Viridian Note 00179: Viridian Plant GeneticsBruce Sterling <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Tuesday, August 08, 2000 11:01 AM
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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Gardening ReviewsEric Hughes (email@example.com^^^^^^^^^**)
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
The items under review in this Note represent two forms of popular reaction to the ongoing biodiversity holocaust.
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."
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
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
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
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.
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