Viridian Note 00179: Viridian Plant Genetics

Bruce Sterling <>
Tuesday, August 08, 2000 11:01 AM

Key concepts
agro-business, biotech, native seeds, freedom of information, localism, globalism, invasive exotics, seed catalogs, California, embracing decay, making the invisible visible, Eric Hughes

Attention Conservation Notice: It's a long, diffuse and thoughtful personal essay by Viridian list member Eric Hughes. Over 1,400 words.

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The 2000 Ethnobotanical Catalog of Seeds

  1. L. Hudson, Seedsman Star Route 2, Box 337 La Honda, California 94020 (no telephone; don't bother with directory


Gardening with a Wild Heart Judith Larner Lowry University of California Press, 1999

Larner Seeds P.O. Box 407 Bolinas, California 94924 +1-415-868-9407

Gardening Reviews

Eric Hughes (^^^^^^^^^**)

In Viridian Note 00158, the Pope wrote: (((It really takes a mental stretch to realize that when you stroll past some neatly mown lawn with a little kid, a kitty and a puppy, you are witnessing a biodiversity holocaust.)))

    The items under review in this Note represent two forms of popular reaction to the ongoing biodiversity holocaust.

  1. L. Hudson is a freedom-of-information advocate, genetic information in his case. Judith Lowry is an avowed nativist. California flora is her cause, and she is equally avid in her promotion of local plants.

    On the surface, these two are polar opposites == Hudson in favor of complete freedom of genetic travel, Lowry in favor of strict immigration controls. Yet their differences are deceptive. They are both genetic archivists who run small seed companies. Both are fighting biodiversity loss, but with different tactics.

    Seeds and plants, more than anything, are the Viridian maxim "Avoid the Timeless, Embrace Decay." And there's nothing like growing out seed to "Make the Invisible Visible," to transform genotype into phenotype.

    Though many of us Viridians find it comforting to contemplate a high-tech green megamachine (kudos Mumford) that somehow mimics the biological, the biological per se is still of vital importance. Plant breeding is one of humanity's four or five oldest technologies. Humanity has massively intervened in the planet's biology.

    Hudson's catalog is easily the most political seed catalog I have ever seen. The catalog is jam-packed with data; white space does not figure in his design aesthetic. The pages feature little inspiration quotations, from Kropotkin and Li Po to Twain and Gen. MacArthur, little witticisms in the iconoclast and autonomist mode. Periodically there's a more obvious annotation: an encircled "PD" (like the copyright symbol). "All seeds in this catalog are Public Domain seeds." Hudson's been in the business for 27 years; this fellow was "open source" even before Bill Gates wrote his well-pirated BASIC interpreter. The motto on the front cover: "Preservation through Dissemination." Later in the catalog: "Many species are extinct in their original habitat, existing only where they have been introduced to new areas by man."

  1. L. Hudson needs very little explicit politics to make his point. The catalog is full of uncommon and rare plants worldwide, including a special selection of Zapotec cultivated plants from Oaxaca. Ornamentals, medicinals, and heirloom garden plants are all present. The variety itself is a testimony to his program.

    Nevertheless, the political agitation is trenchant: "At present, there are four major threats to the ongoing free flow of seeds: 'invasive' species legislation, patenting and other intellectual property, genetically-engineered seeds and the Convention of Biological Diversity."

    By contrast, Judith Lowry works from a geographically situated presence. For her, the pre-existing biota of the land nearby should be preserved where possible and restored where necessary. Hers is a dialogue with nature, not an imposition of human control. She waxes poetic about how she has learned to enjoy her failures, yielding to nature's own preference. Her attitude is one of true interaction with the landscape, not simply an imposition upon it. "The biological isn't logical."

    Her book is firmly grounded in California; she never pretends otherwise, and makes no distinction between general and local issues. Perhaps surprisingly, this ardent attachment to her own back yard is what gives the book its universality. Everybody has a back yard. No love of one's own locality is ever very abstract.

    Chapter eight is entitled "To See All the Colors, to Hear All the Songs; Problems of Exotic Pest Plants". The underlying tension in this area is illustrated in a passing comment: "[...] there is nothing funny about 2,300 acres a day said to be lost as native habitat or to agricultural use through the spread and establishment of non-native pest plants."

    Here the difference in attitude between Lowry and Hudson come out in force. The land is "lost" to one; merely "repopulated" to the other.

    Note, however, that Lowry does not distinguish between ther competing goods of native habitat and agriculture. Here is one of the present day's more interesting political alliances. It's a quiet alliance between environmentalists and agribusiness to restrict the free flow of genetic information.

    To find a middle path between Hudson's and Lowry's sparring camps, we should establish a distinction between exotics cultivated to preserve diversity, and exotics that are inadvertently spread. For example, French and Scotch broom are exotics in California. They were planted as ornamentals in Marin County (where Lowry lives), but seriously invaded the nearby parkland of Mount Tamalpais. Broom is by no means in danger of extinction, and its ability to displace natives is well-documented. There are monthly work parties to dig out the broom. After five more years of volunteer effort, it's hoped that Tamalpais will finally be broom-free again.

    Government legislation that restricts the flow of genetic information is very broadly targeted. Agribusiness is in favor of these provisions, because their monocultural growing practices are highly unstable, and an easy prey for invasives. The anti-exotic stance of agro-business is a direct outgrowth of their own methods. Hudson alleges that the herbicidal anti-exotics movement can be "explicitly racist, likening 'weeds' to 'inferior races' and vice-versa"..

    The issue of biodiversity holocaust is a debate about the human intervention that should take place after the human interruption of a natural landscape. Let us be completely clear == there is scarcely a place on Earth that has not already suffered massive human interruptions, often repeatedly. Here we return to an essential Viridian question: What shall be the design of these landscape interventions?

    Viridian Note 00033 ("The Art of Andy Goldsworthy") is evocative in this regard precisely because it aesthetizes that intervention.

    Four courses present themselves as interventions: agriculture, native restoration, exotic re-nativation, and doing nothing. The real argument between the nativists and the exoticists is the choice between the genotypes introduced after catastrophe. Both Hudson and Lowry are preservationists; this similarity is vital. If the whole world were practicing Lowry's attitudes, all of us situated squarely in our own respective back yards, then Hudson would have little need to practice his exotic preservationism.

    The world as it is, however, needs both approaches today. Hudson's efforts can create genetic banks outside of original ranges. These preserve the genetic heritage, even if at the cost of yet another human alteration of the landscape.

    Having said this, largely abstractly, I feel the need to state my own particulars. I live in Berkeley, CA, not too many miles from Larner Seeds, which I have visited. I have purchased and grown out seed from both of these companies in the past. My personal focus right now is California native restoration, very much in line with Lowry's book. This is simply my own preference, not a manifestation of some theoretical difference.

    The California biota is unique in the world with the relatively small ranges of a large percentage of its species. I have taken great pleasure in delving into the literature on California native plants. I am becoming situated in ways that I would not have expected before.

    One of my own backyard developments is working on the California native hedgerow. But "hedgerows" are not how plants grow in the wild. I am engaged in my own small technics of plant material. Categorized in that way, this effort would seem to qualify as a personal Viridian project. Perhaps in a few patient years, when I have some reportable experience with my now-fledgling hedgerows, I will report on them == if the Viridian list itself has not embraced decay by then.

Eric Hughes

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