Living With Seeds

man-planting-seed

1.  I’ve got every seed I own on the dining room table just now and some on the floor, too. All this season’s seed. Every year about this time I gather it up, new and old, and make a review. I open a few packets and look inside, I reach in my finger and poke around. Is it possible that these seeds will actually grow?  And who do I call if they don’t?

2.  I grew up surrounded by seeds. My father planted them by the hundreds of thousands. Mostly corn, some alfalfa. His tractors first pulled a one-row planter, then a two-row planter, then a four, then a six. If he were alive today, his tractor would pull the only planter that big farmers keep these days–the biggest.

3.  If I were to guess, I would say that the total number of the world’s people who plant seeds this season will be less than the number who do not.  If only the United States and European countries were polled, the spread between planters and non-planters would be enormous.  The reasons for this are many, but the seemingly universal instinct to shun physical labor is surely the root cause (i.e. better the pox than dirty hands).

4.  Occasionally someone will ask me why I do what I do, or why I “dropped out,” and I always have a response. But I don’t think I’ve ever said, “I do what I do because I need to plant seeds.” I could. There would be much truth in the claim. But still. Professing a need to plant seeds seems a bit much. And explaining the inclination is impossible. So I give other reasons or change the subject.

5.  In the 1990s when I was in Colorado and preoccupied with the idea of leaving the university, I would sometimes lock my office and drive twenty minutes south to a one-field farm I had discovered on banks of the South Platte River. The farmer, who I never met, was about my age, and he had a small house in the cottonwoods and a barn.  He grew mostly sweet corn, and he worked his field with a team of two horses. I would show up on the bank opposite his farm just to be near it, to look at it. If I was lucky, the farmer would be working his field, his horses leaning into their pull, his directives lifting above their backs and drifting across the river to me.

I never saw the farmer planting his field, but one early afternoon I did see him making ready to plant. He was moving his seed from the barn to the field, where his horses and one-row seeder were waiting. He appeared to be planting two varieties of seed. One variety was in a white bucket, the other in a green bucket, and he was moving his seed, one bucket at time, in a wheelbarrow. He had a path along the side of the field. When both buckets were next to the planter, the farmer removed their lids and scooped up the seed with his hands and looked at it. Then he dribbled the seed back into the buckets. When the dribbles ran dry, he refilled his hands and did it again. When he finally turned to pour one of the buckets of seeds into the planter, that’s when I had to go. I had a class to teach. The last thing I saw that day was the farmer reaching for his second bucket.

6.  I am enamored these days with the idea of seed as a template for one’s life. For example, wouldn’t it be remarkable if our lives were forever charged like a seed is charged; if we were as instinctively willing as a seed is willing; if we were as patient as a seed is patient. This grandiose thinking derives from something I read recently: The fact that a 2,000 year-old date palm seed found in Israel was successfully germinated. This happened in 2005.

7.  Consider the man in the woodcut above. Look at his face, his posture, his right hand. Look at the way he holds his one seed. Clearly this is a man who lives to plant seeds. If you were to question him about his life and times, planting seeds would be central to his response. But as I’ve already suggested, it is not easy to explain why one feels compelled, year after year, to plant seeds with one’s hands. That’s why the man in the woodcut, in an instinctive effort to make himself understood, would inevitably turn to symbol and metaphor. For example, he would point at a passing bird, maybe, or at his young son stomping in the mud. Or maybe he would suggest that you find and feel your own pulse.  “Do you understand?” he would ask, smiling and nodding his head. “Do you see where it comes from?” 

8.  The man in the woodcut would not own a new 14-row planter. Neither will I. That’s because biggest is no bedfellow of need. When biggest shares the bed, it hogs all the sheets.

9.  Would the world actually be better if more people regularly planted seeds? I doubt it. Because think about it: How was the world when just about everyone planted seeds (i.e. 1050)?  It was a bloody mess. But I do think I know a seed-themed idea that really would make for a better world. It goes like this: When all planters of seeds genuinely believe their neighbors’ plantings are every bit as important as their own, then will the world be a better place.

10.  As for a world where more people realized a visceral desire to be linked to the ongoing flow of life and living–that would be epic.

11.  Somewhere in our house, my daughter has a shoebox filled with all the seeds she has saved from the many plantings that grow (wild and domesticated) on our farm. Occasionally, when I’m out working, she will sneak up and surprise me with her latest finds. I always stop what I’m doing and look into the box. There they are: tree seeds, bush seeds, every kind of vegetable seed; seeds found in spring, summer and fall. In Quetzal’s mind, all seed is one seed and that thinking informs her method–everything goes into the box; the box goes missing in the house;  the box, in due course, turns up again. It’s like Quetzal’s shoebox of seeds is itself a seed, a hardy perennial that keeps coming up.

12.  Once when Quetzal was five or six, and when she had all her dolls gathered in close for “school,” something happened such that she, the teacher, needed to give advice, which she gave in a gentle but firm tone. “Guys,” she said to the class, “It could be worser. Let’s just grow where we’re planted.”

13.  My sister-in-law now owns the farm in Pennsylvania where I was born and where I lived for the first year of my life. The house and farm buildings sit far off the road and look across open fields towards the North Mountains. Directly behind the house is a steep hill, and to one side, but further back, a companion hill. The space between the house and this more-distant hill is where my family’s garden used to be.

My sister-in-law’s farm is among of my favorite places on earth. The garden on her farm is my favorite place on the farm. When I visit, I always want to walk in the garden, but I can’t. That’s because the garden, long abandoned, is now overrun with brambles and mature woody plants. It is impenetrable.

But when I was four and five and six and seven, my brother and his wife kept a fine garden here. I was part of the keeping of those yearly gardens. I watched when the garden was plowed. I held the long string when we made the long rows. I carried pea and bean seed and help plant these seeds. And always I smelled the land and the sun and felt the morning wetness. I wore entire summers on my skin.

14. The woodcut I’ve included here is by Harry Brockway. It is part of a series of engravings he did for a 1995 edition of Jean Giono’s classic The Man Who Planted Trees. Giono’s story is about a shepherd who quietly takes on the responsibility of planting 100 acorns a day in an effort to revitalize a desolated valley in his county. In the passage below, the narrator of the story recalls his first meeting with the shepherd:
The shepherd went to fetch a small sack and poured out a heap of acorns on the table. He began to inspect them, one by one, with great concentration, separating the good from the bad.  I … offered to help him. But he told me that it was his job. And in fact, seeing the care he devoted to the task, I did not insist. … When he had set aside a large enough pile of good acorns he counted them out by tens, meanwhile eliminating the small ones or those which were slightly cracked, for now he examined them more closely. When he had thus selected one hundred perfect acorns he stopped and we went to bed.
There was peace being with this man.

22 responses to “Living With Seeds

  1. I find a peace just being outside. I don’t have a farm, but I cannot be without trees. We recently stopped mowing an acre because, I told my husband, I need the seeds to grow where they fall. I need more trees. <3

  2. ….and peace being with your stories. Thank you.

  3. Beautiful piece, tank you. I will come back and read it again, from my first reading I liked paragraph 6 particularly, I think we are indeed like seeds but we forget, sometimes a life is like a long period of dormancy and then one day one is able to sprout a new tap root and a new shoot, like I suppose you or I did when we made our way to a piece of soil to make a new life there, sometimes I think that seed remains dormant until another generation and someone is ready to show the glory of being alive.

  4. Beautiful. Thank you.

  5. I love this post. Beautifully written. I especially love “As for a world where more people realized a visceral desire to be linked to the ongoing flow of life and living–that would be epic.” This is what I believe.

  6. Excellent post. So good I joined your blog. I look forward to future posts.

  7. Came over on recommendation from Ben. Have just spent a good while going through your archives and will return to read them all. I am touched by your words, they have me me think and feel. Thank you

  8. I am curious, will your sister-in-law plow that garden back up and plant it anew?

    • Amy. I wish my sister-in-law would jump start the garden. But I don’t think she will. She keeps a dried flower business on part of her farm, and that is where her energy goes. I have thought of offering to keep it cleared and open, doing this when I visit. But I think that suggestion would offend her. She knows nothing of my emotional connection to her farm and garden.

  9. These are posts that find you smiling through them. It is a small smile that helps you breath right and helps you think right. These are the posts that you save up to read like ice-cream after dinner.
    As for the need to plant seeds, that’s just dancing. That’s what we’re here to do – dance. Dance and marvel at dancing. Marvel at your partners spinning. Marvel at the dancing hall. Marvel at the whole shebang. While you dance and dance and dance.
    Keep writing the pink off the pig, the yellow off the corn, the bristles off a hog and the whiskers off my cat. I’ll keep reading.

  10. Many wonderful thoughts on a topic that I know little about but have always felt was so very important to us all. Each item is infused with a love of life that I deeply appreciate. I’m new here thanks to the recent conversations on Ben’s blog, it’s always a pleasure to read sound thoughts born of heartfelt living. Thank you.

  11. Oh, I love the notion of Quetzal’s seedbox being itself a seed! Within itself a whole history of growth and renewal.

    How removed we are from this work: Someone told my husband that “you can’t plant seeds from fruit you buy at the store, they won’t grow.” Huh? Do people not even spit watermelon seeds into the backyard anymore?

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