If you're the kind of person who gets excited about the purple, yellow and crimson carrots at the farmers market, then Janisse Ray's The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food is totally the book for you. (And if you can't take joy in pretty carrots, I'm truly sorry for you.) The Seed Underground details the University of Montana alumna nature writer's life as a "radical peasant" gardener and the urgent need for society to preserve the astounding diversity of edible plant life. You don't have to be a seed saver or even a gardener to appreciate this book; I come to it from the selfish standpoint of a food nerd who wants to eat all of the things.
We live in one of the best times for year-round access to all kinds of food, if you have the money. Even when Missoula is sunk under a late-winter blizzard, I can still trek to the grocery store for blueberries and brussels sprouts. But, as Ray makes the case, we actually live in a time of ever-decreasing diversity, and we're in danger of losing even more. She cites a study of seed catalogs that found 94 percent of crop varieties available in 1903 had disappeared by 2004, thanks to industrial ag and monoculture. Not to mention that, despite the multicolored array of the produce aisle, most of our diet (and our livestock's diet) is wheat, corn and soy.
Ray takes plenty of time to explain the damage done by conventional—or as she calls it, chemical—agriculture, from the Irish potato famine to the modern problem of genetic drift contaminating all crops with engineered, patented genes. She's not averse to science, she says, but finds it "worrisome when it serves the interests of mercenaries," meaning Monsanto and corporations like it. We can tally the loss when a crop is devastated by a blight, like the one affecting Florida oranges, but it's harder to tally the loss to culture when a variety of bean or pea cultivated by a community disappears.
This is all depressing, but Ray's commonsense voice and optimism shine through. Seed Underground takes us on a trip to meet many of the activists and agrarians working to stem the tide of loss, from American Public Media's "The Splendid Table" host Lynne Rossetto Kasper to Montana farmer Bob Quinn, who revived khorasan wheat and sells it as Kamut. Along the way, Ray swaps seeds and stories. "How interesting that the agrarian within us understands that to survive, to keep our food crops viable, we have to be openhanded," she says. "Seeds have a built-in requirement for generosity."
If all this talk about saving seeds sounds earnest, that's because it is. Ray has been doing the organic, sustainable agriculture thing since way before it was cool. She details teen years in the '70s spent buried in a love of growing things. "In place of boyfriends, I had honeysuckle from the vine, radishes from the ground, asters from the ditch."
Most of what I personally know of gardening is heartbreak. My mom won't do it anymore because the drought and grasshoppers are so bad in eastern Montana. My feeble attempt at growing tomatoes here in Missoula last year ended when the damn urban deer ate them. Ray seems impervious to these kinds of frustrations. She concedes that "cultivating is full-time, year-round, joint-popping work." But gardening is a total labor of love for her, and she imparts the meditative joy of the work. "I am grabbing sweet potatoes, pulling radishes, stripping basil leaves," she says of one afternoon. "I am squeezing the pulp of marble-sized Matt's Sweet Wild Cherry tomatoes one by one into a canning jar."
Seed Underground is a call to action, and a powerful one if you'd like to start growing more of your own food. Ray realizes she must appeal to younger generations, saying, "tattooed arms and studs do not scare me." (I wonder what proper ol' Wendell Berry would think of that.)
This book is not an introduction to gardening, but offers up samples of Ray's wealth of knowledge. "How many people still know that huckleberries have seeds, and that they have glands at the base of their leaves—and that blueberries do not?" Ray asks. Guilty as charged, in my case.
I've found that useful, accurate gardening tips can still be pretty hard to come by with a basic Google search. Seed Underground does list helpful organizations and resources in the back. As spring slowly arrives, I'm inspired to head to the hardware store for some seeds and potting soil, and to the library to check out some books on planting. How old-fashioned is that? I bet Ray would be pleased to hear it.
Janisse Ray reads from The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food at Fact and Fiction, 220 N. Higgins Ave, Thu., March 27. 7 PM.