtime, in the garden, winging into a new era, the Ecozoic era, and you and I have just alighted. Welcome.
All my life I dreamed of being a farmer. My mother had been glad to leave the farm, where I spent many Saturdays with my grandparents Arthur and Beulah, whose children one by one had moved away to the big Southern cities of Jacksonville, Orlando, Chattanooga. Deep in my psyche are my grandfather’s mules, my grandmother’s chickens, fields of vegetables and sprawling watermelon vines, full corncribs. During my preschool years, my grandmother milked a cow. Then there was the Farmall-A tractor and bird guano fertilizer, and after my grandfather died, when I was six, subsidized tobacco and Roundup weedkiller, monster combines and terrible erosion and the invasion of privet. The cane grinder was sold, the smokehouses fell, the last hen wasn’t even eaten. Grandmama sent the milch cow to the livestock auction. I remember her final pea-patch.
On that same farm, the one I roamed as a child eating crabapples and muscadines, pomegranates and sand pears, now the story is Roundup-resistant pigweed growing among rows of genetically modified (GM) soybeans in fields leased to chemical cultivators. The fencerows are bulldozed, demolishing the plantings of wax myrtle and wild cherry accomplished by mockingbirds and cardinals. Fences are yanked out and the farmers are crowding right up to the road, since the field has to get bigger at all costs. The sassafras tree my grandfather so carefully skirted with his harrows is dead and gone.
Any one of us middle-aged Americans could be the poster child for the story of agriculture in the United States, one that began with working farms; farm animals; seed saving; land-based, subsistence economies; farming children. And, poof, all that was gone, brushed aside casually.
It happened so quickly. It left me doodling pitchforks in college astronomy and world civ notebooks.
I’m back. Not on my grandmother’s farm, but somebody’s grandmother’s farm. It has forty-six acres in pasture, field, and woods. It has a house built in 1850 by a man whose brother operated a sawmill on Slaughter Creek, which collects water off the fields of Reidsville, Georgia’s prison farm, and delivers it to the Altamaha River.
Our gardens are gridworks of raggedly rectangular raised beds. The gardens are fenced to keep the barnyard fowl—including the crazy guineas, which scuttle around like boats on legs hollering their mad, prehistoric calls—from scratching up every seed we plant. We have a pig or two, a few goats and sheep, some chickens, some turkeys and ducks.
Many people still alive today have seen the entire process of American ag: the function, the falling apart, the rise of big chemical, and now the coming back. We are witnessing in agriculture a revolution, a full circle.
Except it’s not a circle. We are not returning to where we were. With some of the old knowledge intact and armed with fresh knowledge, we are looping forward to a new place. And we’re coming there different. We are coming better prepared. We’re coming educated. Girls as well as boys are coming. We’re coming as greenhorns, but we’re coming together.
We’re coming knowing that failure is not possible. To not fail, we desire to understand everything we can about the cycle of life. We plumb the depths of industrial empire. We can no longer believe in false magic, that whatever we hanker for will be available to us, as it has been for most of our lives, whenever we wanted it, that it will appear magically in stores and restaurants as long as we have money wadded in our pockets.
At no time in our history more than now have Americans been more knowledgeable and more concerned about what we eat. We have watched our food systems deconstructed in front of our eyes. In a way, the farmer in all of us has roused. We understand organic, that food grown without chemicals is healthier for us and the earth. We understand local, that food grown closer to home is healthier and helps solve the climate crisis as well. Now we come to the landscape of American agriculture with a fresh realization: We do not have control of seeds, which are the crux of our food supply. When we dig deeper, we realize that our seed supply is in crisis and therefore our food is in crisis. A tragedy of corporate robbery is being acted out on a world stage, except this is not a drama with us in the audience getting to go home afterward. This is real.
The time has come to understand food at its most elemental.
I want to tell you about the most hopeful thing in the world. It is a seed. In the era of dying, it is all life. Every piece of information necessary to that plant for its natural time on earth is encoded, even though the world is changing and new information will be needed. But we don’t know what is in a seed; its knowledge is invisible, encased, secret. A seed can contain any number of surprises. A seed can contain a whole tree encrypted in its sealed vault. Even with climate change there will be seeds that have all the wisdom they and we need.
Seeds are everywhere yet nobody thinks of them, tiny bundles waiting to be opened. Most any seed is small enough to hide in a locket, and some are so small they get latched between two teeth. They are on our forks, between the cracks of sidewalks and cobblestones of streets, under trees, on trees, in the produce section of the supermarket. They are in the wind, rolling along the desert, in our hair, in the fur of animals, in our dogs’ feet.
As a mother, I came to fall in love with young people, having opened my home and dining table and toy box to so many of my son’s friends over the years. Having opened my heart. Now Silas, in college, thinks I’m radical enough not only to introduce to his friends, but to walk down a street holding my hand. It is an ecstatic feeling, beyond joy, that a young man would feel this way about a parent. My job, too, as a writer, ferries me to many university campuses, where I find myself engaged in honest and deeply transformative conversations with young thinkers who understand very clearly what is not working. Tattooed arms and studs do not scare me, nor do hip boots with miniskirts or low-rider pants. I am not afraid of nudity, nor long hair, nor unshaven armpits. All of this is part of the story of belonging. I accept you.
There was a time when I thought nothing was sexier than learning to plow with a team of oxen, then treading the furrows, dropping kernels. I have reached the age, fifty, where I see my own life force ebbing away and I want to empower others, especially young people, as I have been strengthened. Plus there’s love. The story is about love. There is nothing else for it to be about. I love you. I love you more because you love even the dirt. Or especially the dirt.
Even though I may not know you, I have fallen in love with you, you who understand that a relationship to the land is powerful; who want that connection; who want authentic experiences; who want a life that has meaning, that makes sense, that is essential. And I am writing for you. You. This story is for you. This is not a textbook on seed saving. I am looking to inspire you with my own life.