Long-time readers of GREENPRINTS know that I am constantly looking for good garden books. I love to share excerpts from them to give you appetizing tastes of what’s new.
Well, I recently discovered Thor Hanson’s admirable The Triumph of Seeds (subtitled How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History). Hanson’s writing is lucid, both personal and scientific, and a true pleasure to read. In researching this book, he visited rain forests, grain elevators, and seed vaults. He launched seeds from ladders, explored coffee made from defecated beans, and tried to unravel cotton. (He didn’t have much luck: A single cotton boll can contain over 20 miles of fibers!)
The result is an extremely informative and entertaining book about the part of plants that humanity most depends on. To give you a feel for the range of Seeds, I’ve picked two short passages from its beginning, one personal and the other scientific. Enjoy!
Think of the fierce energy concentrated in an acorn!
You bury it in the ground, and it explodes into a giant oak!
Bury a sheep, and nothing happens but decay.
—George Bernard Shaw,
The Vegetarian Diet According to Shaw (1918)
Charles Darwin traveled with the HMS Beagle for five years, devoted eight years to the anatomy of barnacles, and spent most of his adult life ruminating on the implications of natural selection. The famed naturalist-monk Gregor Mendel hand-pollinated 10,000 pea plants over the course of eight Moravian springtimes, before finally writing up his thoughts on inheritance. At Olduvai Gorge, two generations of the Leaky family sifted through sand and rock for decades to piece together a handful of critical fossils. Unraveling evolutionary mysteries is generally hard work, the stuff of long careers spent in careful thought and observation. But some stories are obvious, crystal clear from the very beginning. Anyone familiar with children, for example, understands the origin of punctuation. It started with the exclamation point.
Nothing comes more naturally to a toddler than emphatic, imperative verbs. In fact, any word can be transformed into a command with the right inflection—a gleeful, insistent shout accented from a seemingly bottomless quiver of exclamation points. Whatever nuances of speech and prose might be gained by the use of comma, period, or semicolon clearly developed later. The exclamation point is innate.
Our son, Noah, is a good example. He began his verbal career with many of the expected phrases, from “Move!” and “More!” to the always-popular “No!” But his early vocabulary also reflected a more unusual interest: Noah was obsessed with seeds. Neither Eliza nor I can remember exactly when this passion began; it just seemed that he had always loved them. Whether speckling the skin of a strawberry, scooped from inside a squash, or chewed up in the rosehips he plucked from roadside shrubs, any seed that Noah encountered was worthy of attention and comment. In fact, determining which things had seeds, and which didn’t, became one of the first ways he learned to order his world. Pinecone? Seeds. Tomato? Seeds. Apple, avocado, sesame bagel? All with seeds. Raccoon? No seeds.
With such conversations a regular occurrence in our household, it’s no wonder that seeds were on my shortlist when it was time to settle on a new book idea. What might have tipped the balance was Noah’s pronunciation, which added a certain imperative to his botanical observations. Sibilance did not come easily to his young tongue, but instead of lisping he chose to replace ‘s’ sounds with a hard ‘h.’ The result was a barrage of double commands—every time he disassembled some unsuspecting piece of fruit he would raise the seeds in my direction and shout, “HEED!” Day after day, this scene repeated itself until I eventually got the message: I heeded the seeds. After all, little Noah had already pretty much taken over the rest of our lives. Why not put him in charge of career decisions, too?
In business, people mark the ultimate success of a product by its brand recognition and universal availability. When I lived in a mud-walled hut in Uganda, four hours from a paved road, on the edge of a jungle called the Impenetrable Forest, I could still buy a bottle of Coca-Cola within a five-minute walk from my front door. Marketing executives fantasize about that kind of ubiquity, and in the natural world, seeds have it. From tropical rain forest to alpine meadows and arctic tundra, seed plants dominate landscapes and define entire ecosystems. A forest, after all, is named for its trees and not for the monkeys or birds that leap and flutter within it. And everyone knows to call the famed Serengeti a grassland—not a zebra-land with grass. When we pause to examine the underpinnings of natural systems, time and again we find seeds, and the plants that bear them, playing the most vital roles.
While an ice-cold soda tastes pretty good on a tropical afternoon, the Coca-cola analogy only goes so far in explaining the evolution of seeds. But it is true in one more respect: Natural selection, like commerce, rewards a good product. The best adaptations spread through time and space, in turn spurring further innovation in a process Richard Dawkins aptly called “The Greatest Show on Earth.” Some traits become so widespread they seem axiomatic. Animal heads, for example, have two eyes, two ears, some kind of nose, and a mouth. Fish gills extract dissolved oxygen from water. Bacteria reproduce by splitting, and the wings of insects come in pairs. Even for biologists, it’s easy to forget that these fundamentals were once brand new, clever novelties spun from the sheer persistence of evolution’s trial and error. In the plant world, the idea of seeds ranks right alongside photosynthesis as one of our chief assumptions. Even children’s literature takes the notion for granted. In Ruth Krauss’s classic book The Carrot Seed, a silent little boy disregards all naysayers, patiently watering and weeding around his planting until at last a great carrot sprouts up, “just as the little boy had known it would.”
Though famous for how its simple drawings transformed the genre of picture books, Krauss’s story also tells us something profound about our relationship with nature. Even children know that the tiniest pip contains what George Bernard Shaw called “fierce energy”—the spark and all the instructions needed to build a carrot, an oak tree, wheat, mustard, sequoias, or any of the estimated 352,000 other kinds of plants that use seeds to reproduce. The faith we place in that ability gives seeds a unique position in the history of the human endeavor. Without the act and anticipation of planting and harvest, there would be no agriculture as we know it, and our species would still be wandering in small bands of hunters, gatherers, and herdsmen. Indeed, some experts believe that Homo sapiens might never have evolved at all in a world that lacked seeds. More than perhaps any other natural object, the small botanical marvels paved the way for modern civilization, their fascinating evolution and natural history shaping and reshaping our own.
We live in a world of seeds. From our morning coffee and bagel to the cotton in our clothes and the cup of cocoa we drink before bed, seeds surround us all day long. They give us food and fuels, intoxicants and poisons, oils, dyes, fibers, and spices. Without seeds there would be no bread, no rice, no beans, corn, or nuts. They are quite literally the staff of life, the basis of diets, economies, and lifestyles around the globe. They anchor life in the wild, too: Seed plants now make up more than 90 percent of our flora. They are so commonplace it’s hard to imagine that for over 100 million years other types of plant life dominated the earth. Roll back the clock and we find seeds evolving as trivial players in a flora ruled by spores, where tree-like club mosses, horsetails, and ferns formed vast forests that remain with us in the form of coal. From this humble beginning, the seed plants steadily gained advantage—first with conifers, cycads, and ginkgos, and then in a great diversification of flowering species—until now it is the spore bearers and algae that watch from the sidelines. This dramatic triumph of seeds poses an obvious question: Why are they so successful? What traits and habits have allowed seeds, and the plants that bear them, to so thoroughly transform our planet? The answers frame the narrative of this book and reveal not only why seeds thrive in nature, but why they are so vital to people. ❖
Excerpted with permission from The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, by Thor Hanson. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2015. To order, contact us.
This article was published originally in 2015, in GreenPrints Issue #103.