Recent headlines, it seems to me, put an interesting slant on the much-ballyhooed claim that we live in an information society. I’m thinking here especially of the slow-motion train wreck of the US banking system now under way, courtesy of the very same system of slicing and packaging real estate debt that was praised to the skies as a brilliant financial innovation a few short years ago.
Now of course, as John Kenneth Galbraith pointed out long before the phrase “mortgage-backed securities” found its way onto any up-to-date list of popular oxymorons, innovation in the world of finance almost always refers to the rediscovery of one of a handful of very bad ideas that resulted in economic disaster every other time they’ve been used, and can be counted on to do the same thing this time, too. Still, there’s another dimension to the current mess, which is that a large fraction of the trouble that’s sent stock prices of a dozen large banks into a crash dive is the result of simple sloppiness in information handling.
The laws governing mortgages in the US sensibly require a paper trail showing all transfers of the right to collect from the mortgage, and they also require the people who process foreclosure paperwork to at least glance through the stacks of papers they’re signing. In millions of cases in America alone, these very simple steps weren’t done, the relevant information wasn’t kept or wasn’t read, and an economy that’s still staggering from the body blow it received from the implosion of the housing bubble has just taken another hit.
You might think that an information society would do better than that, but this is par for the course these days. In the modern industrial world, most of the time, the only phases of information’s life cycle that get more than cursory attention is its production and distribution, and then only in terms of raw quantities – the sort of measure that doesn’t differentiate between cures for cancer and Lady Gaga’s latest round of failed attempts to make herself look interesting. Those who insist that producing ever larger volumes of information will somehow lead us to Utopia tend to pass over the fate of all that information once it comes sluicing out the business end of our society’s information factories, and they tend to pay even less attention, if that’s possible, to the origins and destiny of the information that isn’t produced in digital form by the busy labor of human beings.
It’s this other kind of information that I’d like to place at the center of this week’s discussion, because it’s central to many aspects of the Green Wizards project. The natural world contains and circulates a vast amount of information. We can read a very small fraction of it, but that doesn’t mean we can do without it; most of what keeps human beings alive on this planet just now is a function of the information economy of nature.
There are any number of examples, but the one that comes to mind just at the moment is the wealth of information to be found in the seeds of any open-pollinated plant. Seeds can be understood in several different ways, but one of the most useful is to think of them as a medium for information storage. Like other media, they will reproduce the information they contain under some specific set of conditions; just as a DVD stores information in one form but will present it in another – for example, a movie – when you put it in a DVD player and press the start button, a seed stores information in the form of DNA, and will present it in another – a plant – when you put it in appropriate soil and add sun and water. What sets seeds apart from DVDs as a far more sophisticated information technology, of course, is that when you play a movie, the movie doesn’t manufacture new DVDs for all your friends, much less shuffle the movie just a bit in every generation, in a way that tends to produce a better plot and snappier jokes as time goes on.
Seeds, by contrast, do an exact equivalent of this. This is why when you tap a seed envelope against your hand and send a single seed rolling out onto your palm, you’re holding two billion years of stored information. That’s how long, according to current paleontology, the process of evolution has been shaping the genetic code of living things related to the ones we encounter today, and every generation across that unimaginable length of time has contributed something to the shaping of the little packet of genetic material, nutrition, and protective layers we call a plant seed.
It would be helpful if more people kept this in mind. It would also be helpful if people noticed that the different varieties of any cultivated plant very often contain hundreds or thousands of years of human-derived information on top of the two billion year collection handed over by nature. Instead, we’ve got a world in which this extraordinary wealth of information is treated even more cavalierly than big US banks treat mortgage paperwork, and in particular, where most commercial seed companies sell a handful of bland varieties aimed at the lowest common denominator, producing them each year by hybridizing processes that normally keep them from breeding true from seed in the next generation. It’s very much as though all the more interesting books in most of the nation’s libraries were to be replaced by stacks of identical copies of some gaudy journalistic volume about Lady Gaga’s cleavage.
This would be bad enough if those of us who farm or garden could count on an uninterrupted supply of Gagaesque hybrid seeds for the foreseeable future. For a range of reasons, starting with the end of the age of cheap energy, we can’t. The seed industry is one of the world’s most monopolistic; the vast majority of all seeds produced and sold in the industrial world come from a tiny handful of vast conglomerates, and their production, transport and marketing requires huge amounts of fossil fuels. It’s sobering to realize that the bankruptcy of one of the big seed corporations just before the Northern Hemisphere’s planting season could leave millions of farmers with no access to seed stock. It’s even more sobering to consider the far more likely impact of assorted financial and energy bottlenecks on seed availability as an economy in prolonged crisis intersects with spikes in energy, transport, and agricultural chemical costs as we stumble down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.
Fortunately there are other options, and I would encourage green wizards in training to explore them. The place to start, unless you happen to have a thriving garden and plenty of heirloom seed stock in place already, is one or more of the seed exchanges and small seed companies that make it their work to keep old, non-hybrid varieties of cultivated plants available. You’ll want to look for a source of this kind that carries old varieties from the area where you’re living and growing your garden, because – surprise – the varieties that do best in an organic garden in any given area are very often the varieties that did best in that area before chemical agriculture was invented. Finding a relatively local seed source is also helpful if transport becomes problematic, since your chances of being able to access seeds is a good deal better when the source is two counties away than when it’s on the far side of a continent.
The ultimate in short supply chains, of course, is to save seeds from the plants you grow. This is definitely a goal for any organic gardener to have in mind, but in my experience, at least, it’s not something to take up immediately unless you have no other choice or already have quite a bit of skill in gardening. Every species of plant has its own life cycle, every variety of plant rings its own changes on that life cycle, and the seed – the vehicle by which the plant sends its information on to the future – is often exquisitely sensitive to subtle cues you may not notice if you’re not watching. To save seed with any kind of reliable success, you need to know the life cycle, habits, and needs of the plant with which you’re working, so that you can give the seed the conditions it needs.
Some of those conditions can be very unexpected to the novice. The seeds of quite a few plants, for example, need to go through a period of fairly intense cold before they will sprout. Keep the seeds of ome of these plants in a heated basement and plant them out in spring, and you’ll get no results that year, because the seeds are waiting for the signal that tells them that winter has come and gone and it’s safe to start growing. You can give them the signal they need by storing them in an unheated space or, in the case of seeds that need a good strong chill, sticking them in the refrigerator for a couple of months. Others have a waterproof coating on the surface, and may need to be scuffed on a sheet of fine grit sandpaper. Still others have unique requirements of their own.
There are also plants that can’t be grown from seed at all, or that are best propagated in other ways. Potatoes, for example, don’t breed true from seeds – if you let yours go to seed and they set seed that’s viable, which is by no means certain, you’re as likely as not to get a half-wild Andean tuber that may or may not be edible at all. For a good many centuries, instead, potatoes have been propagated by chopping a potato into pieces, each one with its own eye, and burying the chunks in the soil. You need to know that if you want to grow potatoes – and you need to know similar lessons if you want to grow a fair number of other plants.
What this means is that you can’t save seeds or propagate plants in other ways without learning a fair amount about the plants you grow, and participating in their ecology and their life cycle. Seeds are not machines; you can’t make them do what you want them to do, unless it’s what they’ve spent the last few million years evolving to do. You have to meet them more than halfway. You can’t stand back and wrap yourself in the fraying rags of the failed myth that still convinces too many people that humanity is some kind of alien force, separate from Nature and reduced to poking her with a stick in place of any deeper communion; you have to take your seeds by the hand and join them in the dance.
Now of course this is what I’d hope to see any prospective green wizard doing, in one way or another. All our work in this project can be seen from one perspective as learning how to make sense of the information provided us by nature, rather than restricting our diet of information to the often far less nourishing fare served up in horse doctor’s doses by the various mass production and dissemination schemes of human society. Using solar energy on a small scale, for example, can’t be done successfully unless you shake off the assumptions that three hundred years of ever more abundant fossil fuel supplies have taught those of us who live in the world’s industrial nations, and learn how to think about energy from sunlight; that’s what will show you what you can do with the sun’s diffuse heat, and how to orient yourself in space and time to make the best use of it. Choose some other piece of appropriate technology or green living and you’ll find yourself in the same place, learning what you need to know from a teacher who doesn’t happen to be human and doesn’t speak the language you do, but is more than willing to lead you in the dance we call Nature.
Next week we’ll be talking about another way to participate in that dance. For now, I’d like to encourage students of green wizardry to put some time into locating sources of heirloom and non-hybrid seeds in their own regions, and get themselves on mailing lists for a few local seed catalogs; if you have any way of putting in a garden this coming spring, you should plan on doing so, and in that case you’ll want the catalogs this winter. If the seed sources you find are nonprofits, send a few dollars their way as a donation to help cover the cost of the catalog – many of them operate on shoestring budgets, and the collapsing economy has left the shoestring even more frayed than usual. A book or two on saving seeds might also be a good purchase at this time, if your organic gardening library doesn’t already contain ample information on that subject.
The two books I’ve always used as information sources for saving seeds and propagating plants are Marc Rogers’ Saving Seeds -- an expanded version of the Seventies classic Growing and Saving Vegetable Seeds -- and Lewis Hill’s Secrets of Plant Propagation. Both books give a fair amount of space to garden ornamentals, and Hill likes to use chemical pesticides, which has always seemed unnecessary to me; still, both books contain a wealth of practical information. Many general books on organic gardening also include a chapter on saving your own seeds, or include this and other propagation instructions in the sections that cover specific food plants.