How Seeds Shape History

Whether we notice or not, seeds of all kinds have shaped both our physical world and the way we interact with it.

  • The sprouting seed of an almendro tree (Dipteryx panamensis).
    Photo © 2006 by Thor Hanson
  • “The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, & Pips Conquered the Planet Kingdom and Shaped Human History” by Thor Hanson.
    Photo courtesy of Basic Books

From our cotton clothing to our morning coffee to the grass under our feet, it’s impossible to go a day without experiencing the impact of seeds on our environment. Yet, despite the endless little miracles that seeds bring, they go unconsidered; they’re thought to be unremarkable, if they’re thought of at all. To remind us of the microscopic beauty of these little creators, and to explore their stunning histories and evolutionary wonders, field biologist and author Thor Hanson has written The Triumph of Seeds (Basic Books, 2016). In his book, Hanson explores not only the hard-fought right to grow that each successful seed encounters, but also what it really looks like for something so small to bloom into a fruit, a flower, or a rainforest tree. Seeds are fundamental forces of life. With facts and anecdotes alike, The Triumph of Seeds gives them the credit they’re due.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Triumph of Seeds.

Seed for a Day

“I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
– Henry David Thoreau, The Dispersion of Seeds (1860-1861)

When a pit viper strikes, physics tells us it can’t lunge forward farther than the length of its own body. The head and front end are agile, but the tail of the beast stays put. Anyone who has been struck at, however, knows that these snakes can fly through the air like Zulu spears, or the daggers thrown in ninja movies. The one coming at me darted up from a mat of dead leaves, launching itself at my boot in a lightning blur of fangs and intent. I recognized it as a fer-de-lance, a snake famed throughout Central America for its unfortunate combination of strong venom and a short temper. In this individual’s defense, however, I must confess that I had been poking it with a stick.

Surprisingly, the study of rainforest seeds can involve a lot of snake-poking. There is a simple explanation for this: science loves a straight line. Lines, and the relationships they imply, pop up everywhere, from chemistry to seismology, but for biologists the most common line of all is the transect. Whether one is counting seeds, surveying kangaroos, spotting butterflies, or searching for monkey dung, following an arrow-straight transect across the landscape is often the best way to make unbiased observations. They’re great because they sample everything in their path, cutting directly through swamps, thickets, thorn bushes, and anything else we might otherwise prefer to avoid. They’re also horrible because they sample everything in their path, cutting directly through swamps, thickets, thorn bushes, and anything else we might otherwise prefer to avoid. Including snakes.

Ahead of me, I heard the ring of machete on vine as my field assistant, José Masis, slashed us a path through the latest jungle impediment. I had time to listen because the snake, having missed my boot by inches, did something extremely disconcerting. It disappeared. The mottled browns of a fer-de-lance’s back make an excellent camouflage, and I never would have seen so many of them — not to mention eyelash vipers, hog-nosed pit vipers, and the occasional boa constrictor — if I hadn’t been diligently walking straight lines through the forest, bent low to the ground, rummaging through the leaf mulch. Some transects seemed to hold more snakes than seeds, and José and I developed techniques for nudging them out of the way or even lifting them on sticks and tossing them gently aside. Now, with an angry, invisible viper somewhere at my feet, new questions emerged. Was it best to stand still and hope the snake wasn’t repositioning itself for another strike? Or should I run, and if so, in which direction? After a tense minute of indecision I ventured a step, then two. Soon I had resumed my seed transect without incident (though not before cutting myself a much longer snake-poking stick).



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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