Jennifer Jewell, host of the award-winning podcast Cultivating Place, believes that strengthening our relationship with seeds has the potential to shape how we approach the natural world, refine our connection to our growing spaces, and clarify our responsibility towards one another. In What We Sow, on the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds (Timber 2023), she writes, “Seeds might seem still, quiet, passive. But in them all is a forceful dynamism not to be underestimated.” The same could be said about this beautiful, informed, heart-led, and thoughtful book.
The book follows the seasons in a year beginning in October. Fall chapters in “Seeding: The End and the Beginning” are a primer on the circular nature of seed, from germination to growth, to fruiting, maturity, and back to seed. Jewell, a self-defined lifelong student of seed, enthusiastically continues our seed education with “a deliciously specific” vocabulary of seed traits and an interesting discussion of various modes of seed dispersal.
Winter chapters in “Seed Beds” examine “nature’s tenacity for life,” or dormancy, which allows for seed to change hands and move about. Jewell looks at traditional commerce channels, from regional mail order sources to the seed racks at your neighborhood nursery. Her frank perspective on laws governing seed, the impact (both political and economic) of consolidated seed “ownership” and its impact on access to seed, is informative and a bit chilling.
Spring chapters in “Seed Reading” explore how seed banks serve to preserve seed and genetic diversity. Jewell places massive human facilities dedicated to protecting and preserving seed, alongside the even more massive seed bank that’s naturally present in every scrap of soil. Non-commercial sharing networks, like neighborhood seed libraries modeled after free book libraries, organized seed swaps and generous gardeners eager to pass along their favorites, offer preservation on a more modest scale.
Every seedy summer growing season is a chance for seeds to multiply, strengthen and adapt. Chapters in “Seed Saving” examine seed conservation, what seeds do we save and why, and what do those choices communicate. Generations connect by growing a grandmother’s favorite sweet pea, immigrants carry the flavors of home, and seed keepers pass along Indigenous tradition. On a more practical level, saving seed can strengthen wispy thin margins of food and flower farmers.
What We Sow is a mix of hard science, cultural tradition, and storytelling with a healthy serving of what Dr. Christina Walters calls “math, mystery, and magic.” Walters is one of the numerous seed scientists, seed growers, and seed activists, farmers, backyard growers, and people working to preserve biodiversity and culture that Jewell interviewed over the years she spent writing this book.
Large passages of the book are admittedly wonky. The inclination is to skim pages devoted to international law, political lobbying, seed patents, and capitalism. Jewell doesn’t shy from touchy topics, including the political and economic impact of seed access and “ownership.” In dated journal entries, “ruminations and lessons on seed nestled inside this quasi-memoir structure of a year in my life,” the author doesn’t let herself off the hook of accountability, but never at the expense of wonder and a passion for growing.
The book closes back where it began. In the final chapter “Going to Seed” Jewell shares the hard work and optimism of plants- and seedpeople who are working to assure a healthy and seedy future. “Ultimately, our gardens and our garden seed are always about more than just what I am growing in my garden today – or what you are growing in yours,” Jewell posits. “It is about how we grow the world.”
This review first ran in The Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine on September 24, 2023.