Hanson, Thor. The Triumph of Seeds: how grains, nuts, kernels, pulses and pips conquered the plant kingdom and shaped human history. 2015. Basic Books, New York, N.Y. pg. xix – 18. 55-80.
The future is a scary thing.
About 2 months ago, on a Tuesday morning, I sat through an hour and 45 minute lecture as my Limnology professor explained the evidence for how many years it would take for our country to run out of usable water. Usually it takes me to about Friday for all the depressing information I take in all day to sink in. At least on a Friday I can justify drinking half a bottle of wine. However, it was only Tuesday and I still had an entire week ahead of hearing about how life as we know it is coming to an end and there really isn’t anything we can do about it!! Don’t get me wrong, I love studying biology, but it’s one of those things where the truth really does hurt.
I am still young, but naturally the thought of having children has crossed my mind a time or two. What age should I start having kids? How many would I have? Where would I want to raise them? and finally the big question…Do I even want children at all? I think about bringing someone into a world that is struggling to provide enough resources as it is to support the people already on it. It would be like setting them up for disaster before they were even born. It’s hard to be happy about something as precious as new life when you have studied enough to know what the future for that life might look like. Yet, I sat reading Hansons’ words: “the next generation meant everything, an evolutionary imperative worth any investment of energy and adaptive creativity” and right then I knew that one day I wanted to have children. So I devised a plan…
I could build an impenetrable box and put my fertilized egg inside. I would pack enough food in the box so that when he or she is born they would have enough for at least the first few years. I wouldn’t have to carry the baby with me at all times or even keep track of where the box is. In fact, If the world runs out of water, or goes through another ice age then it wouldn’t matter because my baby would just stay in the box until the conditions were right. Even if I were to die before then, my baby would remain in his or her box until they were ready. Perfect! Now I all I have to do is figure out HOW!
The title of this book is excitingly fitting. Seeds were a plants solution to “endure.” Hanson says that seeds “nourish,” “unite,” “defend” and “travel.” These are all characteristics of motherhood all too familiar to any mother, but what is the point of going through all that trouble if there is no hope for a future. Seeds are that hope. Seeds “endure.” “This habit of dormancy sets seed plants apart from nearly all other life forms” (pg. xxiv). Mother of the year award in my books!
Hanson walks through the rainforest of Central America and runs inevitably into snakes and other dangerous animals. However, although he describes his tense interaction with a transect snake, the following interaction with a baby almendro tree is somehow much more exciting. More than once in this book our relationship with plants is described as “intimate.” As a botanist, Hanson knows how the the tiny sprout can open shoot up “fueled entirely by energy of the seed” (page 6). What Hanson does not know is how the sprout knows when to release their “fierce energy.” What determines whether conditions are right? “…exact ques that trigger and coordinate these events retain an aura of mystery” (pg. 15).
To understand how, it is important to understand why. A seed is thought to be a reproductive adaption for plants movement from water onto land. This makes sense since water cannot aid in genetic movement, pollinators and wind are substitutes for water in seed plants. “A logical adaptation that allowed the innovators to colonize huge swathes of unoccupied habitat” (pg 61). While collecting samples in a coal mine which Hanson describes as “strolling through a Carboniferous forest,” he tries to make sense of the jump from spore to seed. What amazes me the most is the discovery that seed plants were already there. Plants seem so much more adaptable to their environment then animals, so it was surprising to hear him say that amniotes took way less time to diverge than seed plants. However, perfection does take a long time to get to.
Solving the mystery with Hanson was definitely a pleasant experience. When I am gardening this spring there is no doubt at some point I am going to pretend to be Mendel in my “lab;” while the world around me is still struggling with economic and environmental unrest…I will be “struggling with an equally pressing intellectual upheaval: the theory of evolution by natural selection” (pg. 72). I am not as worried as I was that day 2 months ago. If I do one day have children I will trust that nature will find a way to thrive. There is no way of knowing where the world will be headed, but “the sheer ceaselessness of natural selection’s trial and error means that all sorts of adaptations are possible ” (pg. 16-17). A powerful sentence; a wonderful thought:)