Most fruit seeds are dispersed after being eaten by a hungry animal, digested, and excreted elsewhere with their own little supply of natural compost. The seed coat has protected them through this process, preserving them for implanting. Effectively, this means seeds must go through shit before sprouting.
Adopt the pace of nature, her secret is patience.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
I had planned an afternoon in the fourth grade garden today, planting bean seeds alongside small grubby hands. Instead I attended the funeral of a good friend lost too soon. This evening, I gathered with other dear ones to celebrate a sister-friend’s birthday. And I can’t stop thinking about birth, death, and the space between — the sprouting and blooming that comes of it all.
For some time I have been learning about the fall and how it draws the life-sugar from our leaves and reveals the distilled vibrant colors of what remains. I have seen how suffering makes some people achingly beautiful, and how all things come to an end. I am watching now for the newest beginnings, births that come as dust returns to dust and seeds fall and are covered and rains come.
I am learning by looking, and by listening. When I sit in my chair in the rising dawn, the birds are home. They have returned, apart from my faithful cardinal friends who somehow never parted, from a sunny sojourn farther south. The earth is moving and creaks with the pushing up of life. I sometimes think I can hear the worms at play, and the first bees, a fat and fluffy variety, searching out our April Dawn camellias.
Scattered across the kitchen counter are tiny brown specks, the kind that I swipe at with my hand to clear a space for cooking. They live alongside the crumbs and dust bunnies when they tumble to the floor, but they are not yet returned to dust. They are seeds. My son has gathered them and guarded them through the winter and he sows them now, lovingly if naively and with great expectations of greening, in aluminum trays in our window. The seeds I keep finding in kitchen crevices are the ones that he missed, some that got away from his small hands. They are pumpkins and microscopic basil. I know what they represent, but to my undiscerning eye they look like so much dirt.
A seed. I have wondered, is it dead? It is in so many ways a remnant of something good that was before. A fruit or a flower that has already spent itself in glory. A seed is the remains, fit only for burial.
A seed, small and dry, should be shrouded and cast into the soil. But it is not dead.
Nor is it yet fully alive.
One might say that it is plenty with potential. It is a possibility awaiting the consummation of lengthening days and warming air and moisture in a dark, safe environment. My kitchen counter with its spills and knives and antibacterial spray is not friendly to a gentle seed. She requires something altogether different.
The dark, the earth, the hidden places, those are the friends of a seed . . . She falls to the ground. She bottoms out, as do I, in questioning. What of all these endings? When come the beginnings? I know from whence I have come, but to where am I being taken and whom will I become when I am planted in that place? What unknown sweetness do I carry?
A seed is an embryonic vessel. Nearly dead, but made to live. I am dead in my own self, dead in sin and in this world, and dead in my own strength. Like the Wicked Witch under Dorothy’s house, I am not only merely dead, I’m really most sincerely dead.
How does a seed go from dormant to vibrant? Swept from my kitchen counter into the bin, she does not. But tucked away into the proper environment, she will begin the annual necessary miracle.
What makes a seed? What comprises this vessel of possibility?
Seeds are like embryos — they house the creative potential of an entirely new life. I carry that potential in my body, and in my spirit. Great things await. But the seed produces nothing on her own. I bring the faith, that is my catalyst. I am fertilized by grace, and this is not my own doing.
A seed does not fret nor furrow her brow nor groan with the labor. Nor does she fight the process. A seed waits. A seed is patient, adopting the slow pace of nature. She sits in the mercy of her circumstances, her environment, her salvation. Life seeps in — a lengthening of days and a warming of earth and worms to tunnel channels for oxygenating the soil. Comes the damp, comes the dawn. Something within flickers, and she stirs. How does she know the proper time? How does she know her work?
The gentle arrival of spring signals this mystery. I do not know how she knows, nor do I know how the Spirit has worked in me to plant these seeds over the span of years, these seeds that have been pushing through and may become fuller versions of themselves.
I am thirsty. Parched, yet I know the source.
This seed must grow in two directions at once. Life begets life. She must sink her roots ever deeper, in continual thirst. Which direction is up? And down? And this alone is not enough. To be fruitful, the seed must first thrust herself outside the shell. What seemed so dense and strong, the hard maze of lines on the stone of a peach — this guarded a tiny life through the deep cold of winter. Her inner layer, the fierce yet fragile seed coat, protected the possibilities within. There is a lovely word — megagametophyte — to describe the internal embryonic sac, cradling moisture and nutrients, sustaining through the winter. Now, with time and patience and slow warming, that outer shell parts in places so the heart can expand. She reaches down for drink, and up for light. A new life requires roots and shoots. The stem which tentatively breaks the surface of the soil will become the vessel for the light, and the storage place of the food unfurling leaves will receive from the sun. This is the perfect completion of the drawing down of sugar in the fall — this is the intake, the fueling, the filling of sweet vitality. This. This is the place of transformation. Quickening, the imparting of life anew. Fertility will come in time, and multiplicity. But until she pushes forth and grows some leaves, the tender plant won’t have food. Until she grows roots, she can’t drink the water. Roots and shoots, for bearing leaves and fruit.
A seed does nothing independently. I must remember this when I want to shutter myself away from light and the loud lives of others. The quiet solitary winter is necessary for the rest that precedes the birth. The cool nights must do their own work on the quiet seed. And the Giant Sequioas in Yosemite must burn in order to give birth. Without fiery heat they cannot release their seeds to fall. They blaze. And the seed — she must acquiesce. She will rest and wait, existing, allowing the circumstances to shape her rather than doing it herself. Spring catalyzes, external forces press in. She cracks open, and thrusts out in dangerous ways to reach for the light. But this break happens gently, as does the filling.
And the scattering of the seeds. The sturdy oaken acorn dropped straight to the ready earth in autumn, covered in dead brown. It pushes now, unwieldy from the grave, climbing for the sky and the squirrels who will one day carry its own ripening seeds. These shades of springing green, how to give words to that emerging hue wherein yellow light meets dark earth and yields splendid life color?
The seeds that fall come down in different ways. Dandelions scatter in spring. They are free to float on the breeze, content to fly and see the ground beneath from a birds’ eye view, gentle, light, and dancing. The seeds in my kitchen were placed there by small hands. The acorns landed heavily last autumn. Steady, reliable. I am often called those things and they are strong. But I would rather dance across the breeze or be carried by a songbird. The flowers will blossom at their own paces, for glory and for good, not for comparison. The fruits will come each in their season. And we will all be watching and waiting. We will mourn the losses, the deaths, the burials. But we will gather in the budding life with much rejoicing. We will seek and find it in our gardens, and in ourselves. Wholly alive, we will celebrate.
Allison Gaskins writes beneath a window in a snug closet in her Virginia home. She is the author of several books, mom to five, and wife of a patient man. She works for Mantle Music and Art House North when she is not busy staring out the window, gathering words. Her garden currently nourishes weeds and hens.