The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History
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We live in a world of seeds. From our morning toast to the cotton in our clothes, they are quite literally the stuff and staff of life, supporting diets, economies, and civilizations around the globe. Just as the search for nutmeg and the humble peppercorn drove the Age of Discovery, so did coffee beans help fuel the Enlightenment, and cottonseed help spark the Industrial Revolution. And from the Fall of Rome to the Arab Spring, the fate of nations continues to hinge on the seeds of a Middle Eastern grass known as wheat.
In nature and in culture, seeds are fundamental—objects of beauty, evolutionary wonder, and simple fascination. How many times has a child dropped the winged pip of a maple, marveling as it spirals its way down to the ground, or relished the way a gust of wind(or a stout breath) can send a dandelion's feathery flotilla skyward? Yet despite their importance, seeds are often seen as a commonplace, their extraordinary natural and human histories overlooked. Thanks to Thor Hanson and this stunning new book, they can be overlooked no more.
What makes The Triumph of Seeds remarkable is not just that it is informative, humane, hilarious, and even moving, just as what makes seeds remarkable is not simply their fundamental importance to life. In both cases, it is their sheer vitality and the delight that we can take in their existence—the opportunity to experience, as Hanson puts it, “the simple joy of seeing something beautiful, doing what it is meant to do." Spanning the globe from the Raccoon Shack—Hanson's backyard writing hideout-cum-laboratory—to the coffee shops of Seattle, from gardens and flower patches to the spice routes of Kerala, this is a book of knowledge, adventure, and wonder, spun by an award-winning writer with both the charm of a fireside story-teller and the hard-won expertise of a field biologist. A worthy heir to the grand tradition of Aldo Leopold and Bernd Heinrich, The Triumph of Seeds takes us on a fascinating scientific adventure through the wild and beautiful world of seeds. It is essential reading for anyone who loves to see a plant grow.
Gracchus, grain subsidies continued for centuries as an important political tool throughout the empire. A goddess, Annona, was specifically invented by the state to personify the grain dole. She often appeared in statuary and on coinage, holding sheaves of wheat and perched on the prow of a ship to symbolize the steady arrival of grain into the capital. While historians attribute Rome’s ultimate demise to everything from inflation to the mental-health drawbacks of lead plumbing, no one disputes
on the upper fringe of tropical beaches, from where high tides and storms regularly carry their seeds out to sea. Once afloat, a coconut can remain viable for at least three months, riding winds and currents for journeys of hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles. In that time, the endosperm continues to solidify, but enough coconut water remains to help the seed germinate when it finally washes up on some dry, sandy backshore. With its liquid endosperm keeping things moist inside, and the rich,
brought me closer to Mendel, but I wanted to continue his elegant experiment for one more year, just to see that famous three-to-one ratio in the same way that he had. If the Punnett Square could be trusted, then breeding this year’s crosses would produce a predictable number of double- recessive peas with the wrinkled appearance of a pure Bill Jump. I could only do this because I knew that a packet of dry peas would be just fine sitting on a shelf in the Raccoon Shack until President’s Day
need for additional refrigeration or other support from above. “If there are any big problems on the outside,” its founding director noted, “this is going to survive.” Dubbed the “Doomsday Vault,” its opening made headlines around the world. “Fear sells,” Chris quipped when I mentioned the Svalbard project. But she quickly added that everyone in the seed community was grateful for the publicity. The attention raised the profile of their work and provided a needed boost in the constant struggle
structure. But in human ancestors, the face began to flatten, and that’s where the seeds come in. “There was a radical shift around 4 million years ago,” explained David Strait, a professor of anthropology at the State University of New York. Modern human faces appear flat because our bones are small, he told me, probably an adaptation for eating soft, cooked 9780465097401-text.indd 125 12/17/15 12:06 PM 126 THE TRIUMPH OF SEEDS foods. But it was another dietary shift that started the ball