A Brief History of Seeds and Plant Domestication
Learn about the history of seeds and plant domestication and how diversifying our crops with different seed varieties may help prevent blight.
In “The Seed Underground,” author Janisse Ray brings us the inspiring stories of ordinary gardeners whose aim is to save time-honored open-pollinated seed varieties like Old Time Tennessee muskmelon and Long County Longhorn okra — varieties that will be lost if people don’t grow, save and swap the seeds.
CHELSEA GREEN PUBLISHING
Seed varieties have declined significantly since the beginning of time, and even more so with plant domestication. World blight may come upon us if we continue to depend on limited varieties of corn, soy and wheat. This excerpt from The Seed Underground (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) by Janisse Ray covers a brief history of seeds and how we must diversify our crops with heirloom and vintage seed varieties in order to increase agrodiversity and protect the health of Mother Earth. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “More Gardens, Less Gas.”
The woman who answered my knock didn’t look like a revolutionary. She was slim, in blue jeans and hyacinth turtleneck. Sporty reading glasses hung from her neck.
“Right on time,” she said.
I smiled. “For once.”
When I decided to learn as much as I could about seeds, I was directed to a village in central Vermont where a woman lives—a quiet, under-the-radar revolutionary, I was told—who understands some things I’m trying to understand.
She invited me inside, into a sparkling and artful kitchen. The walls were red, the stove green, the counters blue. On a woodstove rested a pan filled with seed heads I did not recognize. The woman followed my eyes. “Leeks,” she said.
Meet Sylvia Davatz, radical American gardener. Somewhere in her well-kept home in the forested hills of central Vermont is a seed collection of plant varieties salvaged from the dustbins of history. “I’m the Imelda Marcos of seeds,” she laughed. “I have a thousand varieties in my closet!”
She asked if I wanted to go right away to look at the gardens, since the temperature was still cool. I said that I did, and I followed Sylvia out a patio door and into a backyard full of riches, better than stocks and bonds, silver-plated with dew. As we wandered through her garden, she talked about the state of the world; afterward, as I mulled over her thoughts, one line kept turning like plow-dirt in my head.
“The system is so broken,” she said. “Not only broken, but destructive and self-destructive.” By “system,” I figured she meant the agricultural or food system. Maybe she meant the entire political system. But I didn’t ask, I just listened. “I see in activism a kind of futility,” she said, brown eyes sincere. “The real power is in doing. The real power is in making the system irrelevant. That means nonparticipation in the existing broken system.”
Sylvia didn’t know I was an activist. I organized rallies to protest the climate crisis. I dressed in a penguin costume and waved an End Climate Change sign at a gallery walk. Wearing wetsuits, three friends and I tubed down Vermont’s West River one January to highlight the fact that the water wasn’t frozen a foot thick, as it should have been. We hung a Where’s Winter? banner from the Dummerston covered bridge. I watched two friends get Tasered as we protested a proposed truck stop: More Gardens, Less Gas. I petitioned and wrote letters to editors and called politicians. A couple of times I got arrested.
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