The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food
by Janisse Ray

Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. ISBN 978-1-603-58306-0.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 09/21/2012

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Food/Cooking/Kitchen

Janisse Ray is the kind of powerfully poetic and passionate writer who could make a shopping list so compelling that halfway through, readers would be laughing, crying, wiping their eyes, slapping their knees in recognition, and vowing to get out and make a difference, dammit! Ray is not just eloquent; she is informed and she cares deeply about the fate of this earth and its living communities, humans especially. Ray on a tear is fearless and pulls no punches, combining the seductive sway of a tent-revival preacher with the solid facts and nuanced understanding of a good researcher—in short, she is dangerous.

Which is good, especially in the case of this book, which sprouted (pun intended) from an almost unheralded crisis devastating a critical part of our planet's biodiversity, the natural genetic databank that we draw on for food, medicines, building materials, fiber, and strategies for dealing with survival in changing climates and environments. Seeds. Yawn. Who cares about seeds? Um...all of us, if we are to continue living?

The Seed Underground is a call to first grasp why these ubiquitous embryos of the plant world matter and then to act on their—and our—behalf. As Ray writes in Chapter Two, "A Brief History of Industrial Agriculture," seeds and the genes they carry are an inheritance we need to survive. And that inheritance is being stolen:

Some things are inherent to the earth and thus belong democratically to all its inhabitants. Air and water, for example, are part of the public domain and should be forbidden in the marketplace. Seeds—always part of the great commons of human history—can no more be owned than fire. Or the ocean. And yet, the biotechnology industry has steadily made its way through courts and legislative halls like an evil maggot, claiming what does not belong to it, saying life can be owned. And it can't, Monsanto. It can't, Syngenta.

That was the thundering preacher speaking, armed with the researcher's facts. Here comes the poet, ending what might have been a dry chapter with this lyrical, heart-hooking passage. Writers, listen to the cadence as you read, and notice how Ray's word choices and metaphors affect your response:

Our seeds are disappearing.

When seed varieties vanish from the marketplace, they evaporate not only from the collective memory but also from the evolutionary story of the earth. Seeds are more like Bengal tigers than vinyl records, which can simply be remanufactured. Once gone, seeds cannot be resurrected.

Goodbye, cool seeds. Goodbye, history of civilization. Goodbye, food.

A seed makes itself. A seed doesn't need a geneticist or hybridist or publicist or matchmaker. But it needs help. Sometimes it needs a moth or a wasp or a gust of wind. Sometimes it needs a farm and it needs a farmer. It needs a garden and a gardener.

It needs you.

Ray, a consummate storyteller, knows when to preach and when to lean back and spin a story—one from her own life, or one about someone involved in the tricky business of saving and/or liberating heirloom seeds and sustainable ways of farming for us all to use. Most of The Seed Underground, a title I have to confess loving in part for its layers ("underground"—where seeds sprout and also a movement), is comprised of tales like those, the kind that readers relax into and enjoy hearing. And only later realize that they have infiltrated heart and mind and sneakily, oh so subtly, altered the reader's worldview.

I could quote more examples. But really, just read the book. You won't be sorry.

Read an excerpt from this book.

Writer, naturist, and activist Janisse Ray is a seed saver, seed exchanger, and seed banker, and has gardened for twenty-five years. She is the author of several books, including Pinhook and Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, a New York Times notable book. Ray has won a Southern Independent Booksellers Award for Poetry, a Southeastern Booksellers Award for Nonfiction, the Southern Environmental Law Center Award for Outstanding Writing, and a southern Book Critics Circle Award. She attempts to live a simple, sustainable live on a farm in southern Georgia with her husband, Raven Waters. Visit her website.

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