Cultural Seeds

A note from NWLA Director Josette Hendrix

josette cubaIs there anything more mystifying or miraculous than a seed? So small and common, yet it’s the chameleon keeper of all possibility for the continuation of life. If you can make it through all the various stages of preparation- pots, soil, water, light, heat source – the moment comes when you can hold seeds in the palm of your hand, and sow them one by one. What a feeling of satisfaction as you look at the expectant soil; soon, a seed will sprout and where there was nothing of significance before. With care, and luck, it will grow, bloom, fruit, and at each stage will provide nurture both to the physical body and to all the senses. In the end, the plant will diminish and die, but in the dry and brittle husks there will be new and other seeds.

“Seed” is Bija in Sanskrit, Shīdo in Japanese, Zhǒngzǐ in Chinese, Seme in Italian, Semilla in Spanish, Semence in French, семена in Bulgarian, and is universally translated as the source of life and the origin of food. Across all languages it means grain, essence, crop. In Greek, Aramaic, Latin – as well as English – it is also a verb, to seed. Would it surprise you to know that it is also used to mean semen, child, descendant, race, species, posterity, lineage and ancestry?

It is currently, finally, coming into mainstream consciousness that plant diversity and human cultural diversity are both under severe threat, in astonishingly similar ways, from the same, multi-faceted enemy. Over the past 100 years, it is estimated that we’ve lost 75% of the genetic diversity of our crops. At the same time, a similar percentage of world languages (half of the 7,000 known at the beginning of last century) have become extinct, and the unique cultures they represented along with them.  These losses are related, as some now recognize, and a new language is coming into being, using words like “ethnosphere” to express the understanding that language itself, as well as our stories, art, music, science, and everything we call ‘culture’ is itself not only a product of the environment , but also, most significantly, a tool for our survival and flowering as human beings just in the way biological adaptation are.  Our minds’ propensity to make distinctions between “nature” and “culture”, between what we’ve often called “nature” and “nurture,” and more recently, between technological/man-made and “natural” selection is preventing us from having the perspective necessary to see these larger patterns at work.  Interrelatedness goes much deeper than these conceptual divides.

At NWLA we feel that each interaction is a seed that can contribute to and help preserve our cultural diversity. I am so moved each and every time I see that small sprout of understanding grow from a word, an idea, a song, a recipe shared across cultures and traditions and histories. Far from just preserving traditions and cultures, we at NWLA hope to allow each culture the opportunity to act–to sow its seeds–in the contemporary world. Allowing other traditions to flourish in “new soil” and appreciating the diversity of them is also what strengthens us, giving us the tools to become more resilient, more adaptable, and stronger as a species.  Whenever cultural traits and traditions emerge, I believe that they do so as an adaptation to a certain environment.  Appreciating this and engaging with it will allow us to bring forth a new and hardier set of seeds of our own, and to be better suited to our own rapidly changing world.