Seeds as Time Capsules

Courtney Fullilove, The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2017)

Like any good grad student, the first time I picked up The Profit of the Earth by Courtney Fullilove, I flipped right to the back, scouring the index for my dissertation’s keywords. Alongside predictable entries for seeds, wheat, agriculture, and Kansas, I found Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” and a long list of page numbers under “Patent Office” and “Mennonites”—all in a book with a title that quotes Ecclesiastes. Each of these subjects, in a series of happy surprises sprinkled throughout the text, bring to life Fullilove’s central claim: the history of American agriculture can be read in the genes of a seed.

Fullilove herself admits, “I never liked the adage about starting at the beginning.” That explains why her monograph on 19th-century American agriculture opens with her visit to an archaeological site in Armenia and concludes at Syria’s International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA). These anecdotes bookend a three-part narrative on the journey of the American seed. “Collection” describes how the U.S. Patent Office’s management of seed varieties informed a nationalist vision of innovation. “Migration” narrates how a Turkish breed of wheat imported by immigrant Mennonites became a key tool in extending the agricultural reach of their adopted nation across a continent, and “Preservation” follows a pharmacist’s efforts to save a medicinal prairie weed called Echinacea, exposing the irrationality of the political economy necessitated by American empire.

Zorats Karer, the archelogical site near Sisian, Armenia where Fullilove sets her prologue. Image courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank">Wikimedia Commons </a>.

Zorats Karer, the archaeological site in Armenia where Fullilove sets her prologue. A 2007 photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Each of these parts extrapolates Fullilove’s argument that seeds should be understood as “deep-time technologies” layered with hundreds of generations of agricultural labor and knowledge. When entrepreneurs, research stations, and corporations bred new cash crops with higher yields, they erected new regimes of intellectual property to protect their inventions. In the process, they not only reduced the level of biodiversity but obscured the collective, ancient work without which even the most advanced species of wheat could never have been possible. As Fullilove argues, agriculture inescapably reduces the variety of species and innovation, destroying the old when it creates the new. And yet, The Profit of the Earth takes as its premise that no matter how much human activity has narrowed this range, the history embedded in seeds can recover the biodiversity of the past, help scholars recognize the complexity of the present, and inform humanity about how to expand the possibilities of its future.

The cover of the book "The Profit of the Earth," by Courtney Fullilove.Between each of the book’s three sections, Fullilove inserts “field notes” that tell a story from her research trips with a global group of plant genetic resource specialists in the mountains of the South Caucasus. She spends minimal space explaining the present-day strife in that region or, in the case of her epilogue, in Aleppo. But any reader aware of the struggles faced by the Armenians, the Yazidi, or the Syrians will come away with heightened appreciation for the fragile, life-bearing artifacts at the heart of this history of seeds. More than moments of transitions between chapters, the field notes give Fullilove a few pages to step out of her central narrative and meditate on the possibilities of the history of science and of environmental history. She argues that the act of learning a seed’s story demands “shift[ing] focus from institutions of research to the broad field of agrarian knowledge on which they [draw],” and situating “the contingency and variety of environmental decision making at local, regional, national, and international scales.”

The body of the text puts this theorizing into practice. A chapter on the agricultural collections displayed in a museum at the U.S. Patent Office spends as much time following Commodore Matthew Perry into Japan as it does tracking political debates in Washington, D.C. Another chapter about the arrival of Turkish wheat in Kansas traces its Mennonite subjects back to southern Russia. And in one deft passage that connects Pekka Hämäläinen’s history of Comanche agriculture with Frederick Jackson Turner’s Frontier Thesis and Katherine Lee Bates’s “America, the Beautiful,” Fullilove argues that, while the cultivation of the Great Plains may date back centuries, the “amber waves of grain” do not. The red wheat that Bates “made iconographic of the American landscape” had been imported from the Crimea and could not have been “more than twenty years old” when the poem was written. In this reviewer’s mind, The Profit for the Earth does for seeds what Kate Brown’s Plutopia and Dispatches from a Dystopia did for plutonium. In our engagements with agriculture and science, we should acknowledge that their artifacts operate across timescapes that historians, indeed most humans, have seldom conceived.

In the nineteenth century, the Patent Office Building housed a "cabinet of curiosities" for tourists. Today, visitors enjoy the Kogod Courtyard. Image courtesy of <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

In the 19th century, the U.S. Patent Office Building housed a “cabinet of curiosities” for tourists. Today, visitors enjoy the Kogod Courtyard. A 2010 photo from Wikimedia Commons.

As might be expected from such jumps across space and time, The Profit of the Earth might cause its fair share of whiplash. Readers have little time to settle into any given location or get to know a character before the next section whisks them off to destinations far afield. Fullilove also has a tendency to clutter her prose with abstract words in the introductions and conclusions of her chapters, right when her arguments are at their richest. This may be one of those rare instances where a more direct engagement with historiography in the text, more discursive footnotes, or longer chapters could have made the argument more engaging, maybe even more accessible. Fullilove covers a lot of ground in just over 200 pages of text. I, for one, would not have minded spending a bit more time traversing it with her.

A portrait photograph of Courtney Fullilove, wearing a black coat and standing outside in front of a set of concrete stairs.

Courtney Fullilove, Associate Professor of History at Wesleyan University. Photo by Stefan Weinberger, 2010.

Of course, critiquing a book for leaving you wanting more is to praise it with faint damnation. The author is at her best when describing subjects on the margins, whether they be dispossessed, forgotten, or failing to achieve their goal, and whether those subjects are people, stalks of wheat, or bureaucratic institutitons. Any 19th-century historian will not be surprised to learn that, between the dual political economies of westward expansion and slave labor, anyone trying to introduce a new staple crop became “a patsy of King Cotton.” At the same time, policymakers and farmers alike exoticized Asian and Native American plant varieties, rendering the labor that produced those varieties invisible and furthering the imperial ambitions of American nationalism.

Readers will be delighted to discover that in 1849, “the capital’s most popular tourist attraction” was a natural science museum housed in the Patent Office Building, or that the pharmacist who promoted Echinacea did “clandestine service on behalf of the Internal Revenue Service” before writing a science fiction novel about a cave in Kentucky that leads to the center of the earth. Fullilove has a knack for recovering historical subjects that, in both the literal and metaphorical sense, have been lost in the weeds. Never losing sight of the tragic dimensions of the Anthropocene, her end result cuts across the longest spans of time and the smallest dimensions of space to capture the making of an agricultural empire in its fullest historical scope.

Featured image: A seed storage box at the Nordic Gene Bank. Photo by Dag Terje Filip Endresen, 2007. 

Kevin Walters works as an historian and Strategic Research Coordinator at the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), the academic patenting arm of the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in History at UW–Madison. His dissertation is an intellectual biography of WARF’s founder, Professor of Biochemistry Harry Steenbock (1886-1967). WebsiteContact.

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