The Genesis:3 Project
Also of the birds of the sky, seven by seven, male and female, to keep seed alive on the face of the earth. (Genesis 7:3)
“Deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole, lies the Global Seed Vault.” So begins the web site dedicated to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Sunk into the rock and permafrost at a constant temperature of just below zero (F) is where the world stores the largest collection of crop seeds. There are other seed vaults around the world, but the cold and low humidity in Svalbard are a hedge against the natural and human-created disasters that could wipe out the world’s ability to feed itself.
It is a Noah’s Ark for plants, built without divine instruction in anticipation less of floods than drought, disease, pollution or any of the other ways we can figure out to poison our food supply. Everything from wheat and corn to eggplant and potatoes to cowpea and sorghum is stored, in batches of about 500 seeds, in lockboxes owned by the nations and organizations that have deposited them there.
It is a necessary precaution because once a plant goes extinct, there is no coming back. Absent the errant seed captured in fur or feces, when a crop is gone, it is gone. Losing various species of animals is a tragic upending of the ecosystem with long-term consequences. But if a source of food disappears, lots of people die in pretty short order.
I admire combination of compassion and gloom that provoked Norway to establish this vault. It is one of the many initiatives provoked by our changing climate that reflects the paradoxical relationship that human beings have with life: we cherish it and squander it, often simultaneously.
But the seed vault is not the only place that the essential components of survival are stored. On SD cards, thumb drives, hard drives, CD-ROMs, floppy disks and in the cloud, the stuff of our lives is preserved, allegedly forever. In many ways, a visitor in the distant future landing on a mostly dormant Earth could reconstruct humanity’s ups and downs from the digital detritus we left behind. Remember Rod Taylor discovering the talking rings in “The Time Machine?”
Or your high school yearbook. Or those cartons of slides in the attic. Or the shoeboxes filled with snapshots from when Polaroid was the quick way to see a photograph. The flourishing of our fading memories can be renewed by the seeds that were preserved.
The story of Noah’s ark in the Bible is an archetype. We have made a mess of things and it needs to be cleaned up. But the redemptive and restorative seeds of renewal are preserved – two by two, seven by seven, 500 by 500.
This theme of preserving a remnant has lots of expression in the many thousands of years between the story of the ark and the founding of Svalbard. Not only Jewish tradition promotes the notion of a "righteous remnant" from which nation or even all of humanity is saved and then flourishes. Every religious revival, every rebuilt neighborhood, every rescued company can trace its success to the keepers of the vision, the seed of renewal. Also, by the way, every military coup, every putsch and every call to the caliphate. The notion that great oaks from little acorns grow can inspire forests...or kudzu.
A wise friend of mine told me about the importance of being able to hold two contradictory ideas in mind at the same time. The context is completely different than this example, but the lesson is the same. The earth must be destroyed, but preserved. Humanity may destroy its food supply, but preserve it. Our life will be forgotten, but memory will be preserved.
I look around this crazy world with its intractable conflicts, its three-steps-forward-two-steps-back cultures, it technological breakthroughs that are both blessing and curse and I understand Noah and the Global Seed Vault both. It is no revelation to affirm that life is born to die. And it is no surprise that life insists on begetting life, even knowing the ultimate futility. But in spite of all the ways we have figured out to obliterate a good thing, we have also capitulated to the primal urge to preserve it. Keep seed alive.