Janisse Ray, The Seed Underground
Writer, naturalist and activist Janisse Ray is author of five books of literary nonfiction and a collection of nature poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana and in 2007 was awarded an honorary doctorate from Unity College in Maine. She is on the faculty of Chatham University’s low-residency MFA program and is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She will be teaching Spring 2014 at the University of Montana as the William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello everybody! It’s Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food on December 24, 2013. That would make it Christmas Eve, wouldn’t it? Fa la la la la la la la la! We are going to talk a lot about peas on earth. I didn’t say peace on earth, although it is linked to peas on earth. I’m talking about peas. Peas and all kinds of other things that grow in to the food that we eat. Seeds–so important and as many people around this country today are running around for their last minute gifts, I think that we really need to be concentrating on very simple things that make life meaningful and possible. And that’s our food. We talk a lot about things on this show called It’s All About Food, but let’s just get down to the simplest form of food, which is seeds. I am going to bring on my first guest, Janisse Ray who wrote The Seed Underground. She is a writer, a naturalist, an activist, and author of 5 books of literary non-fiction and a collection on nature poetry. She holds an MFA from the University of Montana. On 2007, she was awarded an honorary doctorate from Unity College in Maine. She is on the faculty of Chapman University’s Low-Residency MFA program and is a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow. She will be teaching spring 2014 at the University of Montana as the William Kittredge Distinguished Visiting Writer. Welcome, Janisse!
Janisse – Hey there! Thank you for having me. Happy Holidays!
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you! Fa la la la la la la la la!
Janisse Ray: Bring on the eggnog.
Caryn Hartglass: That’s right! But of course for me it’s going to be silk-nog because I’m a vegan, but anything with a little nutmeg and creamy fatty something sounds good, and splashed with a little . . . what’s the alcohol that goes with eggnog?
Janisse Ray: It doesn’t really matter but it could be brandy, whisky.
Caryn Hartglass: There you go! Yeah! I’m ready. I don’t get too much wrapped up into these holidays, but somehow with the energy that is going around all of a sudden my schedule became very hectic.
Janisse Ray: Oh, I bet!
Caryn Hartglass: But now we are going to sit back and relax and talk about this wonderful book that you wrote last year, and I finally caught up to reading it. It’s so important and very inspiring.
Janisse Ray: Thank you.
Caryn Hartglass: Very inspiring. Obviously you’re a poet, and the poetry goes throughout in the language of the book. I was talking to a farmer last week, I think. Although I don’t consider him a poet, his writing had a lot of poetry in it too. I think that when we’re connected to nature poetry is just naturally there.
Janisse Ray: Do you remember that farmer’s name, by chance?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. It was Ben Falk.
Janisse Ray: Oh, okay.
Caryn Hartglass: Do you know him?
Janisse Ray: No, I don’t.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, so he’s up in Vermont, I think. I’m just going to check my website and remember the name of his book. What he’s done, and you’d be interested in this, I think everybody should be interested in this. He basically took some really crummy land and turned it around. Permaculture is what he’s doing, actually. Oh, it was 2 weeks ago. He wrote The Resilient Farm and Homestead.
Janisse Ray: I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard about it.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, it’s a very nice book. I enjoyed it. What I got in the beginning of your book and what I’m trying to do is really focus on people who are doing good things, positive things, things that absolutely need to happen and focus on the joyfulness of that because there’s so much crap going around.
Janisse Ray: Exactly why I wrote the book. I’ve been a nature writer for a lot of years now. That territory necessarily comes with a lot of grief. We’re losing a lot of things. I decided that I just couldn’t do it anymore. The subtitle is called A Growing Revolution to Save Food, and I just wanted to focus on the people who are in their little corners of the world doing these amazing things to preserve agrodiversity.
Caryn Hartglass: These stories are so lovely, so interesting. Why aren’t the major news media telling these stories? They’re so beautiful, so inspiring. I just sit and read them and I smile. People have to hear these things.
Janisse Ray: Yeah, that is a question I can’t answer. I remember once, there was a magazine called Hope, which was just focusing on positive news. There’s something about us that wants to see danger coming. I think a kind of appall has come over the country where we focus so much on the school shootings, and climate change, and there are a lot of impending disasters. The other day listening to the radio, I heard this phrase, this person said, “I believe our society is in free fall.” That’s a terrifying thought. If you focus on that, you can’t be smiling at your neighbors while you pick up your kids from school. You’ve got to be fortifying yourself.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes! So we’re going to go back and forth during this time period and talking about the good things, and talking about some of the not so good things because they’re just so out there. Just growing any seed, is an incredible experience.
Janisse Ray: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: Children in school have those little projects where they put their seeds in their milk cartons with dirt and they watch it grow. It’s just a delight because there’s something intuitively in us that knows that growing is good.
Janisse Ray: It’s just such a miracle.
Caryn Hartglass: It is a miracle.
Janisse Ray: To have this little package of genetic material, add warmth, and light and some water, and an entire tree will grow. Everything that this huge biomass needs for its entire future is sealed in this tiny little bulb of a thing. We had a winter solstice party the other night and a neighbor brought me a tiny little vial that was three quarters of an inch tall. He said, “I thought you would like these amaranth seeds.” And inside these seeds, they weren’t even as big as poppy seeds. He had grown this amaranth, the other name for it is red spinach, which I had never grown, and had painstakingly shoved out these little seeds. It was just a lovely thing. My neighbor, another neighbor, had been in my house the other day and he saw these Crenshaw that I grow, a gold-striped Crenshaw. My grandmother used to grow them. This man is in his 80’s and he says, “I’ve been looking for these seeds for years.” When they had their neighborhood get together, I took him a little vial of Crenshaw seeds. So there we go, spreading genetic material around. Reciprocity.
Caryn Hartglass: Haha, haha. Can you get arrested for that?
Janisse Ray: I think that if it was GMO, you could.
Caryn Hartglass: So can you give us a brief summary of your book The Seed Underground?
Janisse Ray: Yes. I started worrying about seeds, I have been a seed saver for a very long time, but my professional work has always been in saving wildness. I believe that we live on this continuum that has moved from a hunter and gatherer society through agrarianism into industrialism into now, whatever we are in.
Caryn Hartglass: What are we in?
Janisse Ray: Technologism or some postmodern something. Hunter-gatherer is represented by wilderness. Agrarians by a field. My work is centered on this wilderness. In truth, I’m most comfortable in a field. Or maybe on the edge of the field, between the woods and growing things. I’m 51, so I knew in my early 20’s the plight that seeds were in that we were losing old varieties. I have long been growing open pollinated seeds, those are the ones you can save the seeds from, saving them and growing them year after year. I finally decided to write a book about it. I wanted to enter this conversation about genetic modification, and hybridization, and sustainable agriculture. I could talk on and on, Caryn. So, I’ll stop there and you take off.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m just thinking, we live in this high-tech world. One of the things that I enjoy in technology is a lot of open source software that people can use freely. What’s amazing about it is all these different people from all over the place just keep improving on it and using it. Some of these corporations end up incorporating some of these programs into their programs. When you say open pollination, I think of open source. I just like the whole concept of things being open. Certainly our food should be free in this amazing society that we live in. Why should we concern ourselves with food? We should all have nutritious food to eat. Food should be easy.
Janisse Ray: I agree, but we should all be working towards that as well. I think that there are somethings that are even more obvious. Fire, water, how could we be buying springs for example. Water is all coming from these great reservoirs underground, it doesn’t make sense. The theoretical term here is the commons. I think genes are a part of the great commons, but seeds are as well.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m very involved in musical theatre and Broadway and you may be familiar with a show that came out a while ago. It’s called Urinetown. The concept of the show was that people had to pay to pee. It was a bit of a comedy but not such a far stretch because the society that we live in, there are a few that are looking to make as much money on all of us for everything. If they could charge for the air that we breathe they would. If they could charge, and they are, for the water that we drink they would. The focus of your book is the seeds that are so necessary to grow our foods and we are losing control of our seeds. Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta, mostly Monsanto I think, have bought up all the seed companies. We’ve lost so much diversity in the food that is available. There is wonderful hope because there are people like you and other people who have saved certain seeds, sharing them; it is just such a delight to hear about.
Janisse Ray: The first group that I heard doing it was the Seed Savers Exchange. This was in the late 70’s, early 80’s. Kent and Diane Whealy started this group. They had gone to Iowa to take care of Diane’s grandfather who was ill. He had given them a couple of things that he had brought with him when he immigrated to the United States. One was that beautiful morning glory. Grandpa Ott’s Morning Glory. They realized that with that gift from Grandpa Ott those seeds would just die out with him if somebody didn’t do something. They began this movement. They created a cadre of plants’ people, and gardeners, and farmers who were stalking the countryside looking for all kinds of seeds. Some people were of the mindset that I was of which was alternative, marginal, always progressive, a world changer. I live in a very conservative area. So maybe some of my neighbors, they’re keeping an old cantaloupe alive that has been in their family for five generations. This movement crosses boundaries because we all have this thing in common. We love food, we love good food, the more nutritious the food the better. Our culture is basically centered in large part around food, the growing of it, the cooking of it, and so forth. It goes beyond this movement to save diversity because of the multinationals. It’s really this thing to save taste and to save memories.
Caryn Hartglass: I want to be clear about something because I don’t know that it’s clear to everyone. Most seeds, if just left alone, don’t last forever or they’re not vital forever. They don’t last for a long time so that you can plant them at any time. In some ways, it’s the beauty about them. We need to care for them. We need to plant them so that they can grow into their fruit so that new seeds are there. And as long as we keep planting those seeds, and growing the plant, and taking the fruit, and replanting the seeds, this cycle over and over, then we will always have this gift of seeds.
Janisse Ray: I know and they are a bit of a burden in that regards. It’s like a pet. You have to take care of the thing.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah! You take care of them and they take care of us.
Janisse Ray: That’s exactly right. Your comment brought up another point I want to make. Norway and other countries built Svalbard, which we call the doomsday vault, a place in the arctic in the boundary of Norway, where countries all over the world have been sending packets of seed. And this place where the vault is, is supposed to be out of the way and in the worst case scenario of climate change and seas rising it won’t be inundated. It’s fortified with rock walls and concrete on the inside of that. The best way to protect seeds is exactly what you are talking about; In living gene banks. That’s a term from Gary Nabhan, the great MacArthur genius who has written many books about seeds, and started native seeds/SEARCH. Living gene banks. That’s because, out in the world, responding to climatic data in the moment, plants will evolve and change to fit our really rapidly changing world. At least we hope they will.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s all this conversation, not enough in my mind, about genetically modified food and hybridization, industrial hybridization, and genetically modified organisms. These 3 things are not the same. People get confused by them.
Janisse Ray: You want to run through them, Caryn?
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah, let’s run through them.
Janisse Ray: Okay, these will be little definitions. I think the first thing we should start with would be hybridization. Hybridization is not a bad thing. It has brought us this amazing cornucopia of foodstuffs that we have. So we have Swiss chard that has green stems, Swiss chard called rhubarb chard with red stems, on and on and on. Some of this lovely diversity is just the product of simple hybridization.
Caryn Hartglass: One plant having sex with another plant.
Janisse Ray: And they’re two different kinds of plants.
Caryn Hartglass: Integrative plant sex.
Janisse Ray: That’s right! So you might have a red cherry tomato and a yellow tomato, and cross them and get a yellow cherry tomato. I mean that’s just a very simplified version. Usually it’s nowhere near that simple. So that’s one thing. We’ll tip our hats to plain old hybridization. What happened is that we realized that in the 20’s and 30’s that we could breed plants, and then create something very new like watermelon that was shippable, or a squash, or let’s say a tomato that was resistant to fusarium wilt. Those seeds were mainly bred in laboratories and were owned by corporations. The first hybrid seeds were introduced in 1932. I think that I am remembering that correctly. So in this case, I think I’ll go one step further and say that I don’t have anything, really, against these hybrids except that I believe that seeds should be in the public commons. What was the third term? The third term was genetic modification, right?
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, yes.
Janisse Ray: And that simply is even sped up plant breeding in which corporate multinationals and few in general who own this technology are shooting genes from another entire kingdom of life into plant tissue in order to create, sometimes very crazy seed creations. Soybeans that are resistant to Roundup spray created by the company that sells the Roundup so that you can, well in the past you would have mechanically harrowed your field or if you were a chemical sprayer, you would have sprayed Roundup on your field. Then you would have planted the soybeans, and you wouldn’t have been able to spray anymore because had you sprayed an herbicide for weeds, you would have killed the soybeans that you just planted. But with Roundup Ready Soybeans, which is their name, they are basically wearing a rain coat that protects them from this herbicide and you can spray indefinitely.
Caryn Hartglass: And put all that poison into the earth and get it into the water system. Yeah. Let’s go back to hybridization for a minute. So they are speeding up the hybridization. They are just speeding up a process of putting the pollen from one plant onto another so it kind of fertilizes one seed. And if the plants are up for it, then they may join together and create a new plant, but if they are not up for it, then it won’t work.
Janisse Ray: Well, you’re going to get something back unless you get sterile seeds. In general you’ll get something back. The problem with hybridization, in our garden, let’s just say we let all of our squash run wild. We plant them all at the same time, they are all blooming together, and a pumpkin crosses with a zucchini. You are going to possibly get back any of the ancestral strains that were used in the breeding of either of those. So you might get back a zucchini that’s dotted with orange spots, but tastes like a gourd, and is inedible. It’s a little more of an intricate process then just letting things run wild and see what happens.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay, so what I was confused about is there are some hybrid seeds that companies sell to make a certain kind of plant. The seeds that the plant makes, you can’t use because they don’t want you to or it won’t give you the plant that you want. I was wondering how did they manufacture these hybrid seeds over and over to make the same plant.
Janisse Ray: Perfect question. They have basically a recipe in mind. Some scientist, a plant breeder, has already figured out that this cross and this cross make this. And so there are fields and fields around the world in which somebody or many many people are going out and cross pollinating these two things in order to make hybrid seeds. Most of this doesn’t take place in the United States. A lot of seeds are crossed in Israel and many other places. So let’s just say I’m going to grow a butternut squash that has been hybridized to do what spaghetti squash does which is string off. The butternut squash is orange, but it has strings. It’s a hybrid. So I cook the squash and save the seeds, dry them out, put them in the refrigerator for next year, and plant those seeds. I am not necessarily going to get back the same thing I planted. I could get back a spaghetti squash. I could get back a gourd. I could get back a plain old Waltham butternut squash. You understand what I’m saying?
Caryn Hartglass: Mmhmm, mmhmm.
Janisse Ray: However, if a plant breeder does his or her job and continues to grow out the plant, you can actually stabilize a line so that it does become an open source seed. Meaning, so I would plant all these seeds. I would save the seed that is most like the thing I planted, and then I would plant those seeds and save the thing most like the plant. You see?
Caryn Hartglass: Mmm, mmhmm.
Janisse Ray: So you’re working backwards really, to get what you wanted. By 7 to 10 generations, you can stabilize this line and then plant those seeds and always get back this orange colored spaghetti squash.
Caryn Hartglass: Right, so you’re ultimately reducing the genetic material in each generation so that it always has the same traits.
Janisse Ray: Yeah, it’s sort of a process in this case of selection pressure.
Caryn Hartglass: Ooh, selection pressure. Okay. There is all this stuff going on with different companies, buying up the seeds, getting control over our food, and it’s scary. What do people do that are living in cities? What should we be doing? Should we all be looking for little plots of land and growing food?
Janisse Ray: You’re asking a very wonderful question and I think it’s the one question that trips people up when they think about this idea because in some ways, the minute we hear about saving seeds we think, “Oh my God I can’t even grow anything, so it’s beyond my control.” In the back of The Seed Underground, I have a list of what you can do and the first thing on the list is eat real food. That is, if you are eating whole foods, you are electing for a farmer somewhere instead of agribusiness to feed you. Beyond that, learn to cook real food.
Caryn Hartglass: These are tall orders for a lot of people, eating real food and cooking their food.
Janisse Ray: Shop at a place where you know the person who grew that food. Talk to that person who’s growing the food. “Are these hybrid seeds?” “Are they open pollinated?” “Do you save seeds?” ”When I eat this pumpkin should I save the seeds for you?” Beyond that, there are plenty of things you can do as a seed activist. There are villages and towns in this country that are passing resolutions. There are entire states trying to pass resolutions to prohibit GMO seeds, and GMO foods, or to require labeling of GMO foods. It goes on and on and on.
Caryn Hartglass: I like how in the book you write that the logical next step for local food movement is to establish locally grown seeds, although I think you might have been quoting somebody when you wrote that. There are a lot of scientists who will say certain seeds can only be grown in a certain location. What I am understanding is that seeds are so smart that some of them learn to adapt to their environment. I’m thinking of all this technology that are going in to help other countries grow their food, make things drought tolerant, or whatever. We know that a lot of it is a lot of hype in order to get control of the food supply. Seeds, with a little help, can figure this out on their own.
Janisse Ray: Within reason.
Caryn Hartglass: Within reason, sure.
Janisse Ray: You know. Let’s just say where you are in New York, you’re never going to be able to grow papayas.
Caryn Hartglass: No! I almost did actually. I used to compost on my terrace in Queens. I put a lot of different seeds in there and a papaya plant grew out of my compost. I never got fruit from it but it did start growing.
Janisse Ray: I think the point that you’re making is that overtime, as we plant and save, and plant and save, yes, plants do adapt to microclimates and to entire climates. So yes, you have a great point.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes. I know that there are a lot of places that have a lot of difficulty and need a lot of help in lots of different things. Adaptable seeds are not the only thing that’s going to be necessary to help them. But seeds do adapt and in this time of crazy climate change, it’s going to be interesting to see how our seeds adapt to the change and the climates that the seeds are used to growing in.
Janisse Ray: It brings us back to this idea of resiliency that your guest earlier talked about. I think seeds are a huge part of that. Just making sure that we are protecting our seed supplies, keeping seeds in the commons. I think a great way to control the food supplies across the globe is to control seeds. Then, not just protecting the seed supply, but also planting them and letting our foodstuffs evolve. That’s probably too scientific a word for what I am saying. Letting them adapt.
Caryn Hartglass: There are so many things that I want to talk about. I just want to bring up one more thing because we are out of time. You mentioned Martin Diffley, a Minnesota organic farmer from Gardens of Eagan. I read his wife’s book Organic Farm Works, which was another lovely book about organic farming and all the trials and tribulations that people have to go through just to plant and grow real food. This was about someone, you said, Tracey, who is working with a field corn he is developing with Martin Diffley. Corn is a fascinating food, the fact that it doesn’t look anything like what its original ancestor looked like and how it has come to be the food that it is today. And then again how we have gone several levels beyond being corn and now we have genetically modified corn that’s like taking over the planet. I’d like to say that every food has its own story and corn certainly has its own fascinating story.
Janisse Ray: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: So what I want to say is, I said it at the beginning, this is a lovely book. For people who have not gotten their Christmas gifts yet this would be a great little stocking stuffer or under the tree because it is important and is also beautiful reading. You know this Janisse, but the book came out last year, 2012. I’m just kind of curious as to what happened since you wrote that book.
Janisse Ray: What’s happened with me personally?
Caryn Hartglass: You and seeds, and the reaction to it, and the information that people are getting.
Janisse Ray: Well, I think what is happening is what was already happening. Communities across the world are really rising up to understand seeds. It may be a new lending library in Valdosta, Georgia, or people getting together to do more and more seed swaps. It’s really an amazing movement. What I see in this year is definitely more interest in seeds and just more concern that we don’t lose the gift of food that civilization has been given.
Caryn Hartglass: Okay. Amen to that. Thank you Janisse for joining me today on, It’s All About Food.
Janisse Ray: Thank you so much Caryn and have a wonderful, wonderful set of holidays.
Caryn Hartglass: Thank you, you too! Be well.
Janisse Ray: Okay, bye.
Caryn Hartglass: All right, I am Caryn Hartglass and you are listening to It’s All About Food. Let’s take a very quick break and then we will be back with Dr. Tom Campbell who is the Executive Director of Nutrition Studies.
Transcribed by Jo Villanueva, 5/6/2014 and edited by Johanna Bronner, 6/17/2014