I looked down at the seed in my hand. Wide at one end and tapered at the other, with alternating gray and white stripes, this was the seed I had chosen to represent the story of how I became involved in seed work.

We know that seeds are not merely physical objects. They have a history, and that history is an essential part of the variety itself. Knowing more about its winding path – where it comes from and who shepherded it along the way – causes us to see it, and our role in its story, differently. It’s vital that we investigate and share these stories; as Solveig Hanson said at the this year’s Student Organic Seed Symposium, “We thrive on beauty”, and I believe that this applies not only to the aesthetics of a seed, but to the stories that bear witness to the love, devotion, curiosity and collaboration involved in seed saving and plant breeding.

I was excited when I heard that the theme of SOSS this year would be ‘Seed Stories’, as I’d lately been thinking about the stories we tell about seeds, and I came away from the symposium with a renewed appreciation for the many facets a story can have.

Even though I had been thinking about seed stories, one of the sessions at this year’s SOSS expanded my understanding of what those stories could encompass. At the beginning of the workshop, Ken Greene (Co-founder and Director of Seedshed) passed around bowls filled with seeds, instructing us to pick one that spoke to us. I stared for a moment, not wanting to slow the group down but captivated by the many beautiful options. How to choose? Should I pick a familiar seed, or one I’ve worked with most? I ended up with a sunflower seed. Its monochromatic coat had caught my eye and called to mind the huge flowers that our neighbors grew when I was young – one of my earliest memories of someone growing plants for their seeds.

Ken encouraged us to see ourselves as part of a long lineage that stretches back millennia, to consider all the plants from which our seeds descended and all the hands they passed through. As breeders, we play a role in the most recent step in a long journey, not the first or the most important, and certainly not the last. Next, Ken broadened the lens through which to see a variety, suggesting that there are eight themes in seed stories – Scientific, Technological, Geographic, Historical, Cultural, Spiritual, Personal, and Culinary –  and encouraging us to think and talk more broadly about the varieties we grow and work on.

It was a love of story that compelled me in 2018 to start Free the Seed!, a podcast where I interview plant breeders about new varieties that they’ve developed and pledged to the Open Source Seed Initiative. In each episode, I ask guests to share with listeners why they embarked on their breeding projects, what choices they’ve made along the way, and how they decided to finally release their new variety. I believe that narrative can be a powerful tool to draw us in; I knew that I wanted to showcase not only the facts, but the personal story behind each variety – the surprises as well as the challenges.  Reflecting on the Seed Stories workshop, I’ve realized that the stories told on Free the Seed! are just one snapshot in the history of a variety, and have been considering how to ask questions that get at the different themes Ken suggested and better place those snapshots in their proper context.

When we acknowledge the stewardship that was necessary to bring these seeds to us, we begin to appreciate our part in the story. As Ken said, it’s nearly impossible to find a single starting point, but the exercise itself is instructive. How much more can you learn? How many more people can you be grateful for? This curiosity engenders gratitude and humility. It widens our understanding of the world to learn of the diversity of cultural significances attached to a variety. And it brings a solemnity to our actions as seed savers and plant breeders to know that the results of our work will wind up in the hands of others who will care for it and see in it the potential for new beauty and utility.

How can you cultivate curiosity and openness about the varieties you have the privilege to work with? What’s your seed story?