The World in a Seed

By Michael Ableman

How is it that a scant 100-plus days after planting, a single watermelon seed becomes a 20-pound melon?

It's August and I'm sitting in the middle of my field in the sun eating the heart out of a 20-pound watermelon. Just the heart. I'm leaving the rest to be savored by birds and insects and to return to the earth -- it's one of those luxuries that farmers occasionally allow themselves.

In this moment, when I slow down long enough to enjoy the literal fruits of my labors, I remember that it was only three months earlier that we were carefully preparing that field and planting the seeds. Three months from little black seed to 20-pound melon. One-quarter pound of seeds to 7,000 pounds of fruit. How many times have I planted and waited and watched for a new seed to emerge? Each time I am amazed that one small seed has such potential and holds all the details of color, size, taste and beauty unique to its species and its name: 'Moon and Stars', 'Yellow Dol'l, 'Arikara' watermelons; 'Oxheart', 'Nantes', 'Chantenay' carrots; 'Petipa', 'Kabocha', 'Buttercup' squash; 'Indian Cling', 'Peregrine', 'Babcock' peaches; 'Satsuma' or 'Green Gage' plums. Thousands of varieties, each with a story and a tenacity to survive, each seed holding the history of a people and their culture -- potatoes from the Andes, corn from Mexico, oranges from Southeast Asia, wheat from Iraq. Watermelon from Africa. A world in a seed.

The often astonishing colors and patterns of dry beans express the mystery inherent in every seed.

Through ten thousand years of selection, experimentation and development by indigenous peoples around the world, our entire agricultural history is contained and coded in a vast diversity of seeds. They hold centuries of adaptation and cultural values; they are more valuable than gold. In China, I saw people sleep with their seeds in bins under their beds, for safekeeping.

In Peru, I saw some 30 varieties of potatoes growing in a single field the size of a suburban front yard. This diversity is their insurance for a secure yield. By contrast, in 1845, nearly one million people died when blight raced through the Irish potato fields that held a single vulnerable variety. Anthropologists have speculated that when the Mayans planted just a few varieties of corn, they sealed the destruction of their civilization. In 1970, half of America's corn crop from Florida to Texas was destroyed by leaf blight. Every one of those plants was genetically identical.

Humans now rely primarily on just 22 crops for much of their food, although more than 20,000 edible plants exist worldwide. When we realize that an apple is not only a Red Delicious but a Winesap, a McIntosh or a Gravenstein, that a potato is not just a Russet but a Red Pontiac or a Yukon Gold -- or a hundred other wonderful varieties -- we enjoy and preserve the diversity of plant life that is our insurance for the future of the world's food supply. When we grow heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, we are linked by tradition to the harvests of the world.

Several years ago, my Hopi friend Caroline gave me a rare collection of bean seeds, each of these seeds unique, as if painted by hand. No two alike. I spent some time gazing into that basket of beans, first as a whole, like looking into a night sky, then closing in and focusing on each individual seed. I remembered those incredible photographs of the earth seen from space. Here now, in a single seed, was a mirror of our earth, its germ containing all of who we are and the potential for who we can become.

Photography by National Gardening Association

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