What is the best way to preserve a seed? I first came across this question in a gardening book, and it’s a trick question. The answer, of course, is to plant it.
I have thought about that question a lot since one memorable day last summer, when my wife got a call from our neighbor. Did we want some dry goods? She had some to share. And she wasn’t kidding. In front of her house was a big U-Haul truck full of preserved dry goods–dozens of buckets and barrels of rice, beans, wheat, corn, pasta, coffee, and other foodstuffs.
It had come from a local prepper who just died. (If you don’t know what a prepper is, you can look it up on the Internet. Prepping is a big trend down here in the Deep South–people who are seriously preparing for the end of civilization as we know it by stockpiling food, supplies, guns, and ammunition.) When this prepper died, he left half a dozen storage units full of about $30,000 worth of supplies. So what was in that U-Haul was only a fraction of what he had stored up for himself. We happily took whatever we thought we could reasonably use, and passed on the rest to others.
It was all very well contained. The owner had spared no expense in keeping out moisture and insects. Yet we found that upon upon closer inspection, we found use-by dates from over ten years ago!
Still, the food was free, so we decided to try it out anyway. We cooked the pinto beans, but they came out a nasty gray color, and they took almost twice as long to cook as fresh beans would have. And they didn’t even taste very good. Some of the other items, such as the sugar and pasta, were edible. But the lima beans, the cornmeal, and the wheat were all very stale. The coffee was undrinkable. I don’t know what kind of existence this prepper had imagined for himself once civilization collapsed, but had he actually had to live on this food, he would have been far less comfortable than he probably imagined.
This experience got me thinking about this whole trend of prepping. The assumption behind prepping is that an isolated individual (or a small family) can maintain some semblance of civilization–food, shelter, safety, and comfort–alone and virtually unaided, probably while holding off bandits by using the thousands of rounds of ammo that the prepper has stockpiled alongside the foodstuffs.
It’s not a new fantasy, I suppose. What, after all, is more American than living by your wits on your own little compound deep in the woods, surrounded by a few loyal family members and a huge stockpile of food and ammunition? Modern-day prepping is Little House on the Prairie with a vengeance.
If there is one thing I learned from the contents of that U-Haul, it is the basic folly of prepping–of stockpiling food on the assumption that, someday soon, your stockpile will be all you have to live on. But even the biggest stockpiles run out, so preppers realize that eventually they will have to be able to grow enough food to support themselves and their families.
An essential component of any serious prepper’s stockpile (alongside dry goods, ammunition, fuel, and camping gear) is vegetable seeds. In that U-Haul, we found no fewer than five “kits” of seeds. They were bought mail-order from a company that specializes in supplying preppers, and they came with a manual explaining that one kit of seeds could grow enough food to feed a family of four.
As an experienced gardner, I knew that was a lie. There were not nearly enough staples, such as corn and beans, to plant even a reasonable garden plot. There were few easily-grown, hardy plants, such as kale, that really would be helpful during a food shortage. More importantly, the seed kits had been bought several years ago and then locked up in a storage unit. Just for fun, we tried to plant a few of these seeds. None of them came up.
This brings me back to where I started: the best way to preserve seeds is to plant them. But seeds don’t feed people; agriculture does. Growing enough food to feed a family is more than just sticking seeds into the ground and hoping for the best. It requires intimate knowledge of the soil, of your local climate, and of the kinds of plants you wish to grow. In other words, it requires culture. And real culture only happens in relatively large communities over time.
As an analogy, let’s say that I was convinced that the world would soon lose all of its knowledge of woodworking, and I was determined to preserve woodworking as a craft. (Which, incidentally, I am.) I might be tempted to buy as many tools and as much wood as I could, store it away with a few books about woodworking, and wait with baited breath for the woodworking apocalypse. But a better approach would be to learn as much as I could about woodworking, to actually practice woodworking regularly, and to teach other people to work wood–to get tools, wood, and skills into the hands of as many people as I could. And that’s exactly what a few people back in the 1970s and 1980s did when they saw that the old ways of working wood were about to die out forever. They knew intuitively a principle that preppers do not understand: the only way to keep a way of life alive is to practice it, and to teach others to practice it, too.
Prepping, on the other hand, assumes that a total withdraw from culture is necessary for survival, and in a twisted way, I think it may actually contribute to the cultural collapse that it fears. The more people stop contributing to the wellbeing of their society, the more likely that society is to decline. If you really want to preserve your way of life, first learn all you can about it. Then find ways to actively pass on your skills and materials to a new generation.