What the Seed Knows of the Soil

By Kay E. Lewis-Jones, University of Kent §

Attending to the Seed

On a December afternoon in the upper west side of Manhattan, a group of people sat in a darkened room and tried to think like seeds. In their hands they held their mentors – Acer rubrum seeds from a park across the street – and for five minutes of their evening these people listened and imagined.

acer
Acer rubrum seeds. Photo by K. Lewis-Jones

You are a seed
You’re perfectly still.
You’re in the soil.
Your seed coat is firm and strong.
It is winter and above you there is frost,
But here in the soil you are safe and cool.
The soil around you nourishes you whilst you rest.
Most of the time the soil is quiet and still,
But it is full of living beings and chemical communications and exchanges between them.
And occasionally these reach you and you sense them.
A companion species may send out warnings or invitations.
Others around you jostle or shift, but you wait.

You are the kind of seed that waits for the spring.
You wait for the warming of the soil to wake you.
Not all soil is the same, but when the soil feels right you will wake.
It might take months. It could take years.
And in the meantime you are patient.
You wait.
You are not alone.
You are strong and you are full.
You feel the soil all around you.
Within you is the potential to become something almost completely other to the form that you are now.
All the knowledge of your ancestors, of their environments, of their companions, of their predators, of the seasons, all the knowledge of their world is inside you.
And it makes you who you are.
You are a seed.

It was a decidedly experimental way to start an academic presentation on “what the seed knows of the soil” (Lewis-Jones 2015) – but the audience were obliging and by all accounts the few moments shared in reflection enabled them to approach the rest of the talk from a decentered perspective. Several people after the talk asked if they could keep the seed that they had been given to hold.

Ethnographic Apprenticeship and Being Othered

Often when anthropologists present their work, they skillfully weave a carefully selected ethnographic vignette into their writing. They choose the ethnographic moment that draws together both what was understood in the moment of observation and that which themselves and their audience need to understand now in order to interpret and analyze what it illustrates (Strathern 1999: 6). Halmstead (2008:2) describes how ethnographic moments such as these present the “periods of reflection and scrutiny” that facilitate moments of crisis, which in turn form the “transformative space” of ethnographic work.

The moments we choose are an attempt to share an epistemological crisis and the “moments of knowing” and “enskillment of the senses” that are at the core of the ethnographic interface in which we “come to know by becoming or re-positioning the other” (Hamlstead 2008:3, 16). Halmstead (2008:16) reminds us that “it is through being othered that the anthropologist comes to see.”

sonoran botanist
Botanists seed hunting in the Sonoran Desert, California, 2015. Photo by K. Lewis-Jones

The use of these moments as imaginative journeys in our communication facilitates our endeavor to extend some of this concurrent immersion and distance to the experience of our audience. Through the careful description of our own moment of crisis or revelation in the field, and our unpacking of this in academic and theoretical terms, we hope to be able to not only justify our interpretation and the knowledge produced, but extend it and let it evolve and take effect through its communication (Kohn 2013:67).

Multispecies ethnography is no exception. Stories from the field enable us to invite others into the transformative spaces and the “enskillment of the senses” that we have endeavored to reach through our fieldwork. But they often also serve the purpose of illustrating the means by which those with whom we have spent our time in the field negotiate their own moments of crisis and knowledge construction in contact with their pertinent other. As Eduardo Kohn (2013:71) shows  in his exploration of how Runa negotiate their knowledge and access to how dogs know their worlds and as Rane Willerslev (2012) reflects on how humor functions in animism,  the point of concern becomes how do these other humans relate to their non-human others.  Multispecies ethnography is powerful because the decentering of self through the perspective of other lives is at the heart of anthropology, just as it is at the heart of multispecies relations – and thus of being alive in the world. As Tim Ingold (2013:21) reminds us, “anthropology is distinguished (…) by its way of working, which is to learn through participation in other lives.”

Empathy and Imagination

I have an ethnographic moment from my fieldwork that I used recently in a paper. It depicts a process to modify the humidity of a batch of Betula seeds that I was working with at a seed bank with a lab technician there. In my vignette I describe and examine the methods and the tools that the technician used, the thought processes that she guided me through as her apprentice.  I conclude with her use of a phrase that perfectly captured the care and attunement I had been observing throughout my fieldwork at the seed bank: the technician told me that in order to do her work, “I try to think like a seed.”

seed processing
A seed cleaning and processing workstation, California, 2015. Photo by K. Lewis-Jones

Recently, however, I decided that rather than just recounting this moment to an audience I should also endeavor to actively explore with them what it meant – to try to think like a seed. Seeds are not your typical multi-species subject. Unlike elephants or baboons or reindeer they do not exhibit behavior with which, as humans, we fairly easily empathize and interpret. You can’t make eye contact with a seed, you can’t catch it by surprise, or witness its tenderness for its conspecifics.

John Hartigan’s (2015) endeavor to “interview a plant” and to work through what it means to dwell among them gets us part of the way. But seeds are an even less accessible form than when they are plants. Their behavior, their form, their interaction is even more remote from that with which we are familiar. As recognized in Ruth Mendum’s work with plant breeders, however, the subjectivity and knowledge of seeds, for those who pay attention, is very present: “seeds are each like miniature encyclopedias of collective knowledge, articulating themselves and asserting their subjectivities, wherever and whenever they can” (Mendum 2009:331).

In multispecies ethnography the emphasis has been on relationships, entanglements, entwined lives and becomings. As Piers Locke and Paul Keil (2015) note, the interspecies relationship becomes the unit of analysis. But the seed, in a seed bank, is detached from all of its usual entanglements. These relationships have been observed and noted on collection data sheets but, just as diligently, they have been removed from the physical seed itself. Yet “nothing comes without its world” (Haraway 1997: 137). This notion is used by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa (2012: 198) as the title for her paper exploring how “relations of thinking and knowing require care” in order to sustain “interdependent worlds”. The dormant, abstracted seed demands of us that we imaginatively adopt and conceptually reanimate those worlds and connections for it, both within the scientific process of banking – as illustrated by the technician, and in our approach to it as anthropologists, or simply as caring or attentive others.

The process of seed conservation demands knowledge of the seed’s relationships, environment, and its heritage. We must interpret its form for the stories it tells about the species with which it anticipated interacting (Kohn 2013: 74, see also Barlow 2000). We must speculate upon its history, its evolutionary path, its close relatives – and we must be able to identify and correctly attribute the seed to its future form, as a plant, and what it will require and how it will behave. In sum, we must learn to interpret its “living thoughts” (Kohn 2013:71). From the tiny dormant thing a whole world must be perceived and imagined in order for its life to be reanimated on the other side of the bank. We must learn how to see and think of the world like a seed – to attune ourselves to “what makes a world for them” (Despret 2008).

This process demands an imaginative extension, an apprenticeship. It is an exercise that demands we pay attention to the interests of the other, how they become and what they know.

Bringing Attunement Home

How do we foster empathy and attunement through our work that stretches beyond the implication that this happens elsewhere, with other people, with other species and instead makes it personal and tangible?

As Locke and Keil (2015) outline, overcoming disciplinary limitations is important, as our methodology alone cannot achieve everything that we aspire to do. Hartigan (2015) notes in his exploration of how to interview a plant that “much of what most interests me as an ethnographer may remain inaccessible even if I develop the capacity to dwell with certain plants”. Interdisciplinary and intercultural (and interspecies) collaboration are required – and that can sound complex. It means that it is not happening here in the individual discipline, culture or even person, but instead directly in the communication between these. It is in that space, that crisis, that moment, that the transformation happens.

In the presentation that opened this piece, I used a melting pot of methods to try and elicit the empathy and attention of my audience. Sitting with the seeds in their hands, I asked them to close their eyes and I talked through what it might feel like to be a seed in the soil. I talked about plant neurobiology, allelopathy, the rhizosphere, and  maternal effect. I talked them through the banking vignette, and I illustrated the empathy and the knowledge that the process involves. I was nervous. It isn’t easy trying to think like a seed. But even if that breach of species boundaries or moment in the contact zone (Haraway 2008) only lasts a second, – those are the moments that we need to hold on to, to take forth and to share so that our work might help others to learn and refine the “art of shared living” (Lestel 2013, 317).

Euonymus verrucosus
A collection of Euonymus verrucosus being processed before banking, The Republic of Georgia, 2014. Photo by K. Lewis-Jones

Works Cited:
Barlow, C. 2000. The Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and Other Ecological Anachronisms. New York: Basic Books.
Despret, V. 2008. The Becomings of Subjectivity in Animal Worlds. Subjectivity 23(1): 123-39.
Halmstead, N. 2008. Introduction. Experiencing the Ethnographic Present: Knowing through Crisis. In Knowing How to Know: Fieldwork and the Ethnographic Present. N. Halmstead, E. Hirsch and J. Okely, eds, pp. 1-20. Oxford: Berghahn Books.
Haraway, D. 1997. Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouse™: Feminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, D. 2008. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Hartigan, J. 2015. How to Interview a Plant, Part 1. Aesop’s Anthropology. November 17th 2015. http://www.aesopsanthropology.com/blog/?p=320 Accessed 01/06/2016.
Ingold, T. 2013. Anthropology Beyond Humanity. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 38(3).
Kohn, Eduardo. 2013. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lestel, D. 2013. The withering of shared life through the loss of biodiversity. Social Science Information 52 (2): 307-325.
Lewis-Jones, K. 2015. Nourished Vulnerable: What the Seed Knows of the Soil. Presentation at The Subterranean Salon, Columbia University, December 3rd 2015.
Locke, P., and P. Keil. 2015. Multispecies Methodologies and Human-Elephant Relations. Engagement blog post.
Mendum, R.M. 2009. Subjectivity and Plant Domestication: Decoding the Agency of Vegetable Food Crops. Subjectivity 28(1): 316-33.
Puig de la Bellacasa, M. 2o12. Nothing Comes Without its World: Thinking With Care. The Sociological Review 60(2).
Strathern, M. 1999. Property Substance and Effect: Anthropological Essays on Persons and Things. London: Athlone Press.
Willerslev, R. 2012. Laughing at the Spirits in North Siberia: Is Animism Being Taken too Seriously? e-flux 36.


Kay E. Lewis-Jones is an Ethnobiology PhD student at the University of Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation. Her ethnographic research has focused on the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership, tracing the process of wild seed conservation from the field through to the laboratory and out again in order to explore what it means to be a wild seed in the Anthropocene. The research was made possible by funding granted by the Economics and Social Research Council, UK (Studentship Award Number: W86850C) and the support of the RBG, Kew and the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership.


This post is part of our thematic series: Multispecies Anthropology: Becoming Human with Others

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