Basic Books, 2015
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
Just as William Blake talked about seeing the world in a grain of sand, Thor Hanson is able to see the whole world in a seed. And through his writing, he opens that world to us.
From the tiniest, almost invisible seed of an epiphytic orchid to the forty-pound coco de mer, seeds come in all shapes and sizes and colours and employ an amazing diversity of methods for dispersing themselves and finding their way to somewhere they can germinate and grow. On that search and that settlement of seed into soil, now rests the whole of life on land—our own human lives included.
Our history, too, is entwined with theirs. They emerged into a world that had been dominated for a hundred million years by other forms of plant reproduction, such as spores, and gradually, they took over. If they had not, everything might be quite different now. As Hanson says: Some experts believe that Homo sapiens might never have evolved at all in a world that lacked seeds.
The more one knows about seeds, the more miraculous they seem to be. And Hanson tells their story extremely well. The Triumph of Seeds is so full of information, both scientific and historical and so comprehensive that it must surely be the definitive book on its subject. Not only that, but I also found it an easy, entertaining and fascinating read, spiced as it is with anecdotes and passages of colourful description. Until I picked it up I had no idea there was so much to say about seeds. Like most of us, I had always taken them for granted.
Taking seeds for granted is something we do at our peril. In these dangerous days, with corporate entities greedy to consolidate their power by gaining total control of the world’s food supply, if we are going to safeguard the seeds that have sustained us—and all other creatures—for so many millennia, we have not only to be ever watchful but also well-informed. We need to understand the significance of seeds to our survival and to the survival of our planet’s intricate and interdependent ecosystems. It behoves us to know about seeds—and about their more ancient cousins the spores—and how they are produced and dispersed, how they germinate, and how they give birth to plants and trees, fruit and grain. It is good for us to remember all the ways in which they enable us to eat and thrive and it is our sacred duty to protect them and to assist them in their many tasks of enabling and maintaining life on Earth.
Because, as Hanson reminds us: They transcend that imaginary boundary we erect between the natural world and the human world, appearing so regularly in our lives, in so many forms, that we hardly recognize how utterly dependent we are upon them. Telling their story reminds us of our fundamental connections to nature, to plants, animals, soils, seasons, and the process of evolution itself. And in an age where, for the first time, more than half the human population lives in cities, reaffirming those links has never been more important.