Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Doomsday averted?

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened near the North Pole on February 26, 2008. Owned by Norway but for the world, the vault is described as "a frozen Garden of Eden" and "the Noah's Ark for securing biological diversity for future generations." With the capacity to store 4.5 million seed samples, the vault is intended to be our insurance against disasters, man-made or natural.

An easy introduction to the life of seeds and their importance may be found in Seeds: Time Capsules of Life, by Rob Kesseler and Wolfgang Stuppy. Filled with incredible, gorgeous photographs, this is no empty coffeetable book, but rather, an excellent natural history of seeds. It also includes a chapter on The Millennium Seed Bank Project in the United Kingdom. While the Svalbard project is focusing on crop seeds, the MSBP is seeking to conserve wild plant species.

Another famous seed bank, now known as The N.I. Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry, in St. Petersburg, is the setting for Elise Blackwell's novel, Hunger, about the Siege of Leningrad during World War II. This book club favorite explores human response to extreme duress through a simple dilemma: seeds are immediate food as well as future food.

In reading about the Svalbard "Doomsday vault" I was reminded, perhaps perversely, of Brian Aldiss' science fiction classic, The Long Afternoon of Earth. Set in the far far future, the Earth has ceased to rotate on its axis; one half is in perpetual sunshine, the other in perpetual darkness. Humans still exist but in greatly diminished numbers and capacity; plants have taken over and plants are predators now (vegetable spiders, oh yeah!). Survival of the human race seems precarious at best. Aldiss' book was published first in 1962 in the United Kingdom under the title Hothouse. Global warming was on the minds of the founders of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault; who knows what those seeds are thinking?

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