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The seed mob

The seed mob

Story by Thor Hanson
Illustrations by Drew Christie

A writer’s relationship with seeds deepens when he leaves the San Juan Islands to visit the blackened and burnt Methow Valley.

As if on cue, cars and pickup trucks started turning into the parking lot, headlights gleaming in the morning fog. Soon the crowd around the picnic shelter swelled to 50, then 70. People carried garden rakes and wore sturdy shoes, greeting friends and neighbors and joking about the weather. The Methow Valley’s famous mountain sunshine was nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by a cold, steady drizzle. Suddenly, a fit young woman climbed onto a table and turned to address the crowd: “Welcome to the seed mob!”

Everyone cheered, and a few people held their rakes aloft. Then she introduced herself as the event’s instigator, Sarah Brooks from the Methow Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust. “We’re here today to plant some hope up the Twisp River,” she said, and there was an audible murmur of assent. For the second year in a row, record wildfires had scorched thousands of acres in and around the valley. The entire town of Twisp had been evacuated, and three young firefighters lost their lives battling the blaze. Months later, people were still looking for ways to come together as a community — activities that would heal landscape and people alike. That’s where the seeds come in.

The seed mob desk illustration by
Illustrated by Drew Christie
The Seed Mob, Desk

“It’s as much about psychology and sociology as it is about ecology,” Sarah told me later that day. We were standing on a charred hillside, watching dozens of seed mobbers with their rakes hard at work on the slope below. Sarah kept her hands in her pockets for warmth, but she brimmed with enthusiasm, her reddish-brown hair barely contained in a knit woolen cap. “Most of this land will come back on its own,” she went on, “but planting seeds gives people a tangible connection to that recovery.” All day long she seemed bent on making that connection as personal as possible, moving from group to group with encouraging words as if to put people, seeds, and soil all on a first name basis.

My own relationship with seeds stretched back to graduate school, where I’d spent thousands of hours studying their dispersal in tropical rainforests. More recently I’d written a book about seeds and spent even more time inside, studying and giving lectures.

I came to the Methow Valley eager to get my hands dirty again. And as someone from the wet, western part of the state, I knew I had a lot to learn about life in the wake of a fire.

The rain had eased as I set to with my rake, scratching grooves between tufts of blackened grass and the burnt stubs of bitterbrush. Ahead of me, an older woman scattered handfuls of wheatgrass seed. “This breeze is perfect,” she said, letting the grain drift from her hand in golden waves. “I feel just like that famous painting!” I smiled back, wondering if she meant Van Gogh, Millet, Winslow Homer or somebody else. Sowing seeds has long been a popular theme in art.

“We’re trying to maximize the contact between seed and soil,” Rob Crandall reminded us. “If you have to bend over and squint hard to see what you’ve planted, then plant more.” Having operated a local nursery for more than 15 years, Rob had squinted at a lot of seeds. He smiled easily and wore a baseball cap faded to an indeterminate color, ambling along with the seed mob like a walking reference book on native plants. I asked him what this hill would look like in the springtime.

“Most of this was shrub-steppe,” Rob said, referring to a plant community dominated by bunchgrasses, wildflowers, and waist-high woody shrubs. It burned fast and hot, but left behind perennials able to resprout from rootstock. “If it’s like the last fire,” he added, “the balsamroot should be amazing.” Rob explained how the 2014 blaze prompted balsamroot, a native sunflower, to bloom like no one had ever seen. Whole hillsides glowed with the tall, yellow blossoms. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising — these were the plants that had given the valley its name. In the Okanagan language, Methow is the word for “sunflower.” Native people knew this place was good balsamroot habitat and that the harvest of seeds, a staple food, always increased after a burn.

Coping with fire, and even taking advantage of it, has always been part of life in the Methow Valley. Balsamroot survives with a deep, fleshy taproot, and then blooms furiously to spread its seeds in the aftermath. Competition for fire-cleared ground is fierce, because while the ashy soil may look barren, it is anything but empty. Scores of plant species persist through the blaze as seeds, and for many of them, a fire is just what they’ve been waiting for.

“Native people knew this place was good balsamroot habitat and that the harvest of seeds, a staple food, always increased after a burn.”

“Collinsia, Cryptantha, Collomia …” Rob rattled off the scientific names of various wildflowers in the shrub-steppe seed bank. We were crouched over the rocky soil, peering at a few specks of green that had already sprouted with the autumn rains. “The Phacelia last year was crazy,” he said, sweeping his hand over the blackened ground as if painting a wash of color from memory. For these and many other fire-adapted species, burning provides an ideal environment for germination: open ground, ample sunlight, and a flush of nutrients from the ash. Evolution has programmed the seeds to wait for just such conditions to arise. Some require a flash of heat to weaken their shell; others respond to the chemical signature of wood smoke or to water that has filtered through charcoal. The seeds’ adaptations seem as varied as the flowers they grow into and sometimes lead to surprises.

“What about tumble mustard?” one of the seed mobbers asked. “I never saw it on my land before the fires, but now it’s coming up everywhere.”

Rob shook his head ruefully. Tumble mustard was a pernicious weed, but you had to respect its seeds. They could lie in the soil for 60 years or more before sprouting en masse, making the plant seem capable of appearing from nowhere. Residents of London must have felt the same amazement after the Great Fire of 1666, when a closely related mustard burst into golden blossom throughout the charred neighborhoods north of the Thames. Reconstruction efforts soon covered those fields again, but people saluted that sudden bloom with a new name for the flower: London rocket.

Rebuilding began quickly in the Methow Valley, too — mustard and balsamroot weren’t the only things to come back strong after the fires. Everyone I spoke with had stories about helping those who’d lost homes, barns, fences, or livestock. The head of the local power company told me about replacing three miles of poles and wire connecting more than 200 houses. “We had it up and running in four days,” he said simply, and then got back to work with his rake.

Sarah had to herd the group back down the hill as the seed mob drew to a close. People kept stopping in new areas, as if reluctant to leave any ground unplanted. Finally we reached the cars and said our goodbyes under a sky still heavy with fog, like a misty echo of the fire’s smoke and haze.

Before leaving I leaned down and filled a sandwich bag with blackened soil. I keep it now spread out on a tray in my office — a tiny mirror of the valley’s rebirth. Every morning I sprinkle the tray with water and already the seeds have begun to emerge — dozens of hopeful green nubs dotting the dark earth. Charles Darwin once did something similar in his office, sprouting 537 seeds from three tablespoons of pond mud “all contained in a breakfast cup!” Whether the seed bank in my Methow soil can match Darwin’s mud remains to be seen, but nothing would surprise me. They’re still coming up.