Saving seeds

Bags of seeds by RawpixelThere are legendary people and places in the drive to save seed diversity, and then there’s the legend. Nikolai Vavilov was a Russian plant geneticist who was active in the 1920s and 30s. Urbane and erudite, full of charm and curiosity, Vavilov made friends with everyone from local farmers to government officials. On a quest to prevent the periodic devastating famines that had plagued Russia for centuries, he traveled the world, collecting seeds. The seed bank that now bears his name grew to 400,000 seeds as a result of his vision and energy. 

A fascinating aspect of our agricultural history is that planting seeds to grow food happened in several disconnected areas 8,000 to 12,000 years ago. Like an evolutionary radiation, it was a sudden burst of activity across widely separated groups of humans. It was Vavilov’s genius to recognize the importance of discovering these cradles of cultivation. He was an avid explorer, with a love for the endless fieldwork his quests entailed, and adept at picking up languages and dialects. He rightly guessed that the areas where food plant species first flourished would be deep repositories of genetic diversity. His five areas were China, Ethiopia, the Andes region of Central America, the Mediterranean, and central Asia. Mountainous regions are particularly lush with biodiversity because they contain so many different ecosystems, each with their own genetic variants. 

His life ended tragically. Once the highly respected leader of Soviet agricultural science, he ended up in Stalin’s gulag for promoting the ‘bourgeois science’ of evolution and for the ‘cosmopolitanism’ of his international connections. There, Vavilov died of the starvation he spent his life trying to prevent.

But even Stalin knew not to destroy his seed bank. It survived the 900-day German siege of Leningrad in World War II because Vavilov’s employees locked themselves in the building. Despite having no heat or running water, and dying of starvation themselves, the survivors protected the seeds until the siege was over. That same deep understanding and love for what seeds bring us from their long genetic history inspire all kinds of seed activism today. 

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Creative Commons

Entrance to Svalbard Seed Bank. Photo by Einar Jorgen Haraldseid via Wikimedia Commons

There are the ‘doomsday’ seed banks like Svalbard in Norway, the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Colorado, and the Millennium Seedbank in England. The United Nations has nine banks around the world. Many countries store their heritage seeds in national vaults. Hundreds of smaller banks often hold seeds of less commercially important plants. Their genes may prove crucial to the continuing vitality of agriculture, and thus to our existence as a species. Innumerable seed saving groups and exchanges keep heirloom seeds in circulation. Seed libraries allow you to check out seeds in spring and return in the fall with seeds from your harvest. 

Heroes are still with us, like the Iraqis who rescued seeds from an important Abu Ghraib bank before the building was destroyed by a bomb. The seeds, with genes from the beginning of agriculture, were taken to one of the United Nations banks, near Aleppo, in Syria. Later, as the Syrian war intensified, they were packed again and driven to Lebanon on the last open road. Some have now made it to Svalbard.

Organizations large and small have their own legends, like Andrew Kimbrell, founder and executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Feisty and inexhaustible, Kimbrell spends his life taking corporations and government agencies to court to protect food, farmers, consumers, and the planet. We owe the fact that DNA itself cannot be patented to litigation by the Center for Food Safety. It was their series of lawsuits and collaborative campaigns that prevented the USDA from watering down organic standards. Last year they added a Global Seed Network to their existing Save Our Seeds program. The network provides a platform to connect smaller groups and individuals.

Citrus fruit colors by Edgar Castrejon

Nature loves diversity. Photo by Edgar Castrejon via Unsplash

Navdanya (‘Nine seeds’) was founded in India by another legend, Vandana Shiva, a force of nature and environmental warrior worldwide. Navdanya’s mission is to “protect the diversity and integrity of living resources – especially native seed.”  Dedicated to community resilience and social justice, Navdanya works locally throughout India. In the past twenty years, nine million farmers have been trained in sustainable farming and seed sovereignty. They have established 122 seed banks, and their own farm is a teaching center. Crucially, they are in the forefront on issues of biopiracy. International treaties guarantee national sovereignty over genetic resources. But it’s a constant, underfunded battle to protect native seeds and plants from corporate predators.

Once a seed has been patented it can no longer be used to create other crop varieties. To reduce competition for their genetically modified products corporations buy seed companies to take traditional seeds off the market. Modeled on the open source software movement, the Open Source Seed Initiative was created to “free the seed.” Seed growing and breeding partners commit to keeping OSSI-pledged seeds, their derivatives, and information about them available to all.

Vavilov’s solution to famine lay in seed diversity, which yields crop diversity. Farmers need a deep pool of traits to choose from. Then, as conditions change, they and their crops can adapt. At the best of times, there are changes in populations of beneficial and harmful insects. New plant diseases evolve. Rainfall and temperature vary. But global warming has made diversity a worldwide challenge. Warmer, drier climate not only makes drought more likely but brings changes in insect populations and diseases. Every change ripples through the ecosystem.

Vietnam market by Stephan Valentin

Vietnam market. Photo by Stéphan Valentin via Unsplash

The nature of Nature is variety. There are 400,000 species of beetles! But evolution takes time and needs available traits to work with. Right now we’re creating a dangerous bottleneck in the diversity of food species because corporate control has restricted access to 90% of our crop seeds. Seeds need to be planted and harvested to keep the gene lines mingling and flourishing, reacting to the conditions they’re grown in.  Limiting the gene pool makes no sense outside of corporate boardrooms. Local government agents urged farmers in Mexico’s Chihuahuan highlands to switch from their native corn to a white variety that produces more ears with larger seeds. But the white corn lacks the anthocyanins that turn the native corn blue. Not only do those polyphenols make the blue corn more nutritious, but they evolved to protect the seedlings from cold in that mountainous area. 

By the time we figure out these mistakes — and they are worldwide — we could lose precious genetic information forever. Seed banks are not the answer. They offer protection against catastrophic loss, but they are vulnerable. Svalbard was put inside a mountain in the Arctic so the permafrost would keep the seeds cold and prevent flooding. But the permafrost is melting, and water got to the door in 2017. Even if we could keep every seed in every bank safe, they exist in suspended animation. They’re kept viable, but the viability they inherited may not suit the growing conditions they meet in the future. Seeds in circulation and actively growing will adapt as circumstances change. 

Array of tomato varieties by Reseal Apacionado

Photo by Rezel Apacionado via Unsplash

The venerable Seed Savers Exchange is ensuring just that. Started in 1975 by Kent and Diane Ott Whealy, the organization has preserved over 25,000 heirloom seeds. SSE runs the largest non-government seed bank in the world and also stores seeds at Svalbard. But their mission is to continually grow out seeds on an 890-acre farm to keep plant genes ever renewing and mingling. Through what they call participatory preservation, gardeners worldwide grow with them, adapting plants to a wide variety of conditions. The resulting seeds are shared with Seed Savers and offered on the site’s Seed Exchange. 

The Italian agronomist Salvatore Ceccarelli is creating a similar movement with farmers: participatory plant breeding. He spent most of his career in the Mideast, working with cereal grain farmers in those dry conditions. When he had to leave during the Syrian war, he brought seeds with him to Italy to develop grains suitable for global warming. He works with farmers collectively to breed seeds that work best not only for their local environment but for all grain growing areas in a drier world.

Photo by Alfred Schrock via Unsplash

Genetic diversity is extremely subtle. Look at the fascinating array of our fellow humans. All those variations come from less than one percent of our genes. For the rest, we’re basically identical. So keeping a gene line pure while at the same time fostering its adaptive abilities is a delicate task. One that Native Seeds/Search has taken on. Their specialty is indigenous seeds of the southwest United States and northwest Mexico. They have a small bank and farm to protect, regenerate and supply 1900 seeds. Most are for food but some are from plants used for dyes, medicines, and shelter. Native Seeds’ mission is to keep the heritage seeds of local tribes pure and flourishing in the face of threats to their culture, ecology, and traditional farming practices.

Ultimately, all seed saving is cultural. Crop seeds evolved in intimate relation to the peoples who planted them. Whether saving Navaho corn, Syrian wheat, or Ethiopian teff, we are preserving the history of a region. It’s the story of our ancestors and their patient labor over the last 12,000 years. Blessedly, there are millions of seed savers all over the world. From card tables at farmers markets, backyard sheds, community exchanges, banks large and small, our heritage seeds are moving, growing, adapting. Will this stem the corporate juggernaut? Only by growing the movement not just to save seeds, but to grow community empowerment and activism. Corporate profits depend on our not understanding what’s happening to our inheritance.

By saving seeds we are keeping alive millions and millions of conversations. Between the soil and the seed, the farmer and the land, the earth and its beings. If we lose this priceless genetic history, we’re not only losing the brilliance of seeds but the ancestral genius that worked with them over millennia to create the foods we love and rely on. Men and women who noticed that this seed yielded sweeter berries, that one survived late spring frost, this one thrived despite a dry season. Who built on that knowledge, shared it, passed it down to us. Who sat down daily to meals we are still eating amid traditions we still cherish. Through this profound and nourishing legacy seeds become a door into what it means to be human.

Bowl of seeds by Joshua Newton

Photo by Joshua Newton via Unsplash

Photo at top by rawpixel via Unsplash

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The toxic gamble: genetically engineered seeds

Farmer harvesting hay in British Columbia, Canada by Betsey CrawfordThe most public debate on the use of genetically modified seeds concerns their safety: whether they are safe for the environment and safe for human consumption. These are crucial questions, arguably the most important. But they are accompanied by a host of other very important issues: democracy, public versus corporate control, the rights of communities and individuals, the control of the food supply, the future of plant genetics, the future itself. Issues of culture, sovereignty, heritage, and spirit are involved. Who we are as inhabitants of our mother planet underlies all these issues.

Genetic manipulations can sound promising: rice with beta-carotene to prevent blindness in vitamin A starved children. Spinach that survives frost. Cotton and potatoes that resist their most pernicious beetle pests. Farming is hard and risky. Anything that makes it easier and more predictable is surely worth a look. Drought resistant wheat? Great idea! Especially in the face of global warming.

It was such a great idea that our ancestors started developing drought-tolerant wheat 10,000 years ago. Cereal grain cultivation originated in the middle east, where there was plenty of reason to foster plants that naturally weathered dry seasons. Grasses are wind pollinated, so the different species could mix easily, blending genes, creating desirable traits that were then chosen, grown, and treasured. Some of these ancient grains are in use around the world today, including in our own midwest, helping farmers cope with the effects of warmer, drier climate.

Teosinte, the ancestor of corn, is pictured with its modern progeny. Photos by Matt Levin and CSKK

Teosinte photo by Matt Lavin; corn photo by CSKK. Both via Flickr/Creative Commons

The choosing and mixing of beneficial traits in plants of all kinds brought us most of the food seeds that we had 100 years ago. Farmers who never heard the words genetics or evolution nevertheless were part of those processes. We know from genetic analysis that corn developed from an unassuming grass, teosinte, when we began planting it nine thousand years ago. Slowly and carefully, operating on knowledge acquired from intimacy with seeds and plants, locale and weather, farmers developed plants with the prominent cobs and seeds that became a staple food of what is now North and South America. The other two staples — beans and squash — were developed with the same patient wisdom.

The indigenous people of the Americas planted their three sisters together, starting with a few corn seeds set into a mound of soil. The corn stalks created a pole for the bean vines to climb. Beans are in the legume family, which pulls the crucial nutrient nitrogen from the air into the soil. The large squash leaves shaded the ground, discouraging weeds, conserving water and preventing the sun from baking the soil. Coastal tribes planted a fish in each mound for fertilizer. 

A bowl of jewel-like beans from seedambassadors.org

Photo from Seed Ambassadors

One hundred years ago, after thousands of years of such careful nurture and thoughtful husbandry, there were 307 varieties of commercially available corn seeds. As of the last count in 1983, there were twelve. Monsanto is everyone’s culprit, with good reason, but they didn’t begin it, and they’re not alone. Early in the twentieth-century corporations realized that there was money to be made in creating seeds that had to be bought anew each year, instead of the ancient practice of collecting them at harvest. This led to F1 hybrids, which dominated farm staples such as corn, sugar beets and vegetables. F1 hybrids are genetic crosses designed to use the desirable dominant traits of each parent. However, in the next generation recessive genes can activate, and so the crop is less predictable and likely weaker. 

So, farmers purchased new seeds every year, on the surface a reasonable tradeoff for a reliably hardy crop. But only reasonable if they had a choice, which diminished rapidly. The hybrid breeders didn’t want competition from traditional seeds, so they began to buy up seed companies, something that has accelerated in the last twenty years. The three major chemical corporations heavily involved in GMO seeds have bought 20,000 seed companies among them. In addition, Monsanto is notorious for going into traditional farming regions and buying stored seeds from farmers as they introduce their altered seeds. By refusing to sell the traditional seeds they now own, corporations force farmers to buy their genetically engineered products.

Wheat field in South Dakota by Betsey Crawford

Wheat field in South Dakota

When they want to convince the public of the safety of GMO foods, genetic modifiers say that their work is a continuation and sophistication of the process of hybridization that has been in place since farming began. But all previous combinations, including the F1 hybrids, combined genes of the same or closely related species, using the methods of pollination the plants had used for millions of years. The insertion of flounder and trout genes in tomatoes and spinach, along with viral catalysts and a bacterial signature to identify the corporate owner, is entirely new. Which is exactly what those same modifiers say when they apply for patents.

In 1980 the United State Supreme Court ruled that life forms could be patented. This gives Monsanto and other companies the right to alter a single gene in a seed, claim the patent, and sue anyone who uses that seed for intellectual property theft, even if the use of that seed is unsought and unwanted. There are many examples of farmers whose crops were wind pollinated by nearby GMO seeds and ended up being sued for damages. In addition, and literally caught in the crosswinds, organic farmers can lose tens of thousands of dollars of value when their crops are contaminated.

Given its 117 year history of producing deadly poisons — DDT, Agent Orange, PCBs — and creating endless toxic sites, there is apparently no amount of damage that Monsanto is unwilling to do. It has also, ever since helping make bombs in both world wars, had close ties to the U.S. government. In every administration from Reagan through Trump, Monsanto lawyers and executives have held positions in the FDA, the USDA, and the Supreme Court. Next to the corporations, the U.S. government is the biggest booster of GMO crops, even to the point, during famines, of forcing supplies of GMO grain on African countries that don’t want them.

Corn field in western Kansas by Betsey CrawfordI can’t know for sure how the farmer of the field above treats his land. But the state of the soil — dry, sandy, colorless — suggests that he first drenched the ground with biocides to kill the microbial life. Then another biocide to arm the seeds and seedlings against insects whose predators may well have been killed in the first round. Since there are no weeds sprouting between the corn stalks, he likely applied another biocide, probably glyphosate, to kill them. This is the chemical in Monsanto’s Round Up. Handily, Monsanto’s Round Up Ready seeds are bred to grow into plants that aren’t killed by glyphosate. After seeding the farmer can keep spraying Round Up all season. To feed the plants growing in this sterile soil, repeated applications of petroleum-based fertilizer can be added to the list.

If this were a potato field, he would have followed the same path, adding fungicides, but instead used the eyes of potatoes with the inserted genes of Bacillus thuringensis, or BT. Eating the leaves would then be lethal to the notorious potato beetle. These thrive in monocultures of the potato bred, for example, to provide perfect french fries at McDonald’s. This leaves us with sterile soil, sick pollinators, poisons in the air and water, eating a potato that is, under the Environmental Protection Agency’s rules, technically an insecticide.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78.

In 1903 there were 408 varieties of tomatoes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 78. Photo by Immo Wegmann via Unsplash.

Earlier this year Monsanto merged with German chemical giant, Bayer, another company with a grim history. They join two other recent mergers: Dow and Dupont, Syngenta and Chem-China. These are chemical companies foremost, and what they want to sell are chemicals and seeds modified to grow into plants that can sustain repeated barrages of their chemicals. Journalist Mark Shapiro, in his book Seeds of Resistance, quotes a Monsanto executive who describes the ’stacking’ of as many as six different genes into a seed to create resistance to six different pesticides. “We work,” she said blandly, “to uncouple the farm from the environment around it.”

As Shapiro says, this is “a pretty succinct description of the industrial agriculture paradigm…that treats the seed as a foreign entity to be inserted into a chemically reconstituted environment.” It’s also insanity: trying to create life by killing everything around it. A thriving earth means one lively ecological niche after another. A seed and its environment are among the most crucially linked life forms on the planet; they are an ecosystem, intimate bonds that hundreds of millions of years of evolution, of both seed and soil, have created. Every breathing being on the planet has evolved because this relationship evolved first: a soil alive with microbial and fungal life, a brilliant seed, and the plant they produce. 

Soil should be full of life: dark, crumbly, full of decaying plant matter and fungi.

Soil should be full of life: dark and crumbly because it has lots of decaying plant matter, showing signs that fungi are thriving.  Photo by Sam Jotham Sutharson via Unsplash.

Evolution is going to have its way. There are already superweeds that survive Round Up. BT, an important tool used sparingly in organic farming, quickly met its first BT resistant caterpillar in genetically engineered cotton. The companies will invent more chemicals. The organic farmers will be devastated. Thus it isn’t only about safety. There are layers and layers of complications. Pollution, health, farmers’ sovereignty over their own land. The ability to access and trust good science, and the education to understand it. A community’s right to say no to corporate demands. State and federal laws protecting corporations at the expense of those communities.

People assume there have been studies on the safety of GMOs for humans. But there haven’t been. Negative research exists but has been suppressed and ridiculed. The chemical companies say it’s not their business to determine the safety of their products, it’s the Food and Drug Administration’s job. The FDA is peppered with biotech industry insiders. One Monsanto executive went from writing the paper to gain approval for bovine growth hormone to being the FDA appointee who approved it. 

Will there be a safe role for transgenic organisms in medicine and food? We don’t know. It’s being ‘studied’ in real time. We, along with our children and grandchildren, are the long-term epidemiological experiment that may give us the answer. We may not know for generations. The same is true of the environment. There have been recent articles by one-time GMO skeptics who say they are now converts since we’ve been using them since 1994 and they “seem safe.” But twenty-four years doesn’t even register in the scale of human and plant evolution. If every word in this essay represents 500,000 of the one billion years since the first photosynthesizing eukaryotes showed up, homo sapiens’ 200,000-year history would be the last two letters. 

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27.

In 1903 there were 463 varieties of radishes available from seed companies. By 1983 it was 27. Photo by Lance Grandahl via Unsplash.

Monsanto’s slogan is ‘Feeding the World.’ Well-meaning people and organizations believe genetically engineered seeds are the answer to the seemingly intractable problem of hunger, especially as the population explodes to a projected 10 billion people. But recent studies show that the combination of genetically engineered seeds and their companion chemicals actually produce lower yields than traditional methods. In the meantime, debt-burdened farmers the world over are trapped into a cycle of needing chemicals to produce high yields to pay for the chemicals. The companies and their stockholders are the only identifiable beneficiaries. 

People aren’t hungry because there aren’t enough vast agricultural monocultures being showered with poison. They’re hungry because our methods of growing and distributing food leave them out. The farm workers in California’s Central Valley work among the most abundant vegetable and fruit fields in the world. But they can’t afford the products they raise because they’re not paid enough, a worldwide problem.

We know so little, despite our brilliance. We’ve been here such a short time. The seeds we’re risking for the profits of a few people are our elders by hundreds of millions of years. We’re a young and rambunctious species, dazzled by our capabilities. But we have no idea what we don’t know. Too many have lost a once deep understanding that we are embedded in a vast fabric of being. Lost the knowledge, to borrow from Thomas Berry, that the earth is not made of objects, but interconnected subjects full of life, power, and wisdom. To the Mayans, corn was a goddess. Among those who remember such reverence, there’s a growing movement to save seeds. That’s what I will celebrate in the third part of this seed series.

A farm field on Prince Edward Island, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Prince Edward Island, Canada

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The brilliance of seeds

Micro images of seeds by Alexander KlepnevThese gorgeous seeds and their vast number of relations are the foundation of life. Certainly for the plants that grow from them. And for the entire animal kingdom, which is completely dependent on them for food. Herbivores eat their plants and the seeds themselves. Carnivores eat animals that eat plants. We human animals have a special relationship with seeds. First, as eaters. If you had oatmeal or toast for breakfast you ate crushed seeds. Coffee? Ground seeds containing the energizing alkaloid caffeine, which creates a mild addiction we share with bees. Raspberry jam? Fruit containing seeds. Hummus for lunch? Crushed protein-rich seeds from legumes. Walnuts for a mid-afternoon snack? Seeds themselves, packed with nutritious oil. Some chocolate with that? Seeds filled with luscious fat. String beans for dinner? Pods containing ripening seeds. Spicy salsa on the side? That the heat of capsaicin-containing pepper seeds.

Vivid peppers at the San Rafael farmers market, San Rafael, California by Betsey CrawfordOur whole life is one seed after another. But that doesn’t separate us from our non-human kin. What distinguishes us is that we consciously plant them, and the discovery that we could do that changed everything. Once we found out how to create a reliable source of food by cooperating with seeds, we changed from hunter-gatherer nomads to settled communities. We were launched on a revolution we are still living today. Our 10,000-year history with seeds, and what has happened to this most interdependent of relationships in the last hundred years will be part two of this essay. In part one, I want to celebrate their brilliance.

Here are some of the things that seeds know: they know that the twelve hours of daylight in early April in the northern hemisphere means it’s time to germinate, whereas the twelve hours of daylight in late September means it’s time to disperse themselves away from their mother plant. They know it’s the opposite in the southern hemisphere. 

Fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) seeds splitting out of their red pods in Stewart, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

As the ripe pods of fireweed (Chamaenerion angustifolia) split open, they curve away from the center, pulling tiny seeds with them, ready to be airborne.

Having waited in dormancy all winter, metabolism slowed almost to a halt, embryo protected inside a hard shell, they know how to measure the right mix of light, water, and oxygen. They know a passing shower is not the rainy season they’re waiting for. They know the forest they’ve lain dormant in for decades has burned and nutritious ash and volatile organic compounds have been made available, along with enough light to sprout and grow. When a drought ends, or a road is cut through, or a field plowed seeds know to grab their chance in the sun and air, take in water, begin to expand their cells, and wake up their sleepy metabolism.

They know to send out a tiny root that will find its way into the soil by the gravity sensors in its tip. They know their place well enough that many seeds can confidently do this in the fall to get a head start on the next spring’s growth. Many others know to resist the temptation of germinating in warm autumn soils and thus risk the winter freeze. Those wisely wait until spring. Seeds sense where they are, how deeply they are buried, whether the minerals, bacteria, and fungi they need are available. Some seeds wait years, even centuries, for the right moment.

The seeds of grasses are full of energizing starches that provide half the world's calories. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThey know to send out one or two ‘first leaves’, cotyledons, to begin the work of photosynthesis, adding to the nutrients in the seed itself. Long before that they know to take one of the two sperm that makes it into the ovary as a result of pollination and make nutritious food out of it, usually the endosperm. Until photosynthesis starts, that’s what nourishes the embryo and seedling. And us: the endosperm of grains accounts for over 50% of human caloric intake worldwide

In the long process of evolution, they have created a variety of endosperms and related ways to nourish themselves. Fat-filled avocado seeds have plenty of food for the slow time it takes them to start photosynthesizing in their native forests. The starchy seeds of grains and grasses give them the quick energy they need to take off in any open, sunny spot. Protein-rich nuts drive the long lead time it takes to launch a tree, and promise nourishment to the animals who handily spread them around and then forget where they put them. 

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to take off by Betsey Crawford

The wonderfully fluffy and prolific seeds of common mllkweed (Asclepias syriaca)

They’ve worked out arrangements with pollinators and predators. Hard shells protect against rodents eating too quickly. They carry the heavy nuts — and often bury them — away from the mother plant, enabling young plants to better establish themselves. Seeds create alkaloids like piperine in black pepper, terpenes in citrus fruits, capsaicin in hot peppers to make themselves too unpleasant to eat. Then they work out further deals. Birds, who don’t mind the heat of capsaicin, but whose digestive systems are slowed down by it, thus carry the seeds farther abroad, handily depositing them in a small package of fertilizer.

After a summer of ripening, they take off on wings, feathery filaments, parachutes. They hitch a ride on animals, including humans. They drop at the feet of their parents to form colonies. The pods of lupines and other legumes pop open and shoot seeds away from the mother plant. Seeds can ride ocean currents for thousands of miles to establish themselves on far-off lands. Many know to ripen alongside the flesh they are encased in, which changes from protective bitterness to such sweetness that more and more dispersers are lured to them. Birds, bats, bears, monkeys happily spread apples, cherries, peaches, blueberries far and wide. Humans take fruit seeds and plant them in orchards. Dispersal to a good place for eventual germination is crucial to the survival and evolution of a species. Seeds know how to enlist the help they need, even from the tiniest creatures.

An ant carries seeds in the Anza Borrego Desert in photo by Betsey CrawfordThis varied and amazing wisdom has inspired 90% of plants to evolve the use of these protective, easily dispersed packages of nutrition, embryo, and intelligence to ensure the viability of the next generation. Of those, 80% are angiosperms, from the Greek for ‘seeds in a receptacle.’ The remaining seed producers are gymnosperms (‘naked seeds’) which predate angiosperms by 160 million years. They lack the protective seed coat of the angiosperms, important protection during dormancy. However, many of the gymnosperms, including all of the conifers, have evolved cones as a way to protect their seeds. 

White spruce (Picea blanca) cones protect their seeds. Photo by Betsey CrawfordGymnosperms, among our most ancient plants, are far less diverse than the angiosperms. Try parking your car near a pine grove on a windy spring day. Pines are pollinated by very fine, yellow pollen carried by the wind in fluffy clouds. Many angiosperms, especially grasses, rely on wind pollination, and it works wonderfully. But it’s a scattershot approach to reaching the precise spot you want fertilized, as you’ll see when you get back to your now yellow car. By tucking the egg deeply into the protection of the ovary, angiosperms created conditions for a multitude of goal-oriented pollinators: bees, butterflies, beetles, bats, moths, flies among them. This led to competition for the attention of these creatures, which in turn evolved into a large variety of shapes, petals, sizes, colors, scents, seeds themselves. 

The underside of a fern dotted heavily with spores. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Clusters of ripening spores on the underside of a fern leaf.

This explosion of diversity is possible because seeds efficiently combine the genes of two parents. Ferns mix them, too, via spores. But they use an ancient process so cumbersome that ferns are basically the same plant they were 180 million years ago. Seeds allow for evolution itself: the easy and continual mixing of the gene pool creates an endless array of subtle variations that allow plants to adapt to changes in the landscape, in pollinators, in temperature, in pests. Combining parental genes allows one species of wheat to become more drought tolerant than another, a flower to form purple petals from pink, a potato to better resist fungus.

How these multitalented beings do all this remains full of mysteries, though we have clues. Can seeds see light? Perhaps not the way we can, but they definitely see light and judge its strength and direction. Like us, they possess sensors and chemicals to allow this skill. Phytochrome enables seeds to register light energy, or the lack of it, at the red and far-red end of the spectrum. They judge the season by the length of the night, yet know if darkness comes from overhanging foliage because light filtering through green leaves switches from red to far red. Seeds also rely on knowing the temperature and moisture suitable for their species to judge when it’s time for the seedling to emerge. At that point, phytochrome switches gears, fostering growth and the increasing complexity of the emerging plant. 

The seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) bring to break off from their stalk. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Seeds of foxtail grass (Hordeum jubatum) break away from their stalk.

Are seeds conscious? Not, so far as we know, the way we are, but they are keenly aware of and responsive to their surroundings. They make choices and decisions. One can say it’s a chemically-mediated response to stimuli, but that’s how our brains work, too. I doubt the seeds lying in wait in the brown hills surrounding me are ruing the exciting days of last spring, or planning for the coming rainy season. That kind of consciousness seems to be our unenviable lot. Instead, they have a way of holding the spring that launched them and trusting the rains to come that I would love to emulate.

Those dry, dozing seeds have their own type of awareness. More important, they, like all of creation, hold the consciousness of the whole. The same wildly creative, ardent energy that brought the universe into being flows through every seed, every plant it forms, every creature it nourishes. It flows through us as we spend our days sipping and munching them, or planting a flower garden, or sowing corn to be sure we can feed our families.

Western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) seeds ready to drop to the ground. Photo by Betsey Crawford

The heavy seeds of western columbine (Aquilegia occidentals) will fall close to home.

As long as we treasure them, does it matter whether we think seeds have any kind of consciousness? The trouble is, too few people are treasuring them. By not regarding them as the vibrant, sacred trust that millions of years of cosmic evolution have bequeathed us, we’ve lost 90% of their vast diversity in the last hundred years. We’re stopping evolution in its tracks. That’s not just losing access to nourishment, which is devastating enough. It’s losing culture, history, connection, spirit. Far from treasuring them, we have given control of seeds to corporations whose only mission is profit at any cost. And the cost is unbearable.

Currently, seeds are treated as a commodity to be bought, traded, used, changed, profited from. That mindset will be explored in the second part of this series. If, instead, more and more of us see ourselves sharing with seeds the same co-evolved energy and wisdom that have made us partners for millennia, we will help prevent their destruction. There are many passionate people on this journey. Their hope and work will inspire part three of this essay.
Seeds in autumn in Meadows in the Sky in Revelstoke National Park, Revelstoke, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

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[Top photo: Micro images of seeds. Photo by Alexander Klepnev via Creative Commons]

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Centration: the universe and the doughnut

 

The power of centration: the Whirlpool Galaxy, the Hubble Heritage Team, N. Scoville (Caltech)

The universe seldom operates in straight lines; certainly not for long, and only in details. A twig may be straight for an inch or so before hitting a node and angling off on another line. But the whole bush is likely to be a glorious circling of twigs, leaves, and flowers. Tree trunks can be beautifully tall and straight, but they radiate out into branches, twigs, leaves, needles. A flower stem may make a delicate line, but it, too, radiates leaves and ends with gatherings of round, tubular, or conical flowers, each creating its own center.

From birth, the cosmos has been turning in on itself, creating these centers: the early clustering of the original elements into stars. The swirling arms of galaxies gathering them together, then continuing to create more centers as new stars formed. The dust of the universe collecting itself into planets around those stars, and they, in turn, pulling matter into moons and rings. Centered planets within centered solar systems within centered galaxies. Without these gravitational formations, the earliest matter of the universe would have floated off into infinite space, and we would never have arrived and found a place to stand and contemplate it all.

A cell is an example of the power of centration

Microscopic photo of a skin cell by Torsten Wittmann, University of California, San Francisco via Flickr

There are more: cells are centers, gathering together disparate working elements within an intelligent membrane. They then form into one nexus after another, getting more and more complex until conglomerations of centers — brains, lungs, stomachs — turn slowly into bacteria, algae, plants, fish, animals, birds, us. Water vapor gathers and falls as rain, or as snowy crystalline centers. The currents of the great waters flow in curves around the globe. The winds do the same, sometimes sweeping into great storms, with whirling water and wind, centers of great intensity.

In his series on the Powers of the Universe, cosmologist Brian Swimme calls this the power of centration. This is the second of my essays exploring what these great energies can teach us about how to move forward to the regenerative future we all desire. ‘The role of the human,’ Brian says, ‘is to enable the creative powers of the universe to proceed in a new and more mutually enhancing way.’ Even our desire for such a way forward, he feels, is a centering around the basic focus of animal life: to nurture ourselves and our young. We do this by gathering into families and communities. ‘The universe is aiming to bring forth…life that will carry life forward.’

The power of centration shows in seashells

Centration is everywhere! Photo by Paul Brennan via Pixabay

Given nature’s minimal interest in lines, it’s intriguing that we humans have, unlike any other species, surrounded ourselves with them, creating a built world of squares and rectangles. This, Brian suggests, extends to our thinking about the entire cosmos: it’s ‘a box with a lot of things in it…and a lot happening.’ The society inside the box has ‘become like a machine, a vast network of interactions focused on its own perpetuation.’ 

One line that we’re particularly attached to is the idea of linear progress. We have created a culture in which our measurement of prosperity is that we create and get more and more. If the more is nutritious food, comfortable shelter, and useful education, then the gain is positive and potentially sustaining. If by more we mean tons of things in larger houses, more cars, vaster shopping centers, then the gain is going to overwhelm the planet. But this is the line we measure in the gold standard of progress: gross national product, or GDP.

The power of centration shows up in the Fibonacci curves at the center of the sunflower

Swirling Fibonacci curves can be found throughout the natural world, showing up vividly in the centers of sunflowers. Photo by Casey Pilley via Pixabay

This linear view of progress is insidious. Thinking that because we have more things we are better, more civilized, more advanced than those with fewer things fosters the idea that some people, species, places are worth less than others, and beyond that, expendable. This attitude underlies the idea that people living in poverty have done something to deserve their state, that species protection is incompatible with human endeavor, that the resources of the planet exist for our use.

I’ve been thinking about all of this because of an economist and firecracker-in-human-form named Kate Raworth, who has written a riveting and delicious book called Doughnut Economics. The shape of her economic model, with its circling double lines of permeable membranes, enfolding a well of conditions for human prosperity, is a perfect example of using the power of centration as we proceed into the 21st century.

A view of the doughnut from Kate Raworth's Doughnut Economics

From Doughnut Economics; image by Christian Guthier

In the ‘hole’ of the doughnut are twelve things that are required for a just and humane presence, living within the bounds of the planet, such as housing, equality, a role in politics, peace, health, food, and water. Falling into the center of this hole means we have a shortfall of these basic necessities. Outside of the doughnut is where we go into overshoot, using up the resources we have faster than they can be replenished, and discarding more than can be absorbed by air, water, or soil. 

Though we’ve largely ignored it in the linear make-use-trash market we have today, the idea of a circular economy isn’t new. This is what Raworth calls the butterfly economy, a cradle to cradle model, where resources used to create goods are recycled back into the same goods, as with modular pieces, recycled into other goods, or repaired. Such ideas have been a touchstone of sustainable thinking for years and are excellent examples of using the power of centration. 

The power of centration is illustrated in Kate Raworth's butterfly economy in Doughnut Economics

From Doughnut Economics; image by Marcia Mihotich

But the doughnut is different. It’s not only an economic model, it’s a place. One where the planet can live comfortably and the thriving of our species doesn’t threaten the flourishing of any others. A circular economy is part of the doughnut, as is building a robust commons. Freeing intellectual rights from overuse of patents on knowledge collectively developed. Looking to nature to learn from its billions of years of experimentation and know-how. Creating cooperative businesses and endeavors. Understanding the utter interdependence of everything on earth. Designing equitable distribution and regeneration into the economy.

The “fundamental question,” Raworth writes, is “what enables human beings to thrive?” What will create “a world in which every person can lead their life with dignity, opportunity and community…within the means of our life-giving planet?” What allows for all humans to prosper, not just those blessed to be in situations that favor them, at the expense of those in less favored circumstances? And what is prosperity? Merely the accumulation of money and things? Or a world where everyone’s basic needs are met by design, not just a few by default?

The power of centration gives prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) centers curving around a central stem. Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie blazing star (Liatris pycnostachya) with centers curving around a central stem. Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Economic growth has proven to be effective for relieving deep poverty. But it’s based on the idea that we can just keep making things forever, with its concomitant mountains of garbage and overuse of earth’s supply of water, clean air, and resources. Even if we could keep this pace with a completely renewable, circular economy, recycling everything, leaving nothing to foul the earth, measuring our wellbeing by GDP “only values what is priced and only delivers to those who can pay.”

If you have asthma from a nearby toxic dump, every visit to the doctor counts toward the GDP and is thus included in ‘progress’. In our current economic thinking, there isn’t a usable measurement for no asthma and no toxic dump. Health and the ability to enjoy your neighborhood literally don’t count. By law, a corporation is responsible for maximizing profit for shareholders, not for creating and maintaining a living, prospering world.

The power of centration delightfully displayed by these curving petals of columbia lilly (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Centration captures one of nature’s few straight lines. Columbia lily (Lilium columbianum) along the road in southern British Columbia

Raworth points out that since the 1970s, the word consumer has replaced the word citizen, losing the far broader values, roles, and responsibilities the latter word invokes. The unpaid work that goes into our households, families, and neighborhoods — the foundations of our ability to thrive in the world — has no recognized worth. The doughnut changes this by “shifting our attention from merely tracking the flow of income to understanding the many distinct sources of wealth— natural, social, human, physical and financial— on which our well-being depends.”

This will require a radically different way of thinking, a different set of values. “Reversing consumerism’s financial and cultural dominance in public and private life is set to be one of the twenty-first century’s most gripping psychological dramas,” Raworth says. Even those of us who wish ardently to live within the means of the planet and want all beings to be able to blossom may well be thrown by the need to recalibrate what we cherish and desire. To decide what we’re willing to live without in order to live with our fellow creatures and the earth we share.

The power of centration: doughnut economics means more community, as in this garden

A community garden in Glendale, California. Photo by Melissa Wall via Flickr

It will be a challenge in our culture, in particular, to subsume the modern version of the mythic rugged individual — the larger-than-life entrepreneur — into the need for communal centering. As Raworth notes, “Suddenly the words ‘neighbours’, ‘community members’, ‘community of nations’ and ‘global citizens’ seem incredibly precious for securing a safe and just economic future.”

The universe itself tells us that our current approach is unsustainable, and guides us forward. For all its long life it’s been gathering information about what works and moving past what doesn’t. It provides us with its incredibly flexible, generative energy, continually centering, gathering elements of itself for the creation of every new being or mode of being. This intelligent, vital force, Brian Swimme says, ‘has been roaring for 13.7 billion years and now it’s roaring into our lives. It’s been shaping the universe all this time, and it’s inviting us into the shaping itself.’

The power of centration: a solar system in the making

A solar system in the making, via NASA

Both of my mentors here, while acknowledging the vast destruction we’ve wrought and how much work there is to do, are excited about our opportunities. Kate Raworth recognizes that a regenerative economy must be supported by regenerative economic design, which “is currently sorely missing. Making it happen calls for rebalancing the roles of the market, the commons and the state. It calls for redefining the purpose of business and the functions of finance.” But, she says, “taking on this redesign task is surely one of the most exciting opportunities for the twenty-first century.” 

She sees many examples, worldwide, of a new, emerging paradigm. The power of centration tells us that these energies can be drawn together and strengthened into nurturing ways of living on and with our planet and our fellow beings. There is a great, sustaining joy in such a task, Brian says, in ‘feeling part of a greater self, rooted in energies that go back to the beginning of time…Feeling the partnership and participation.’ This exhilaration is ‘what the primordial energy of the universe feels like.’

The power of centration is obvious in this siberian aster (Aster sibiricus) along the road in Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Siberian aster (Aster sibiricus) along the road in Alaska

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The season of creation

Celebrating the Season of Creation: western red columbine and seedhead (Aquilegia formosa) Valdez, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

For the past two years, I’ve celebrated September 1, the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation, with a collection of quotes from Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudate Si. It was he who launched the day in 2016, joining a tradition started by the Orthodox Church in 1989. This has grown into the Season of Creation, which extends from September 1, the first day of the Orthodox year, to October 4, the birthday of Francis of Assisi, whose devotion to the wonders of the earth inspired not only Pope Francis’ choice of name, but also the title of his encyclical. Laudate si — Praise be!    are the opening words of each of the verses in Francis’ beautiful Canticle to the Sun.

This particular Season of Creation is jumping. Whether affiliated or not, there are events happening all over the world. Especially here in California, where, in response to the current scene in Washington, Governor Jerry Brown called for a Global Climate Action Summit, to be held in San Francisco from September 12 through 14. The part that Brown himself is involved in includes people from governments, NGOs, and businesses all over the world. By and large, those sessions are closed to the public. All other groups were invited to create events and participate in whatever way they wished.

That’s all Californians needed to hear. On  Tuesday, the day before the summit even starts, there are 77 separate listed events, mostly near San Francisco, not counting ongoing exhibits and the Green Film Festival. On top of listed events, groups are gathering to protest, march, perform ceremony, dance, and make music. Young people and indigenous people want to make the point that those governments and corporations behind the closed doors have, so far, been the creators, not the solvers, of global warming.

Supporting rallies are happening all over the world on September 8, as you can see from this map from The Action Network. New York is having Climate Week NYC from September 24 to 30. There is a conference in Rome in October. My friends at the Pachamama Alliance have created the Stand Up in September campaign, and are hosting special events in the US, South America, Australia, Europe and Japan. Even in your own home, where you can receive an action to take to reverse global warming every day for the month of September by signing up here.

I’ll be part of a Pachamama team teaching a Drawdown workshop starting in September, and will certainly go to some of the events around the summit. For today, I’d like to follow my now three-year-old tradition, and celebrate the beauty we are trying to save and the wisdom we can turn to. This year I’ve interwoven Pope Francis’ words with those from our other prayerful traditions.

Celebrating the Season of Creation: pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

Pronghorn antelope (Antilocapra americana) in the Pawnee National Grasslands

We shall awaken from our dullness and rise vigorously toward justice. If we fall in love with creation deeper and deeper, we will respond to its endangerment with passion.   
(Hildegard of Bingen)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Prairie thistle (Cirsium discolor) with pollinating bee, Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

It is not enough…to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer…convey their message to us. We have no such right.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Because of all the complexities of its tectonic activity and its distance to Sun and Moon and other planets in the solar system, each region of Earth needs to be understood in its own evolutionary terms. Each region’s landforms, waters, climates and evolving communities of life are unique and highly vulnerable to the human societies which reside there, often without this prior understanding to temper the raw force of their technologies.
(Sister Miriam MacGillis in Kosmos) 

Celebrating the Season of Creation: black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stymie) with snow lichen (Flavocentria invalid) in Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Black-footed reindeer lichen (Cladonia stymie) with snow lichen (Flavocentria invalid) in Denali National Park, Alaska

It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: common buckeye (Junonia coenia) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri by Betsey Crawford

Common buckeye (Junonia coenia) Golden Prairie, Golden City, Missouri

However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them. 
(The first of
 the Four Vows of the
Mahajana Bodhisattva)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California by Betsey Crawford

Canyon pea (Lathyrus vestiges) Charmlee Wilderness, Santa Monica Mountains, California

People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child–our own two eyes. All is a miracle.
(Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness) 

 Celebrating the Season of Creation: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) on the Stanley Glacier trail in Kootenay, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) on the Stanley Glacier trail in Kootenay, British Columbia

If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change. 
(Buddha)

Our ancestors have left us a world rich in its natural resources and capable of fulfilling our needs…We are the generation with the awareness of a great danger. We are the ones with the responsibility and the ability to take steps of concrete action before it is too late. 
(Dalai Lama)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: frost aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Frost aster (Aster pilosus) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

We were not meant to be inundated by cement, asphalt, glass and metal, and deprived of physical contact with nature.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin by Betsey Crawford

Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) Curtis Prairie, Madison, Wisconsin

Ahimsa means more than not hurting others, it means not intending to cause harm, physical, mental or spiritual, to any part of nature, for, in the words of Mahavira: ‘You are that which you wish to harm.’
(Jain statement on ecology)

Celebrating the Season of Creation: a hawk in flight in the Pawnee National Grasslands by Betsey Crawford

The Pawnee National Grasslands

There is no animal on the earth, nor any bird that wings its flight, but is a community like you. 
(Qur’an 6: 38)
 

Celebrating the Season of Creation: human and gull footprints on the beach in Kenai, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Footprints on the beach in Kenai, Alaska

It cannot be emphasized enough how everything is interconnected. Time and space are not independent of one another, and not even atoms or subatomic particles can be considered in isolation. Just as the different aspects of the planet – physical, chemical and biological – are interrelated, so too living species are part of a network which we will never fully explore and understand. A good part of our genetic code is shared by many living beings. It follows that the fragmentation of knowledge and the isolation of bits of information can actually become a form of ignorance, unless they are integrated into a broader vision of reality.
(Pope Francis, Laudate Si)

There is nothing superfluous in the universe. Even flies, gnats, and mosquitoes are part of creation and, as such, serve a divinely-appointed purpose. 
(Midrash: Bereshis Rabba 10:7) 

If these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our own dignity. Leaving an inhabitable planet to future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn.
Pope Francis, (Laudate Si)

Onshore wind farms are the number two Drawdown solution. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Windmills near Barlow, California

If you believe that it is possible to damage, believe that it is possible to repair.
(Rabbi Nachman of Breslov)

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) British Columbia, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Columbia lily (Lilium columbanium) British Columbia, Canada

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Living light: the crucial miracle of photosynthesis

Maple leaves and ferns in the forest on Peterson Bay, Homer, AlaskaTo love plants is to be in awe of photosynthesis. Even when you know how it works, it’s still a miracle. And a crucial, we-wouldn’t-be-here-without-it miracle. Its ramifications are so vast that once it showed up, it dictated all of the evolution that followed.

It’s also complicated. There is, for example, a catalyzing enzyme involved called ribulose 1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase oxygenase, with a personality as confounding as its name. Mercifully, we don’t need to go fully into those weeds. For most of us, it’s magic enough to know that somehow sunlight turns into sugar. But it’s so fascinating that I’d like to invite you to take a walk with me through this lovely, cool forest, and on out into the history of life on earth.

Photosynthesis happening in a forest in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

We’re walking in a sea of green because pigment molecules called chloroplasts in the tree leaves and fern fronds absorb all color wavelengths except the green ones. Those are reflected off the plants, and the highly sensitive cones in our eyes pick up the wavelengths and relay the information to our brains. So we see soothing, cooling green, a color widely associated with the serenity surrounding us in this quiet woodland.

Yet, every leaf and frond around us is pulsing with activity. Photons from sunlight hit the chloroplasts and their energy gets moved from one pigment molecule to another until it reaches special molecules in interior cells. There the energy excites electrons, which makes them pop into orbitals farther from their nuclei. Full of verve, these animated electrons start a cascade through surrounding, helper molecules, creating energy that pulls hydrogen ions into the center of the cell. 

Intense green leaves of red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and false hellebore (Verastrum viride) mean more photosynthesis. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Red monkey flower (Erythranthe lewisii) and a huge leaf of false hellebore (Verastrum viride). Most of the photos accompanying this post are from the north, where leaves are large and intensely green to capture all the light they can during short summers.

Missing electrons need to be replaced, and this first part of the process replaces them by splitting water molecules and grabbing electrons from the hydrogen atoms, whose remaining ions join the gang in the center of the cell. The oxygen disperses through the stomata, holes in the leaves that open and close as needed. This is the oxygen we breathe. The carbon dioxide we have been exhaling then floats into the stomata to be used in the next part of the cycle.

As the hydrogen ions in the cell’s center get more concentrated, they immediately want back out, pushing their way through an enzyme that creates ATP, the same energy storage molecule that our mitochondria create for us, by a similar electron process.

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of leaves for photosynthesis even in one small area.. Photo by Betsey Crawford

A wild flower meadow on Hudson Bay Mountain in Smithers, British Columbia., showing the wide variety of photosynthesizing leaves even in one small area.

Having run through their energy, these electrons enter a new cycle where they are re-energized by more photons to create NADPH. Thus the electromagnetic light energy from the fusion reaction in a star 93 million miles away becomes chemical energy in microscopic cells brushing our shins as we walk, along the way providing the oxygen we need for life. 

The chemical energy — NADHP and ATP — is then used by another process to take a gas — carbon dioxide — from the air and convert it to a solid state in the form of carbohydrates, which are strings of carbon molecules of varying complexity. (This is where the catalyst with the endless name comes in.) Thus carbon dioxide turns into food, as well as being ‘fixed’: removed from the atmosphere and stored in plants. This is why preserving and replanting forests are crucial to reversing global warming.

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado

Prairie grasses in the Pawnee National Grasslands, Colorado

There are variations in the whole process, even in the woods. The leaves at the top of the trees, in the full glare of the sun, are likely to be smaller and thicker than the understory leaves. That way they protect themselves from the full force of the sun’s energy. The lower leaves tend to be larger, thinner and more horizontal, and the ferns grow many wide fronds, allowing them to catch all the photons they can from the sunlight filtering through the treetops. Because it tends to be cool and moist in the woods, photosynthesis carries on with little hitch.

Once we walk out of the woods into a meadow of grasses, there are challenges that require further variation. In the cool, damp spring, grasses are in heaven, soaking up water and sunlight, feeding their blades and roots, developing seeds. Once summer brings its hot, dry weather, many grasses go dormant until fall or even the next spring. The ones that don’t, like the sturdy crabgrass in your lawn, have adopted photosynthetic habits that allow them to keep going in heat and aridity.

Engelmann's prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

The pads of cacti are modified stems which do the photosynthesizing. The spines are modified leaves, holding air around the flesh to protect it from the sun. This is an Engelmann’s prickly pear cactus (Opuntia engelmannii) in Saguaro National Park, Tucson, Arizona.

If we walk further on, into the desert, the problems of heat and dryness become acute. Desert plants, like cacti and agave, want to keep their stomata closed during the day to preserve water. Instead, they open them as the evening cools, and have evolved a way to take in and store carbon dioxide in the form of malate at night. This they turn into ATP and NADPH during the day, with their stomata closed. It’s a far less efficient way to provide energy for the plant than the photosynthesizing in our woods, which is why desert and other succulent plants grow so slowly.

In addition to helping maintain the appropriate levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our fragile atmosphere, plants nourish themselves and the entire living world. We breathing creatures are carbon-based life: carbon forms the backbone of every molecule in our bodies. We’re entirely dependent on plants’ ability to take the carbon dioxide from our own respiration and not only replace it with the oxygen we need but also to offer those carbon molecules to us in edible forms. That’s what allows us to make our own ATP to fuel this lovely walk among the chloroplasts. Photosynthesis is the most important biochemical process on the planet.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can perform photosynthesis all year, but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Pacific rhododendron (Rhododendron macrophylla) in Rhododendron Park on Whidbey Island, Washington. Evergreens can photosynthesize all year but are much less efficient in winter. When cold enough, the process can shut down altogether.

Given its importance, it’s no surprise that it showed up relatively early in the earth’s life. Early forms of photosynthesis are thought to have begun about 3.5 billion years ago, its various systems developing over time. Chloroplasts didn’t evolve until 2.5 billion years ago. When photosynthesis began, there was little free oxygen on earth. Early practitioners were microscopic, anaerobic bacteria, most likely using hydrogen sulfide, better known as swamp gas, to do their work. 

About 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen released by photosynthesis began to build up in the atmosphere, leading to what is known as the Great Oxygenation Event. The existing bacterial species weren’t adapted to it and began either to die out or find their way to anaerobic environments. With the evolution of mitochondria, which essentially use oxygen the way chloroplasts use carbon dioxide, species were able not only to adapt but to harness a much stronger energy source. Fueled by this huge boost to metabolism, life on earth blossomed into ever more diverse and complex life forms and ecosystems.

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia by Betsey Crawford

Salmonberry (Rubus spectabilis) in Brandywine Provincial Park, British Columbia

Besides our dependence on plants, there are a lot of wonderful connections among us. We all inherited our carbon from the very beginning of the universe, when the first particles coalesced into mighty mother stars who, with their enormous heat and compression, made the elements that form every subsequent thing. When we give a baby a fresh string bean to munch on, we’re watching 13 billion-year-old carbon join forces in ever new forms.

We share up to 25% of our DNA with plants, remnants of our ancient, shared bacterial ancestors. Mammalian hemoglobin and plant chlorophyll have the same chemical composition, though where hemoglobin is built around iron, chlorophyll uses magnesium. When we eat chlorophyll, it helps hemoglobin with its work of cleansing and strengthening our blood and increasing oxygen uptake. Chloroplasts and the mitochondria we share with plants have a similar history. Each formed when separate species of bacteria found it so worthwhile to join forces that they’re still at it, one cell inside the other, all while wrapped in their own membranes and keeping their separate DNA. Perhaps the most successful mergers of all time. Both make ATP — adenosine triphosphate — the fundamental fuel of the breathing planet.

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Ferns in this woods in British Columbia catch the last light of day.

Evolution has no need to keep inventing the wheel. If the DNA we inherited from those ancestral bacteria still work, great! If the methods of producing energy work for plants, why not animals? The same plans get reused, with some evolutionary tinkering. Because our building blocks came from those ancient mother stars, people like to say that we are stardust. Via photosynthesis, we are sunlight. Between the systems we inherited from and share with plants and the fact that they ultimately become part of every cell in our bodies, you could also say we’re recycled plants. An idea that, while not quite so lofty, thrills me no end.

It’s all a marvel. I breathe out carbon dioxide and it’s returned to me nicely packaged in carrots, apples, beans, sweet potatoes, squash. Amazing! The history is stunning, all the way back to the carbon formed at the beginning of the universe. We owe thanks to photosynthesis, and its introduction of atmospheric oxygen, for all the blooming, breathing life everywhere on the globe. We owe it every minute of our lives, every thought we have, every bite we eat, every breath we take, every flower and creature we treasure. I love the science that explores and tracks and theorizes about how this fascinating process operates. But ultimately, we are left with wonder. The whole parade is one miracle after another.

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Blue clematis (Clematis occidentals) in Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

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The power of radiance

Radiance: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) with butterflies in Waterton Lakes National Park in Alberta, Canada by Betsey CrawfordWe humans have brought ourselves to a fascinating and challenging point. By our numbers and our choices, particularly in the last 200 years, we’ve grown into an equivalent of the geological forces that have shaped our planet over its 4.5 billion year life. Our effect on the thin layer of atmosphere blanketing the earth means that we are potentially altering the ability of every living thing to prosper, or even exist. Our use of resources — forests, water, air, minerals, soil — is far outstripping the earth’s ability to replenish them. Millions of people worldwide are grappling with these challenges, which represent not just things to do but require new ways to think.

Radiance: checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California by Betsey Crawford

Checkerbloom (Sidalcea malvifolia) Point Reyes National Seashore, California

Now that we have become this force, where do we look for inspiration on how to act in our new role? To the universe itself, suggests cosmologist Brian Swimme amplifying the thinking of Thomas Berry, with whom he collaborated for many years. In 2005 Brian recorded a series of talks on the powers of the universe, the modes the cosmos itself operates by. These are the processes that gave birth to everything, including us. He chose ten of them: seamlessness, centration, allurement, emergence, homeostasis, cataclysm, synergy, transmutation, transformation, interrelatedness, and radiance. 

In 2007 I attended the earth literacy intensive at Genesis Farm, a Berry-inspired ecological and spiritual center. One of our projects was to choose a power and, after pondering it for a couple of weeks, create a presentation for our final evening together. I made a beeline for the CD that held the talk on radiance. 

Swallowtail butterfly and purple coneflower mandala by Betsey CrawfordJust before going to Genesis Farm, I had been at an art workshop where a fellow participant shared her mandala journal with us. So inspired by this magical way of responding to our world, I sat down to do my first mandala as soon as she closed her book. I brought this happy zeal with me to Genesis Farm and combined listening to Brian talk about radiance with this new way of meditating. From a butterfly to the stars, all was held in its shimmering essence. So, even though radiance is the tenth listed power, I’m going with the time-honored and delicious principle of eating dessert first.

Radiance may be the sweetest of the powers, but that doesn’t lessen its immense importance and complexity. We wouldn’t be here at all if it weren’t for the most radiant of all local beings: the sun. She, blazing wildly from the depths of her fiery furnace, sets our standard. She also has a lot of company. Since the primeval flaring forth, everything in the universe has been giving off light, in the visible spectrum and out, in the form of electromagnetic and quantum energy. ‘Radiance is the primary language of the universe, the way the universe communicates with itself.’ The way that it speaks to us. The sun and the earth, with all its emerging forms and beings, are part of the cosmos’s ongoing conversation. 

Radiance: monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Monkshood (Aconitum delphinifolium) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

Our task, Brian says, ‘is to become the human form of radiance.’ We didn’t evolve to become consumers, or cogs in an industrial machine, or to allow the sublime beauty of this world to be destroyed for trinkets. We evolved to manifest 14 billion years of radiance. 

For this, we can turn first to our most luminous organ: our heart. Our most crucial organ, nourishing every single cell, every moment of our lives. But it’s not only an exquisitely designed pump. It receives, and radiates. Look at a mother watching her baby, he suggests. ‘You don’t need to talk her into the idea that she’s holding a magnificent beauty.’ And we, looking on, recognize the glowing love flowing from her, and our heart opens in turn. ‘What comes forth, what reverberates out, feels like it’s completing the beauty that’s there.’

Radiance: staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona by Betsey Crawford

Staghorn cholla (Cylindropuntia versicolor) Saguaro National Park West, Tucson, Arizona

Our heart’s radiance is both effects and science, body and spirit. It’s a sublime biological system and an electromagnetic field 100 times stronger than the brain’s. Its rhythms convey information to all systems, functioning as the information hub of the body. It synchronizes the brain, giving us deeper access to our frontal lobes, helping us process the world and make sense of our emotional experiences.

The heart’s effects — warmth, aliveness, love, compassion, joy, forgiveness — both reach into and receive the world. These capacities are the essential qualities of all spiritual traditions, which recognize them as the way into our kinship with all other beings. They are the traits that have always made life worth living, and are why turning to our hearts now is crucial to our complex path forward. 

Radiance: fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California by Betsey Crawford

Fairy slipper orchid (Calypso bulbosa) on Mount Tamalpais, Mill Valley, California

I might also say turning on our hearts. Since everything is connected, it makes perfect sense that our heart’s energy field would interact with the universe’s many interwoven fields. For the past ten years the Global Coherence Institute, part of the Institute for Heart Math, has been studying just this. A recent study “showed that human heart rhythms of participants synchronized with other participants, even in some cases…hundreds of miles apart. This indicated that the participants were all synchronized to an external signal in Earth’s magnetic field environment.”   

This is utterly fascinating, and Heart Math’s research, devoted to the science behind our most radiant organ, is full of such gems. But we don’t need studies to know we are in the presence of a big heart, or a tender heart, or a joyful spirit. Or that the heart leaps with joy at the sight a velvety sky full of stars, or a loved one’s face. Brian calls radiance a mode of perception as well as a power. The heart gifts us with the intuition to read other hearts, to read the earth itself. Our response is a reciprocation. When we see with compassion, or hope, or joy, when we recognize and react to beauty, we don’t spend those capacities, we enlarge them. 

Radiance: tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada by Betsey Crawford

Tall purple fleabane (Erigeron peregrinus) Waterton Lakes National Park, Alberta, Canada

We’ve been operating under distorted perceptions — that the earth is merely a resource, that some humans are less worthy than others, that economics is more important than love. All of these come from the basic distortion that everything is separate. When we allow the radiance of the universe to speak through our hearts, we can both perceive and radiate our deep interconnection with every manifestation of the unfolding cosmos.

Of the heart’s qualities, scriptures the world over tell us, the greatest is love. We have thousands upon thousands of poems, songs, paintings, stories of love. I think most of us would say it is the most important element in our own lives. We are passionate about, even obsessed with love. And yet the culture we have created devalues it, just as it is capable of trashing so many other manifestations of radiance. 

Radiance: autumn peach leaves, Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey by Betsey Crawford

Autumn peach leaves, Genesis Farm, Blairstown, New Jersey

The recent outpouring of love-fueled outrage in response to the border crisis reassures us that love is powerful. But the decades of policy leading to this crisis in all the countries involved were, and continue to be, fueled by greed and domination. The disconnect between the depth of feeling in our hearts and the crushing power of corporations and governments makes love seem like a weak force. 

And yet we feel — in our hearts — that it’s not. It’s there that we know, as Brian says, ‘that something glorious is streaming into us.’ Knowing that the radiance of the universe is beating through our hearts can give us the strength to move through the frantic constructs of our time toward the vivid future we yearn for. This is not a ‘love, sweet love’ invocation; it’s not limited to that dimension. The sun doesn’t set us an example of placid radiance. Hers is wildly fierce, life-giving, life-altering. It makes everything possible.

Radiance: sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas by Betsey Crawford

Sand lily (Mentzelia nuda) Smoky Valley Ranch, Oakley, Kansas

But the universe also tells us that sweet radiance is powerful. Plants turn the sun’s ferocious energy into sugars, nourishment to feed themselves and to sustain the millions of years of evolution that radiated out after the appearance of photosynthesis. Out of this sweetness, plants create luminous petals, delicious fruits, aromatic essences to nurture other beings, including us, whose brains and senses have slowly evolved to hold consciousness of the beauty of life, and lives. 

Loving this incandescent bounty anchors us to the earth we rose from. We seek to create it, live it, share it, save it. We derive courage, strength, dedication. We respond with loving radiance. We are emboldened to take action. ‘We discover who we are in the midst of the deep voices of the universe.’

Radiance: wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Wild geranium (Geranium erianthum) Wynn Nature Center, Homer, Alaska

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Pursuing mystery: how we found out lichen has a third partner and is saving the earth

Mixed lichen and moss on a stick Mount Tamalpais, California by Betsey-CrawfordFor 150 years lichen has been known to be a combination of two life forms. The outside is a fungal matrix, rather like the crust of a baguette,  which gives structure and protection to the softer, more filamentous inside, formed by one of the algae family, or occasionally a cyanobacteria. These latter two provide nutrients for themselves and the protective fungus via photosynthesis. The word symbiosis (Greek for ‘living with’) was coined in 1868 specifically to describe lichen’s interrelationships. When I wrote my first post about lichen two years ago, this is where our knowledge stood. A few months later, that changed. A hidden partner had been found, and the story of that discovery is wonderful. 

As is appropriate to its subject, the entire project was a symbiosis. Montana lichenologist Toby Spribille was inspired by an essay by British Columbia lichenologist Trevor Goward. Trailing like long strands of hair from the branches of Pacific Northwest trees are two lichens formed by exactly the same fungus and alga. But they are different colors. Tortured horsehair lichen (Bryoria tortuosa) is greenish yellow, a result of the production of toxic vulpinic acid. Edible horsehair lichen (Bryoria fremontii), also called wila, is dark brown, does not produce a toxin, and was an important food for indigenous northwest peoples. They were thought to be different until genetic testing came along, so we need to include the genome pioneers in the team.

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Edible horsehair lichen, or wila (Bryoria fremontii) Peyto Lake, Banff, Alberta. Photo by Jason Hollinger via Creative Commons

Growing up in Montana, Spribille had always been fascinated by the forests of hanging lichen. But he may well never have been in a position to explore them. Despite his yearning to study science, he was home-schooled in a family that didn’t believe in it, so he couldn’t do so until he left home. Then he was faced with the hurdles of finding a university he could afford that would accept him without a formal high school degree. He heard that European schools are more open to people like him. Since his family spoke the language, he went to Germany, where the University of Gottingen took him in.

After getting his Ph.D. at the University of Graz in Austria, Spribille showed up at the McCutcheon Lab at the University of Montana, which specializes in symbiosis. ‘I study lichens,’ he said, and was warmly welcomed by John McCutcheon, who urged him to study genomics, as well. Genetic analysis was crucial to his discovery since scientists have spent many years probing lichens under powerful microscopes without seeing the hidden partner. Inspired by Goward’s query, he began poking around in the Bryoria genome to see what caused the two seemingly identical lichens to be different.

A lichen called tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria) Tongas National Forest, Alaska

Even with genetics on his side, and the McCutcheon team to brainstorm with, Spribille couldn’t find anything new until he decided to expand his search. The fungi long associated with lichen are from the Ascomycota family, and he looked for their genes first. Then he decided to look more broadly at the whole fungal kingdom and discovered genes from the Basidiomycota family, home of the types of mushrooms we’re used to eating. Excited but doubtful, the team wondered if they’d stumbled on a passing impurity or an infection. It wasn’t until he took the basidiomycetes data out of his calculations that he saw that the production of vulpinic acid went, too. That, he says, was the eureka moment.

Actually seeing the fungus cells involved high tech genetic tagging with fluorescent colors to visually separate the alga and the two fungi. It also involved — my favorite detail — a very low tech trip to the grocery store to buy laundry detergent. The basidiomycetes were under a crust of polysaccharides on the surface of the lichen, and Spribille used the soap to dissolve the coating. That enabled him to tag the newly found yeast cells with their own color and to see that they surround the lichen, embedded in the outer cortex. The yellow Bryoria tortuosa had lots more of the yeast than the edible brown fremontii, which is what enables the former to produce vulpinic acid. 

Old man's beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

Old man’s beard lichen (Dolichnousnea longissima) Tongass National Forest, Alaska

Soon after he hit his eureka moment, scientists all over the world got involved, and it was quickly found, now that they knew what to look for, that varieties of the newly discovered Cyphobasidium yeasts showed up in 52 other genera on six continents. As with the Bryoria, their presence helps explain differences in appearance in genetically similar lichen. The team expands, the search continues, and the lichen world is forever changed. 

I’ve planned for a while to update my lichen post. What got me thinking about it now is my fascination with the origins of Project Drawdown, which I wrote about in my last post. It started with Paul Hawken asking a question no one else was asking. In his case, it was ‘what are we already doing that can actually reverse global warming?’ It seems like such an obvious thing to ask, and yet brilliant scientists and policymakers weren’t doing so. Like Isaac Newton wondering why the apples in his orchard fell downward and not sideways, many seemingly simple questions, asked by people who then proceed to pursue the mystery, revolutionize our knowledge and perceptions. 

Snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Photo by Betsey Crawford

White snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) with alpine bearberry (Arctostaphylos alpina), mountain harebell (Campanula lasiocarpa) and other alpine plants make up the tundra of the Yukon. Note the light and dark lichen on the rock.

Surprises in the lichen world are rare enough that the story made headlines. The more attention, the better, since lichens are crucial to the health of our planet. We know this because another team pursued a question no one had asked. Climate researchers have long studied the amount of carbon held in oceans and forests. But it wasn’t until 2012 that scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany wondered about the carbon impact of cryptograms, which are photosynthesizers that don’t flower, like mosses, algae, and lichen. 

Together these tiny life forms cover 30% of the earth’s plant-bearing soil surfaces. Lichen alone covers 8% of the planet, which closes in on 16 million square miles. The team found that cryptograms sequester about 14 billion tons of carbon dioxide each year. That’s 12.7 gigatons, which is the measurement used in Drawdown. The number one solution there is estimated to make a difference of 89.74 gigatons between now and 2050. Using simple multiplication (though I suspect it’s more complicated than that) lichen and its cohorts could sequester over 400 gigatons by then.

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Dramatic lichen on toxic serpentine rock doing the incredibly slow work of creating dirt. Mount Burdell, Novato, California

The carbon cycle is the most widely studied and reported aspect of global warming. Also crucial is the nitrogen cycle, which, now wildly out of balance, is producing another dangerous greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide. There, too, the cryptograms shine, by taking close to 50 million tons of nitrogen from the air and putting it into the soil each year, where it’s a crucial nutrient. This is part of another important role they play: breaking down rock and creating and stabilizing soil in barren landscapes. 

Given all it provides for the stability of the earth’s fragile atmosphere, it’s ironic, and tragic, that global warming is itself the biggest threat to lichen’s existence. Though most of us rarely think about these life forms, we depend on them. But that shouldn’t surprise us. The slow wisdom of evolution put lichen in place 400 million years ago. DNA analysis shows us that the newly discovered yeasts joined forces with the original partners 100 million years ago. The cyanobacteria that sometimes takes the place of algae in the mix has been here for 2.5 billion years. They were the first photosynthesizers on the planet, creating the oxygen-rich world everything has depended on since.

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska by Betsey Crawford

The fairy cups of the lichen species Cladonia, Denali National Park, Alaska

The first human fossils are a mere 2.8 million years old. Our possibility lay in the same possibility of all the beings we share the planet with: cycles of oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, water, soil building, plate tectonics and temperature regulation. These forces create and maintain the thin crust and surrounding atmosphere that provide our delicate envelope of life. Lichen’s carbon and nitrogen regulating abilities aren’t evolutionary accidents. They are traits carefully evolved to provide a living, breathing world for themselves and each subsequently evolving being. 

In a culture where embracing interconnections within our own species is a huge challenge, it may be hard to fathom how deeply our existence is interwoven with a being that is itself created by an interweaving of beings. All of earth’s forms, including ourselves, are both presence and possibility on our paths through existence. The whole planet is a symbiont, a network of intimately and intricately related parts, each evolving detail generating deepening possibilities for the whole.

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. All the white on the ground in this picture from the Tombstone Mountains in Yukon is a leafy lichen. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Lichen and other cryptograms are dominant in the tundra of northern Canada and Alaska. Here snow lichen (Flavocentria nivalis) lives up to its name in Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon.

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Project Drawdown: reversing global warming

For Project Drawdown: a refrigerator full of food illustrates how many solutions an everyday appliance involves. Photo by Betsey CrawfordThis photo of my refrigerator, filled with its usual groceries, though much more attractively arranged than usual, represents some of the best and most exciting news I’ve ever heard. It goes back to a question environmentalist Paul Hawken posed: what can we do to reverse global warming? The standard research is devoted to ways to slow it down. But, Paul reasoned, if you’re on the wrong road, what’s the point of just slowing down? When he found that no one could answer his question, he began assembling a team to spearhead the research themselves. Project Drawdown expanded into a worldwide coalition of scientists and other experts who started gathering data and designing the system to analyze it. They came up with eighty things we can do today, and twenty that are still in the design stage. There were jaw-dropping surprises.

At bottom, there are only two things you can do with the excess airborne carbon and the other related chemicals causing global warming: prevent their emissions or sequester them. Sequestering means pulling carbon from the air into the ground. To prevent emissions, we need to rethink many of the ways we conduct the business of agriculture, land use, waste management, transportation, energy production, and building. Project Drawdown addresses all of this.

The solutions are ranked from one to one hundred, in order of the amount of atmospheric carbon each reduces or prevents. Costs and savings are measured against estimates for business as usual for the next thirty years. They aren’t ranked in the order of importance, because they are all crucial steps that need to be taken. And they upend a lot of presuppositions. After all, who knew? No one was asking.

Educating girls and providing access to birth control would be the number one Project Drawdown solution if combined. They are numbers 5 and 6. Photo by Les Anderson via Unsplash.

Educating girls and providing access to birth control would be the number one solution if combined. They are numbers 5 and 6. Photo by Les Anderson via Unsplash.

I would suspect most of us would think transportation — cars, trucks, airplanes, shipping — would rank among the top ten. Not at all. They start in the thirties. To everyone’s amazement, refrigerant management was number one. “We were so disappointed,” Paul says. “So unsexy!” Which could also be said of reducing food waste, coming in at number three. Another huge surprise was that educating girls and providing widespread access to family planning are numbers five and six, and would be number one if combined. There are sixteen solutions that pertain to food. Together, especially if you add in transport, they would dwarf the rest in the amount of carbon reduced.

Which brings us back to my refrigerator. A plant-rich diet is #4. Managed grazing (milk, eggs) is #19. Indigenous land use and tropical forests (shade grown coffee, fair trade chocolate, heritage grains like quinoa) are #39 and #5.  Growing food among trees shows up in four solutions. New approaches to rice farming cover two. In fact, this refrigerator connects so many solutions, I made a map: 

What we do with our refrigerators involves 36 Project Drawdown solutions. Graphic by Betsey CrawfordThirty-six solutions, almost half of the eighty available today, are involved simply by our possession of a common household item and what we put in it. What we eat, how we grow our food, how we transport it, whether or not we waste it. How we power our refrigerator, how we get rid of it when it no longer works. The plastic we use when we buy our groceries. Whether we recycle and compost. Whether our population will outpace our ability to care for it. Our relationship with our refrigerator is so important that the top ten solutions, marked by the small hot pink ovals, are all there.

All these interconnections in something so simple and common represent one of the things that I love about Project Drawdown. The solutions aren’t complex and esoteric. They are all within our reach and some, like solar and wind power, are well underway. In fact, all of them are happening to some extent somewhere in the world. That was one of the guiding principles behind the research: what’s happening now? What do we already know? Scaling up is a doable challenge. Convincing ourselves, our representatives and the companies we deal with to move in these directions is a more complex challenge.

Onshore wind farms are the number two Project Drawdown solution. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Onshore wind turbines like these in southern California are the #2 solution, offshore is #22.

The Pachamama Alliance and Project Drawdown are teaming up to create a network of communities to spread the word. In March, I finished a five-session course given by the Alliance. Like the Drawdown website and book, the course was beautifully done and full of enthusiasm. I was delighted to find that things that make my eyes glaze over, like refrigerant management and green cement, fire other people up. Being a plant person, I immediately gravitated to agricultural and land use issues. But they all connect in so many ways that every solution will eventually meet at one intersection or another.

The passionate excitement around the project is a huge blessing. According to Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and economist, thirty years of scary, hard-to-fathom scientific evidence for climate disruption have actually driven people to lose the interest and faith many had in the 1980s and 90s. People feel helpless and resistant when faced with apocalyptic framing. It’s important to know that installing solar panels, supporting organic farmers, especially local ones, buying LED lights, composting and recycling are all important things every one of us can do. Promoting causes like educating girls, saving forests, and preserving indigenous land really makes a difference.

Women grow 70% of the food worldwide, mostly on small farms. But women smallholders don't have the same access to resources and rights. With that access, their yield would rise by up to 30%, limiting the drive for deforestation for more land. Photo by Annie Sprat.

Women grow 70% of the food worldwide, mostly on small farms. But women smallholders (solution #62) don’t have the same access to resources and rights as men do. With that access, their yield would rise by up to 30%, limiting the drive for deforestation for more land. Photo by Annie Sprat via Unsplash.

These solutions are also important social justice issues and therein lie more connections. As we rethink the way we operate in the present, for the sake of the future, we will redress very profound injuries done to the earth and many of its people: the abrogation of rights, lands, and cultures; the dumping of toxic waste, especially in poor areas; the contamination of air, water and soil; the decimation of forests and wetlands; the sky-rocketing extinction of species. 

A wonderful bonus of all these interconnections is that we can all find something that matters to us, and in helping further one cause, help further many more. We literally have a ready-made to-do list. In our class of sixteen, each of us chose a solution to pursue, and none overlapped. One man is taking a green cement proposal to his local school district, which has a building plan in the works. A chef is working with a landscape designer on a concept called agrihoods. One woman is pursuing tropical forests and regenerative agriculture. Another is planning to raise money for girls’ education. One of my plans is to pursue the various threads involving trees. I’m also planning to keep in touch with John about agrihoods, explore local farms with Justine, and donate money to the organization Ruth sets up. This is the profound blessing of gathering in community, which is central to the mission of the Pachamama Alliance.

Managed grazing is Project Drawdown solution #19. Here portable chicken coops are moved to an area recently grazed by cows. Photo by Betsey Crawford.

Managed grazing is #19. Here portable chicken coops (solar powered!) are moved to an area recently grazed by cows whose pats attract bugs for the chickens to eat. The chickens are mostly uninterested in grass, so it has a chance to regrow after the cow’s recent grazing. Both fertilize the soil.

I’ve been a fan of Paul Hawken since I bought the perfect shovel from the Smith and Hawken catalog thirty years ago. He was a pioneering green entrepreneur, and I admired what he was trying to do with his business. His research into the millions of organizations worldwide working to save the planet has consoled and inspired me for a decade. He’s well known in the environmental and green business world, but he heads no large, clout-bearing organization. The first Drawdown office was the Zoom internet conference app. 

A tiny team with a tiny amount of money sent out word to academics the world over to see if anyone was interested in the project. They were inundated with responses and chose seventy highly trained Project Drawdown fellows from twenty-two countries who will continue to explore and refine their projections. As the information started to come in, they expanded the community with a 128-member Advisory Board to review it, so the science behind the recommendations would be impeccable. 

Preserving and restoring forests are major Project Drawdown land use solutions. Here is preserved forest at the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska. Photo by Betsey Crawford

Preserving and restoring forests are major land use solutions. This regenerating forest is in the Wynn Nature Center in Homer, Alaska

I usually do my best not to keep using the same word over and over, but I find, despite dozens of suggestions in the thesaurus, that there is no adequate substitute for community, an excellent metaphor for life in general. One man with a question no one else is asking becomes a small community. They reach out and add seventy more. Soon over two hundred people are involved. Other whole communities — organizations like the Pachamama Alliance, businesses, universities, governing bodies — come on board and their members reach out to create communities. That’s exactly what I’m doing now, hoping you will bring the news to your communities. Together we can transform an existential crisis into an opportunity to reimagine how we want to preserve and share the beauties and bounties of the earth.

Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey is full of Project Drawdown solutions, including the array of solar panels in the lower right. Photo by Betsey Crawford


Genesis Farm in Blairstown, New Jersey is full of Drawdown solutions, starting with the array of solar panels in the lower right. Others include organic farming, forest preservation, recycling, water saving, plant-rich diet and composting.

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Eostre and the Universe Story

Pacific trillium (Trillium ovatum) in Baltimore Canyon, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Humans are story-making animals. We have a story for everything, and many, many stories for the same things, depending on where and with whom we found ourselves when we arrived in this life. Our tales explain where we came from, how we got here, why we’re here at all, how to behave now that we are here. As science expands our knowledge of how the universe, and our tiny piece of it, came into being, how our DNA links us, how we migrated out of Africa, we create new stories, layering evidence on metaphor, while still cherishing the old and familiar ones.

Easter connects me to many stories, especially those of my childhood tradition of Catholicism, where the ancient lore of fertility goddesses, ushering in light and renewed growth, became entwined with the story of Jesus of Nazareth, whose last days were embedded in the story of the Passover, which was in turn embedded in the story of how a tribe became a nation, one of thousands of stories about how tribes cohered, and how that made them special in the eyes of their gods.

Western hounds tongue (Cynoglossum grande) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Western houndstongue (Cynoglossum grande) King Mountain, Larkspur, California. The individual flowers would barely cover your thumbnail.

The Easter stories of death and resurrection, and their ties to the seasonal changes from birth to fruition to death to rebirth, go back to our earliest records: those on the cuneiform tablets of ancient Sumer. Inanna, Queen of the World in the Sumerian pantheon, traveled to the underworld, was stripped of her clothing, tortured, and crucified, while the world above shriveled in response. Though she was rescued in three days, her ordeal was just the beginning of a journey to explore the mysteries of death and rebirth.

The embodiment of the planet Venus, Inanna became the Babylonian Ishtar, and in turn the Canaanite Astarte. Her spirit eventually metamorphosed into the Greek Aphrodite, the Roman Venus, perhaps the Germanic Eostre, who may or may not have presided over the celebration that bears her name. The lineages are not pure and direct; many stories and energies are merged and scattered among them, and traits are bestowed and then changed. Ishtar was also the goddess of war. By Aphrodite’s time that title belonged to Ares, and Hera had become the queen of the Greek pantheon.

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Milk maids (Cardamon californica) King Mountain, Larkspur, California, another tiny, dainty flower

The hints we have of Eostre don’t suggest the mighty energies of Inanna. She is most likely representative of any number of fertility goddesses, bringing with them light and fecundity, heralding the spring avalanche of green growth, renewing the promise of survival. She may be related to Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn.  The etymology of the word Easter is traced through the Proto-Germanic word for dawn, ‘austron-,’ but is only used in German and English. Most other European languages derive their word for Easter from paschas, or passover.

I love all of this: the layers of meaning, the tellings and retellings of the same basic human tales, the bequeathing of characters from one civilization or culture to another. These interweavings speak of the depths of our connection to other human beings, even those living many thousands of years ago. To me, it doesn’t challenge the Christian beliefs in the teachings of a holy man named Jesus to know that his story was couched in literary structures inherited from venerated traditions. The idea that our great narratives are echoes of more ancient ones isn’t a limitation to me. It’s a sign of the universality of our fears, our longings, our loves.

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

California hedge nettle (Stachys bullata) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California. The individual flowers are about an inch long.

Our stories provide us with energy and motivation. They place our feet on the ground of our culture. They entertain and explain and nourish. But our love of story also has a long history of darkness. There has been a lot of carnage over whose story is the ‘real’ one, and many stories to justify the mayhem: that one group is chosen and another not, that we can never have enough, that the earth is ours to use up, that my story justifies killing people with a different one. A narrative can burn a forest, enslave a people, destroy a planet. So often it’s only after protracted battles that we wearily sit down and listen to the shared longing under the destruction: I want to be safe. I want to be loved. I’m afraid of my vulnerability. I want the comfort of abundance. I’m afraid of death. I want my life to be meaningful. I want my children to be happy. I want the light to return after a stretch of darkness.

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) taken on King Mountain, Larkspur, California by Betsey Crawford

Chocolate lily (Fritillaria affinis) King Mountain, Larkspur, California

One of the reasons I am so drawn to Thomas Berry’s work is his call for a new story. His is a way to see the world around us, and including us, not as an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but as a constantly evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, beings perched on a planet put here for our disposal. We are one of many, many manifestations of this continual, billions-year-old generativity, beings emerged from the earth itself. Related by the very elements of our cells to all the other forms that have developed with us. Connected in the most profound way to the living landscapes we walk among.

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) taken in Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California by Betsey Crawford

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) Cascade Canyon, Fairfax, California

Though Berry’s universe story is grounded in the advancing science of the history of the cosmos, he saw its connection to many indigenous creation stories, where beings — animal, plant, rock — rise from the soil of their sacred places. Not long ago, we were all indigenous to a place we held sacred, and when I was tiny I lived for a while in a place that rooted me to the earth. But later, hunting Easter eggs in suburban New York in the 1950’s, that deep connection was more elusive. I sensed it in my love of the wind, of the violets growing in the cracks of a rough patch of sidewalk, the smell of our neighbor’s lilacs. I felt it in the tunnel my father cut through a massive tangle of honeysuckle, allowing us a home among the branches and roots. I once sat in awe at a mysterious jack-in-the-pulpit that showed up in the tiny woodland separating our house from our neighbor. These wisps were among the many threads of love and longing that Berry’s message wove together for me, connecting me to a story that places my feet and my heart securely on the planet that created me.

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) taken in Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California by Betsey Crawford

Foothills shooting star (Dodecatheon hendersonii) Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California

I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.

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