First there were plants, stretching across the forest floor, bursting into clusters, stretching up, becoming trees. Then there were feet and hands walking among the plants, trailing their fingers across the cool green leaves. Some of the plants grew six feet tall and in the autumn would rain tiny seeds. The people invented pockets for the seeds and carried them across plains and cliffs, rivers, and lakes. Then there were fires, glowing orange in the pitch black night and sometimes the flames would lick the seeds and cast them into a state of permanence.
Then there were more people. And more. And more. Some people came from different places like Mexico and ate food like corn. Some people worshipped that corn. Most people ate that corn and forgot about the tall green plants with the thousand tiny seeds. The people invented lights and walls and cell phones and drip coffee and were too busy to think about plants because they were driving cars and pushing shopping carts. Instead of shaking protein from a shrub near their cave, they went to giant buildings with fluorescent lights and bought food from across the world that had been locked into metal cans.
Everything changed. Many of the plants that once saturated the Southeast began to disappear as people planted corn and soybeans. They stopped walking through the plants and started driving tractors that unearthed the ground and sprayed chemicals that performed an elite elimination of all but a few chosen crops. The fields became no place for animals, insects, or even people. In a blink of time, the world as it had been for so long turned over on its back to become the world we know today.
The wide canyon between what life and food was and what it is now caught the attention of Stephen Carmody, a quiet archaeologist employed at The University of the South, who spent his time scuffling through ancient caves searching for plants that people had forgotten. After stumbling on a few tiny seeds that had been preserved 6,000 years before, he squirreled them away in his long-ago invented pockets to study. It was his job to be curious about the past, but what he really wanted to know was what these seeds could mean for the future.
He began experimentally planting the seeds with the most exciting plant being a common weed often called lambsquarters or chenopod. Because lambsquarters are native to the region, they are equipped with everything they need to grow. While it takes roughly 3,000 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn, Carmody argues that growing lambsquarters requires next to nothing. They boast long tap roots that stretch deep into the soil, sucking up all the water and minerals they need to thrive. Carmody and others have found the delicate leaves of lambsquarters to be even healthier than spinach and to produce a seed similar to quinoa—a super food so popular even Whole Foods can barely keep it in stock.
Currently, the vast majority of the foods grown on both organic and conventional farms are foreign to the region in which they are grown, making them fragile. They require great amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, money, and time to even hope to make it to a plate. Yet, growing lambsquarters simply entails putting a seed in the ground, walking away, and returning when it is time to harvest. To someone other than a farmer, this may not sound like such a feat, but for those who spend their days battling pests, diseases, and drought, it could be an essential solution to an ever-growing problem.
Farm manager Carolyn Hoagland notes, “As a soil scientist, I think the most important thing that we can do is understand the limits of what the land can produce and communicate that to people. Globally, we have lost half of our soil’s organic matter since we started farming. Look at the amount of land we are no longer able to farm due to erosion—when we overgraze, push too hard, don’t put back organic matter—the result is desertification. We can’t continue to do what we’ve done in the past and continue to feed a growing population.”
While many students and colleagues have shown unwavering support for the small project, Carmody humbly admits that growing out native plants is, if anything, just a part of a solution to the global food crisis we are facing. “Your opinion falls based on how you see the world and future today. If you believe global warming is happening and the earth is warming up, then you believe most of the crops we grow today are adapted to a climate that won’t exist in one hundred years.”
To look ahead one hundred years, to dream of our grandchildren’s future, calls for us to look for a better way. In this case, it isn’t a new laboratory procedure or fancy machine. It’s an ancient seed, a piece of our human history, and a promise of what once was, what we could become.
Stephen’s colleague, Dr. Sarah Sherwood, an archaeologist and a lifelong gardener admits, “My urge is to pull [weeds] up. Part of it is a cultural way of looking at things—changing the way we view these plants pushes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to question how and why we eat. Yet, sometimes the most elegant, simple ideas can be right in front of us.”