“I want to belong to my body, my house, my life,” writes Gina Warren in her essay in the new issue of Orion. “I want to eat intelligible food and feel satiated, not consume blindly and feel empty.” It’s a sentiment familiar to many these days, with the rise of the local and organic food movements and an increasing awareness of the distant relationships that serve our basic needs. But in the pursuit of connection, how far are we willing to go?
Gina Warren, whose piece “The Chicken Project” appears in the July/August issue, decided to go all the way, from raising chickens to slaughtering and butchering them, in an effort to involve herself fully in the food chain. Other pieces in the issue look at our relationship with food in different ways: read a report on a new model for investing in farmland that’s good for farmers and investors, and consider the surprising ways in which seeds have given rise to civilization.
Also in the issue is a visual tour of the infrastructure of the future (the final installment in Orion’s Reimagining Infrastructure series); a journey back in time to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; an essay on finding ways to commune with desecrated landscapes; new poems from Chris Dombrowski and Camille Dungy; and much more.
1. Douglas Fir. It begins with firewood, a chunk of straight-grain fir, split small to fit the cookstove. This log started life as a seed, just like the countless trunks and stems that sprawl in all directions outside my window. Seed plants surround us all day long, and so do seeds themselves, fueling us with their stored energy and enriching our lives with their unique abilities to defend, endure, and travel.
2. Wheat. Heat from the fir log browns the pancakes made from wheat flour, one form of plant energy cooking another. Whether a grain, nut, pulse, pip, or kernel, botanists call a seed “a baby plant in a box with its lunch.” Every calorie it contains evolved to fuel the growth of the sprout. So when we eat seeds, are we not stealing the food intended for babies?
3.Cotton. My son comes to the table in striped pajamas, trailing a stuffed snake sewn from an old shirt. In other words, he is adorned with more than eight miles of yarn spun from the seed coats of a plant the Romans called gossypium, the Arabs named qutun, and we know as cotton. We now wrap this seed fluff that evolved to waft on wind and wave around our bodies in every imaginable shape and shade—my jeans and flannel are more of the same. Sometimes we let cotton move us too, woven into sails and spinnakers, and strung from the masts of ships.
4. Coffee. Drip by drip it slowly fills two mugs, the yellow one for me and the tall blue one for my wife. Legend credits this beverage to an Ethiopian goatherd whose flock ate the seeds and began to dance. Scientists think the caffeine in coffee evolved as a pesticide, an herbicide, or perhaps even a memory-enhancer for bees. For once I don’t care why—I’m just thankful it’s ready.
5. Pepper. Bacon sizzles in a skillet, crusted with the seeds of an Indian rainforest vine. Peppercorns once anchored a global spice trade that funded empires and drove the explorations of Magellan and Columbus. But this morning they inspire a more basic question: why do we add spices to pep up meats, and not the other way around? There is a biological reason for this—meat isn’t spicy because meat can move. When animals are attacked, they have a wide range of options—run away, take flight, climb a tree, slither into a hole, or stand and fight. Plants, on the other hand, must stay put and endure, defending themselves (and especially their seeds) with a vast array of potent chemicals.
6. Strawberry. My son announces that strawberry jam is the best thing on pancakes, and I tend to agree. I’m tempted to have another one, which is precisely how I should feel. After all, tasty fruits like berries evolved for the sole purpose of temptation, luring animals like me into dispersing their precious cargo of seeds. Giving in to evolution, I eat another jam-slathered cake.
7. A Seed Bank. Cleaning up the kitchen, I tuck the flour back into a cupboard overflowing with seeds: rice, oats, almonds, walnuts, quinoa, popcorn, sesame, garbanzos, black beans, pintos, and lentils, to name a few. They will keep a long time, a culinary seed bank not much different from the seeds that gather in soil, waiting for years, decades, even centuries before sprouting. Filled with seeds, clothed in seeds, and inspired by the ways we are tangled up in their rich and mysterious lives, I start my day thoroughly nourished in body and mind.
Listen to Thor Hanson read “7 Seeds to Start Your Day” here.