Once upon a time, I collected seeds.
Seeds, you perverts: not seed. I’ve said it before, I say it again: get your collective mind out of the gutter.
For my seed collection, I plucked or picked up seeds that I found as I walked my dog, walked to work, walked to or from the local club . . . I’ve been know to stagger across a darkened yard long after midnight to surreptitiously clip a specimen I especially desired. Wherever it was that I happened to be, walking in whatever location I called home at that moment, I gathered seeds. This was a collection that spanned several years and several cities.
I kept my amassed seeds in a huge, cylindrical glass vase which was then placed on a side table. It really was a decorative touch. The seeds, visible through the glass, fascinated me – nothing more so than the way the smaller seeds naturally settled to the bottom of the vase while the big, cumbersome seeds rode along at the top.
These seeds are rather like life in general, I often thought: be small and settle to the bottom; be cumbersome and you will rise to the top.
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
I lived in California’s Bay Area as the vase reached capacity. It must have contained at least three hundred different seed varieties by that time. Showcased in their glass cell were morning glory pods, sycamore balls, cockleburs, primrose and wild rose and moss rose, everything from big seeds like black walnuts and acorns to tiny seeds like thistle, and every size and shape in between. I adored my seed collection.
I’ve always been a collector (bordering on being a hoarder), and I’ve always loved all of my collections. During the same years that I collected seeds, I also picked up small pieces of mechanical and industrial metal that I found on the streets as I walked here and there: rusted nuts and stripped bolts and broken spark plugs and bent door latches and odd links and hooks from chains. I basically picked up any small metal item that dislodged from some old car, boat, bike, or trash truck. I kept that collection in a large, dull, smoke-glazed pottery bowl which I aptly named my detritus bowl.
Next I started gleaning shards of beach glass whenever I was at the shore: broken bits with the dangerous, sharp edges worn smooth, rounded by the ever-present grinding force of waves and sand. My favorite in this category was the half-bottom of a jar that still screamed, in bold relief, “MAYONNAISE”.
The beach glass ended up as the artificial sea bottom in an aquarium where my pet goldfish, Spot, lived. Spot was with me for almost five years, some kind of record in goldfish keeping, I imagine. It is hard to love a fish, but that fish, I must confess, I loved.
Yes, reader, for much of my life I have been slightly obsessed with my collections. Perhaps a bit more than slightly. Why, even as I write this, I am as pleased as punch that in my workplace I have recently been provided with a honey-maple, four-tier bookshelf. Not to hold books, mind you, but to house my collection of “creatures” . . . my plastic Holstein cows from childhood; a quacking duck key chain given as a “creature gift” from my office wife, Kristin; an Alaskan native American totem pole replica given as a thank you for networking a friend into a job; a horribly frightening clothespin figure reminiscent of a headless horseman hoisting aloft his severed pumpkin face, of which I cannot venture to guess the origin; a boy and a girl hippopotamus dressed for the opera (the hippo is the unofficial mascot of the university I work for). That is just to name a few.
There is also the carved wooden dolphin from my first cruise to the Mexican Riviera with a Former Mr. Perfect and a leather penguin finger puppet (I don’t know where this came from, but Kristin believes it must have been from some scandalous leather event). There is displayed the magnetic owl thermometer I stole from my mother’s refrigerator the last time I visited her, next to a tiny gold pig complete with curled tail that I found walking to the gym one day.
Kristin becomes fairly apoplectic that the farm animals aren’t placed adjacent to the other farm animals, the brass camels with the plastic camels, the big birds with the little birds. She rearranges, and then when she returns to her office, I put them back where they belong. It’s a daily ritual. I like to mix and stir while she prefers categorical order.
I continue to infuse new specimens into my organized disorder regularly. Nearly every day I add something to this collection, something found or something gifted. Soon enough I will need another bookshelf.
The point is, I collect oddities (including odd people – like Kristin – but that is another chapter entirely). It so happens that one of the oddities I collected once upon a time was a huge, cylindrical, glass vase filled to overflowing with seeds. Now, dear reader: let me tell you the second half of the seed collection story.
Act two opens with the Former Mr. Perfect and I agreeing to bring a kitten into the household. We named the little adopted orphan Elliott (to create a play on words with the dog’s name, Missy – you hip hop aficionados will appreciate that reference).
The second that tiny ball of fluff moved in, all of us – the Former Mr. Perfect, the dog, and myself – took a step down in the pecking order. Baby Elliott asserted his role as the true leader, king of the house (still does!) and that was that. Such is the way with cats.
Right away I noticed that the feline baby devil was extremely interested in the vase of seeds . . . probably rightfully so. They most certainly exuded enticing hormonal and earthy scents, irresistible to a playful kitten. All I can say is, his little baby cat tail snapped back and forth in a spasmodic and overtly sexual display whenever he got within sniffing distance of my seeds.
Oh, I’ve lost count of the times I have been confronted with this problem . . . me and my smelly seeds.
After an appropriate amount of tail jerking and nose sniffing foreplay, Elliott would stand on his back legs and try with all his kitten might to fish out the top seeds with his front paws. He desperately craved those large cumbersome top-riding sycamore balls and morning glory pods.
I’m no dummy. I moved the vase to the mantle, out of reach of kitten fascination.
Or so I thought.
One day as I showered upstairs I heard a crash, followed by a softer sound that reminded me of marbles being rolled across a hardwood floor. I immediately knew what had happened, so what greeted me when I flew down the stairs, naked and dripping, was no surprise. The vase and all of its contents had been knocked from the perch of safety and lie shattered and scattered all over the first floor of the townhome.
By the time it was over, I understood the horror the Jesus people feel at the very idea of spilled seed, for it took me weeks of vacuuming, sweeping, and hand picking to get up all those f*(*ng seeds. The spilled seed debacle drove me over the edge, and I now whole-heartedly agree with the zealots: it is best avoided. Those things are extremely hard to clean up.
As difficult as they are to retrieve from beneath the furniture or on top of the baseboards or clinging like a beetle to the drapery, seeds none-the-less present us with a firm reminder of the potential of life and of renewal. Seeds embody creation. It is their role as a symbol of rebirth that explains the Adonis garden.
Adonis, you may recall, was the Greek God of beauty and nature who retreated to the underworld every winter and was resurrected every spring. I think he most certainly was one of “the boys”, as I see a significant resemblance to more than a few of the young gay men of today, who likewise suffer from their own version of the Adonis complex (the need to have the perfect body) and subsequently retreat to P90X home workout isolation and/or their gym for the winter, only to be resurrected in all their taut glory come swimsuit season.
The Adonis gardens, baskets of soil planted with quick-sprouting wheat, fennel, lettuce, and barley seed, were tended by horny, adoring Greek women (fag hags, I am convinced) to celebrate the studly God’s return. The Adonis gardens were living charms intended to welcome back the season of fertility and the handsome, young fellow. I am fairly certain that each and every one of today’s Adonis-complex-riddled gay boys has a bestie girlfriend preparing some kind of basket or other to celebrate her personal Adonis’ springtime return.
Even some sects of the seed-spilling-phobic Christian zealots play the Adonis garden game. Sort of, that is: they have switched out Adonis with Jesus. I have read that in Sicily, the women of certain churches plant similar pots a week or so before Easter and line them up along the alter, where they sprout without fail on Easter morning.
I am an atheist, and don’t believe a word of any mythology. I go to churches only to look at the art and hear the music. Or the occasional wedding. But when it comes right down to it, I am as superstitious as any savage about the power of nature. Any gardener knows what I mean; you can’t work among seeds and plants for any length of time and remain unmoved. They are truly miraculous.
The miracle they are evidence of for me is the miracle of evolution. Animal adaptation and diversity has nothing over the plant world; seed evolution is truly just as amazing. Seed distribution technique is fascinating: from dandelion puffs sailing on the breeze, to coconuts floating endlessly and aimlessly in the clear blue South Pacific until they wash up and sprout on a remote atoll, to Bishop Pine cones that won’t release their seeds unless subjected to a forest fire (which means the adult trees have been destroyed and a new generation is required), to my beloved maple helicopters fluttering away from the mother tree, to cockleburs and other stickers that hitch a ride on any hairy (or clothed) passerby, to the tiny seeds of berries which end up in bird bellies along with the sweet fruit, only to be pooped out intact, thereby planted at whatever distance from the point of origin our little feather friend happens to have flown before nature’s urge strikes.
Plants have become experts on how to disperse their seeds, and every single dispersal is chock full of potential for a new beginning. All it takes for the new life to emerge is the luck of having been placed in the right location: a little dirt, some sunshine, and water. It’s a bit like my random life, dispersed as the breeze or the birds or the currents decreed, and flourishing.
Seeds are powerful symbols within a vast array of cultures and they come with a plethora of interpretations. Rice is hurled at newlyweds to ensure fertility, pomegranate seeds are offered at New Year’s to help usher in abundance and prosperity. Perhaps more than any other seed, though, mustard seeds are the most widely symbolic. People of varying religions like to carry one with them as a reminder of their faith, most often in the form of a mustard seed necklace. It seems they can’t agree on which God is the one true God, and are ready to wage a bloody war to the death to prove their side, but they can readily agree that mustard seeds are a symbol of bona fide faith.
All the more significant, isn’t it, that food prepared with mustard is said to be “deviled”.
One of the earliest religious references to the mustard seed was made in the fifth century by Buddha, who told the story of a young mother grieving over the death of her son. She asked Buddha to find a way to bring her son back to life, and he told her it would only be possible if she brought him mustard seeds from a family that had never experienced death. The grieving mother searched all across the land, and gradually realized that every family has faced death. Buddha used the mustard seed to teach her that death is common to all. Jewish texts tell the story of the universe starting out at the size of a mustard seed, and then expanding to what it is now. Here the mustard seed is used to symbolize that from small things, great things are brought to pass.
Mustard seed is incorporated into a number of Pagan rituals, including those meant to expel demons and ensure that personal obstacles are overcome. Mustard seed is also combined with other spices in Pagan rituals that promote fertility, increase personal power, and provide protection. Even Jesus used the tiny mustard seed as a symbol of faith in Matthew 17:20 when he said (and I paraphrase), “if you have faith as small as a mustard seed . . . you can move a mountain.”
Jesus probably identified mustard seed in this parable not because it is the smallest seed known to man, but because it was the smallest seed known to the Palestinian farmers of the day.
It is no wonder I can’t pass up an unknown seed. To this day I must pick one of every new variety I stumble upon, and inspect it, and if at all possible, plant it. Every single seed has some kind of story to tell, has some special significance in the world’s seed collection. A seed is a tiny urn storing all the vast power of life.
Here’s a tip, though: a large, cylindrical glass vase is probably not the best place to store your seeds.
Most seeds will keep at room temperature in a paper envelope for at least one year without significant loss of germination. If you need to save your seed for longer than this, you will need to take additional steps. A ten-year shelf life can be achieved for most seeds by drying them to less than eight percent moisture. To accomplish this, the seeds must be subjected to a temperature of one hundred degrees Fahrenheit for at least six hours. Whatever you do, do not put them in your microwave. Place them in a conventional oven with the door opened. When appropriately dried, package the seed in a moisture-proof container and store in your refrigerator or freezer. For this purpose, “moisture-proof” means that the seeds won’t get wet if the whole package is submerged in water. Sealed jars typically work better than plastic bags.
Of course seeds decide when they will, and when they won’t, germinate. When I was a child on the farm in Wyoming, for some unfathomable reason my father once came home with several fifty- pound burlap bags of radish seed. I have no idea what their purpose was – certainly not feed as even the omnivorous hens turned up their beaks at them. I, however, was in heaven. Every spring for several years I tossed handfuls liberally all over the farm, and every year, despite being stored in a granary that was frozen in the winter and hot in the summer, wet during rain storms and dry during drought, radishes grew. We were never short of radishes.
The most important thing to note when buying seed, though, is the date stamp. Some less-than-reputable outlets (box hardware stores, as one example) simply put out last year’s unsold stock when spring rolls around again. While this might work for fifty-pound bags of radish seed, it probably won’t guarantee success for your sustenance or flower garden. Purchase fresh seeds from a reputable nursery (or gather your own) and then follow planting instructions, either as printed on the container or as you find in a search of the gardener’s best friends, the gardening book or internet.
Some seeds, like morning glory and certain bean varieties, come with complex instructions: nick the shell and/or soak in water for twenty-four hours before planting. Although I follow the instructions faithfully, I do so filled with wonder at how they managed to ever sprout in nature. There must be some ecological or environmental factor that we, the gardeners, are mimicking.
Seeds, it rationally seems, are feminine in nature. In the Spanish language, they are called las semillas, in Portuguesa they are sementes. Both words are of the feminine gender. Seeds are mothers, sisters, daughters. They are the hens. But they are also the eggs. And just like is the case with those fowl, we are left to wonder: which came first, the plant or the seed?