LittleField Notes: Seed Irony
by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
Seeds are little miracles of potential, waiting as if in cryogenic suspension until the moment when the collected influences of water, soil temperature and light are aligned just so; then begins the journey from seed, to leaf, to flower, to fruit and back to seed again.
They say to preserve them properly, seeds should be kept in a cool, dark place in a sealed, dry container. Yet the circumstances under which seeds in a natural environment store themselves (so to speak) seem so far from ideal, that it’s a wonder plants manage to reproduce at all. But any gardener knows that plants not only manage to reproduce, they excel at it. Who hasn’t thrown a giant squash into the compost heap in the fall only to see some mystery squash growing there (or someplace where the compost was spread) the next summer? It never ceases to amaze me that a tomato can fall off the vine in August, lay pulverized and rotting on the ground, be exposed to three season’s worth of rains and frosts and perhaps even (like this year) an early hot spell — and still germinate. Come spring, baby plants from last years crops will be seen growing hither and thither all by themselves, without the slightest help or encouragement from me. Just this week I’ve noted the sprouts of mangels, cilantro, dill and tomatoes, all from last year’s flowering plants, seeds of which I neither harvested, threshed, winnowed, stored nor planted. And yet there they are, carving out a nice home for themselves in a quiet corner of the garden, the wrong corner of course, since I try to practice decent crop rotations by not planting the same thing in the same plot year after year. And though it pains me, these little volunteer progeny must be hoed out, for at this point they are little better than ordinary weeds.
Why then, when left to their own devices are seeds so hardy, yet become so fragile under our care? I know that if I accidentally left a seed packet out in a bucket for even a couple of hours and a surprise rain shower sprinkled them I’d be lucky to get 15% germination. I would cuss myself for my carelessness and maybe have to replant, or risk suffering a poor, thin crop. There are two sets of rules at play here: one for us, and one for Nature. Our rules are strict and narrowly defined, while Nature’s are broad and flexible. Mother Nature does her work remarkably well. Our best efforts are but feeble attempts at imitation that at times seem more like mockery.
Time was a farmer wouldn’t have been seen without a practical hat on his head, “a good lid,” as my Dad likes to say. In the summer it would likely have been a wide brimmed straw hat providing shade from the hot summer sun. When dipped in the water trough before going back to the field it functioned like a human radiator, cooling through evaporation. In the winter he would don a good wool cap, perhaps with earflaps that could be folded up when his labors produced an internal warmth exceeding that of the chill in the air. For in-between seasons, on cooler summer days, and certainly for going to town, a good felt hat would answer, always a good bet for both sun and rain and general purpose wear. Or perhaps in certain conditions, especially cool, but not cold weather, the classic Irish wool flat cap or fisherman’s cap would answer. I find this to be a particularly appropriate type of hat for our cloudy cool maritime climate (not unlike Ireland) on days when there is neither steady rain nor blazing sun.
Before automobiles, garages and office jobs were invented, people used to work out in the elements more than they do nowadays. Perhaps that is why everyone, men especially, used to wear hats when outdoors. It is said of my wife’s grand-father that he would not step out onto the porch to get the paper without first putting on his hat.
It is true that most farmers still wear hats, but the modern hat of choice defies all logic. The ubiquitous mesh ball cap with the John Deere logo, or the logo of the local feed mill has become standard issue. It’s as if you took all the design elements and materials that are most functional, did away with them, and instead chose an impractical design utilizing impractical materials. To do away with straw, felt and wool and replace it with plastic and polyester, or even cheap cotton and eliminate three quarters of the brim just doesn’t make sense. I know because I myself have stood in a ball cap while the rain dribbled miserably down my neck. I’ve also nursed sunburned ears and neck because I lacked proper headwear. I’ve laughed heartily (inwardly, mind you) at some dude standing there shading his eyes from intense summer sun with his cap on backwards, the brim 180 degrees from useful. But never mind — he was COOL! I guess nowadays it’s Non-function follows form, or form at all costs.
I suppose enclosed, air-conditioned cabs on large tractors, and the elimination of diversity and livestock from most farms has only hastened the shift away from brimmed hats. If this seems like too big a leap in logic, just compare the differing labor requirements of the small, diversified farm with those of the large mono- culture farm and you can easily see the connection. Fixing fence, hoeing corn, checking cows, and picking kale and cucumbers in all weather and in all seasons requires direct contact with the elements, dictating the need for a proper hat. Commodity crop farming, on the other hand, has become largely an indoor activity, making what you put on your head much less important. In fact, a skullcap would be perfectly adequate headgear for sitting for days on end in a sealed, air- conditioned tractor cab planting 5,000 acres of soybeans. Now imagine taking the cream cans five miles to town in the buckboard through a steady rain with a mesh feed store hat on your head. You’d only do that once!