Imagine, if you can, a time capsule wherein life could be packaged up and kept on hold for as long as you wanted, free from the wear and tear that normally assails it.
You’d label the package, put it on the shelf, and wait till conditions were just right. Then you’d open it, add some water, and presto! Life would spring forth, wriggling its ancient toes down into the earth and lifting its fingers toward the sun.
It isn’t. Astonishing as it might seem, such mechanisms already exist, and have for millions of years. They’re common as raindrops and just as beneficial. We call them seeds.
Because they’re such an everyday part of our experience, we tend to take them for granted. But each contains the extraordinary ability to transcend time.
Using this ingenious device, nature takes the DNA of the parent, puts it into safekeeping, and holds it for as long as necessary for it to find a propitious chance at a new life.
While it’s true that most seeds gradually lose their viability over time, there are instances of that time stretching on a long way. Lotus seeds taken from a peat bog in Manchuria and radiocarbon-dated at a thousand years old were coaxed into producing flowering plants.
Given the advances in cryogenic technology - the ability to freeze dry organisms and keep them intact for decades - some people now elect to have their dead bodies frozen in the hope that someday they may be resuscitated and given another chance to live.
But this is a cumbersome and expensive process, and one not likely to succeed. Even if it did, the resurrected body would be as old and worn as it was at the time of its original death.
Seeds, on the other hand, allow life to be put on hold for a generation or two and then resumed with a minimum of fuss and bother. They permit the life force to lie dormant for as long as convenient or necessary, and then to continue within a brand new body.
In this sense they defy the normal ravages of time.
Knowing this, you have to wonder what, exactly, triggers a seed to return to life. We commonly regard water and sunlight as the elements necessary for germination; but in a way that begs the question. Might there be some guiding awareness in the seed itself that senses when conditions are right, when the moisture and heat levels are such that germination can succeed? Is this a purely mechanical activity at the molecular level, or is there some sort of intelligence involved?
In the wild, under drought conditions, many grasses “elect” not to grow for a year, either lying dormant or extending their root systems while waiting for atmospheric circumstances to improve.
The marvelous design of seeds allows them movement in space as well as time. Because they’re tiny and light in weight, they can be distributed over long distances by wind and water, by hitching a ride on the fur or feathers of animals and birds or by being eaten and eliminated by them, and by the expulsion systems that some fruits have developed to shoot them several feet away from the mother plant.
We tend to regard seeds as humdrum, but in fact they border on the miraculous, and without them we couldn’t exist. Next time you’re ready to plant some, take a moment to study them, and give thanks.
Seeds - the incredible, elegant packets of life.
Collections of Craig Nagel’s columns are available at CraigNagelBooks.com.