Fugitive Seeds

Scattering of mustard seeds. Black and white photograph

This is the twelfth piece in a series on the Plantationocene—an alternate name for the epoch often called the Anthropocene. The Plantationocene Series aims to create a conversation about multiple forms of plantations, both past and present, as well as the ways that plantation logics organize modern economies, environments, and social relations.

A mustard seed. Actually, a scattering of mustard seeds, chaff, dry seed pods, dust of many sorts. During fieldwork this past summer, I met this variety of Cabbage Collards at a historic botanic garden in North Carolina. They had recently been donated by a local Black elder who had been growing and keeping them for decades. I began to think about the history of this particular cultivar as one of survival and adaptation in an unknown land that became more familiar generation by generation. Seedkeepers like Ira Wallace remind us that collards are intimately tied to the history of Black life in America and the breeding and keeping of local varieties throughout the South points us to a larger story of mutual relations between seeds, their keepers, and the land.

Seeds are having a moment right now; they have been for around ten thousand years. Seeds are ubiquitous and unassuming, yet the beans, grains, and corns of the world have monumental historical significance. They are botanical touchstones that compel a grounding, a return to the soil. I’m fascinated by the current cultural and political phenomenon of seedkeeping, the political ecologies of seed archives, and the legacies of Black American agrarianism. In this piece, I explore the implications of quotidian botanic lives of seeds for our current moment and how the fugitivity of seeds gives us strategies for evading, escaping, and disrupting the seemingly global moment of the Plantationocene.

Interrogating the –cenes

Ongoing debates around the specter of the plantation and its sometimes attendant -cene point to the implementation of specific plant and human assemblages on specific landscapes for the extraction of human and natural labor. Put simply, both the work of humans and the work of plants are coercively controlled by decidedly unnatural structures and rhythms of production. In the afterlives of plantation systems, or even plantation worlds, these same logics often dictate systems of labor extraction, capital accumulation, and agricultural production, continuing to collapse human and botanic life to levels of utility and resource, whether through monocrop rubber plantations, industrial food production, or as Katherine McKittrick has suggested, the racial geographies of U.S. cities.

The logics of the Plantationocene bring to light the deep connections between ecological simplification and racial capitalism; in other words, the machinic urgency of and control over production and reproduction across landscapes of life that must be defined, mapped, and governed. They also provide a useful spatial element to contemporary conversations over the epochs we may or may not find ourselves in, be they Anthropocene, Capitalocene, or my current preference, Alienocene. Yet as McKittrick has also warned, “the plantation is not a cool concept. the plantation is terrible and violent and deadly.” Plantation analytics are deeply fraught, urging us to hold in tension the ways in which they may inform human and ecological lives without totalizing them.

Seedkeeping is a longstanding cultural and technical practice, sustained in part by Indigenous food and seed sovereignty movements. Cecilia Joaquin (Pomo) gathers seeds. Photo by Edward Curtis, 1924.

Botanic life may provide a way of thinking through these legacies and unsettling contemporary plantation worlds through human and inhuman geographies of justice. A seed is a “deep time technology… so sophisticated it appears quotidian.” Seeds have been kept, gardens grown, new cultivars bred and archived for millennia before the rise of plantations and probably for millennia after their decomposition. Seedkeeping is one of the oldest cultural and technical practices on the planet, and has come back into the popular imaginary largely thanks to Indigenous food and seed sovereignty movements. Food sovereignty pushes for community control of and within local and regional food systems, with the turn to seed sovereignty serving as a complementary set of politics that takes these notions further, deepens connections to land, and makes space for critical and speculative interrogations of seeds as sites of political resistance, cultural resilience, biological archive, and environmental adaptation. Seedkeeping goes beyond traditional seed saving practices to meaningfully engage with these cultural, historical, and political entanglements. It is just these entanglements that inform an approach to the agricultural politics of the Plantationocene. Though not all-encompassing, plantation logics are pernicious and pervasive; current movements around agriculture largely cannot be read or understood without the framing of plantation legacies, yet perhaps these agricultural narratives can also serve as vectors of geographic and historical understanding with and against the plantation.

Seeds and seed stories are deeply entangled with the stories and legacies of the Black diaspora.

In plantation-style agriculture, seeds are sown en masse in as systemic and replicable a process as possible. An entire crop of a single variety is often planted simultaneously, maintained along the same schedules and with the same methods, and harvested together. While many plants do a fantastic job of working within this system, botanic life, in its quotidian, cyclical, and seasonal rhythms, often works against and around these structures, as do many farmers maintaining and keeping them. To borrow Anna Tsing’s thoughts on polyphonic assemblages, in our encounters with seeds, in our attempts to guide, manipulate and facilitate, we are revealed as entangled in a constructive mess of human, non-human, and non-living actors.

Keeping Seeds

Seeds are often thought of as inanimate objects, albeit those that contain and sustain life or even the potential for life. However, as soon as the inanimate becomes animate, it is no longer a seed but a seedling, no longer potential life but plant-in-progress, a vegetal happening. This neat little package of genetic information and carbohydrates has a peculiar distinction of archiving and carrying biological histories while wrapped up in cultural ones, and those cultural valences often manifest as stories. As Robin Wall Kimmerer, invoking Gary Nabhan, reminds us, “It’s not just land that is broken, but more importantly, our relationship to land…we can’t meaningfully proceed with healing, with restoration, without ‘re-story-ation.’” Seeds, in a sense, are nodes of ecological storytelling, as folklore or as scientific ways of knowing the world. In that sense, seeds may allow us to contextualize the political ecologies of the present by looking to the past.

Understanding seeds and seedkeeping can help illuminate other histories and ways of knowing. Customers shop at a seed store in Texas. Photo by Lee Russell, 1939.

The contemporary turn among environmental historians toward the U.S. South embraces the complications of cultural-ecological landscapes from which legacies of systemic violence, settler colonialism, and plantation slavery cannot be extracted or ignored. Spatially and temporally, plantation logics and plantation analytics are virtually inseparable from the stories of seedkeeping, plant breeding, and botanic life. With these complex entanglements in mind, the intersections of seeds and seed stories with plantation worlds necessitates a look back to the community geography of the enslaved and engaging with historical sites as contrasted story-sites of overlapping landscapes of memory. Enslaved people built and maintained a microclimatic knowledge of the landscape that informed African-American valences of wilderness that pushed back against larger environmental discourses forming during the nineteenth century. The marginal geographies of plantation landscapes were thus sites of errancy and fugitivity into and through which human and botanic life slipped.

Additionally, on the material site of the slave ship, rations, leftovers, and biological stowaways of many sorts were incorporated into plantation agriculture, often through the technical expertise of the recently abducted. Furthermore, the introduction of many seed varieties and knowledge systems from West Africa to the Americas also took the form of contraband, brought over through agential acts that were not often captured in traditional archives. Judith Carney, in her work developing the black rice hypothesis, intersected a number of geographic and speculative methodologies, including the power of stories. As Carney notes, “oral histories offer a counternarrative” that can “link plant transfers to the transatlantic slave trade.” Most notable is the prevalence throughout the Americas, especially in former Maroon communities, of stories of enslaved women hiding rice seeds in their hair and even sneaking them to their children before being separated. Not only are we confronted with small yet spectacular acts of bodily and reproductive resistance, but also with the ways in which seeds and seed stories are so deeply entangled with the stories and legacies of the Black diaspora.

Seedkeeping goes beyond traditional seed saving practices to meaningfully engage with these cultural, historical, and political entanglements.

These small forms of fugitivity also manifested throughout plantation spaces as autonomous or semi-autonomous provision grounds, “small and fragmented spaces” that materially and metaphysically ran counter to the plantation landscape and would eventually produce many of the foods and cuisines of the American diet. Presenting an “alternative botanical vision” within colonized landscapes, these were sites of subsistence as well as experimentation. Seeds were smuggled over and adapted to new landscapes with new ecological needs; yet they were also co-opted from the ecologies of these lands and adapted to new cultural and cosmological needs. To what extent can we read these processes of acclimatization alongside those of Black folks who changed, and were changed by, the land? How does the entanglement of human and inhuman geographies inform ecological relations that disrupt the control and extraction of human and botanic labor in contemporary plantation worlds? And how might fugitivity serve as an analytic for this disruption as well as a through line between Black subjects, Black landscapes, and Black seeds?

The Poetics of Fugitivity

Britt Rusert’s Fugitive Science calls our attention to the fugitivity inherent to nineteenth-century African-American engagement with the natural sciences, as existing largely outside of institutions and manifesting in spaces of cultural production and quotidian life. Rusert describes fugitivity as explicit oppositional critiques of scientific hegemony, the deployment of practical instruments of struggle, and speculative engagements with the “imaginative landscape of science.” It is this imaginative landscape that particularly resonates with the legacies of seedkeeping and botanic thought in the afterlives of plantation worlds. This ecological fugitivity is a way of attending to a broader set of relations that work with and against mainstream ecological thought and inform the stakes of Black environmentalism. It threads through praxes of creativity and experimentation in the present-day proliferation of Black agricultural resistance movements in vacant lots, small farms, and contingent spaces rendered illegible or unallowable by forces of political power. As Leah Penniman asserts in Farming While Black, the restoration of the soil is part of a process of “healing from colonialism,” where the political and ecological stakes are revealed as one and the same. Movements of vegetal and political life are in constant coordination.

Slash pine seed sown on land use project in Macon County, Alabama, as part of the Tuskegee Project. Photo by Arthur Rothstein, 1937.

I want to put forward the idea that seeds are fugitive. As compelling as it is to think about seeds as cultural archives and neat packages of genetic information, botanic life sweats through the interstices of political, geographic, and cultural space. Seeds are donated, sold, traded, gifted, lost on the side of the road. They end up in any number of places and re-acclimate to any number of new environmental demands. Maybe they get renamed. Maybe they settle back to some wild, ancestral state. Maybe they evolve, through human and nonhuman forces into some new variety with some new story. They cannot be controlled as artifacts in a museum or entries in a vault. They will always slip through the cracks. They will always move. The cultural significance and ancestral stories are represented and reified through fleeting instances of vegetal lives and afterlives. This material question of ecological fugitivity lies at the break between the infusion of cultural relevance and the life of the seed itself, the gap between historical archive and historical actor. Seeds compel us to rethink the lives and afterlives of plantation worlds; they give us strategies for evading, escaping, and disrupting any global -cene. So when one encounters a scattering of mustard seeds on an otherwise nondescript table in a historic garden site, this mass of granular forms is revealed to be individual, genetically distinct variations on a theme. Lines of flight, carriers of stories, nodes of connection between the body and the land. Promises of a messy, free, fugitive future.

Featured image: A scattering of mustard seeds. Photo by author.

Christian Brooks Keeve is a graduate student in Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Their current work sits at the intersections of Black Geographies and Political Ecology, asking questions of the things people do (and don’t do) with seeds, as well as the things seeds may or may not do on their own. Feel free to send them your hot takes about plants. Contact.