I remembered recently that one of the first things we student farmers did as a group together was broadcast rye cover crop with Carlen in the fall. We were all new to this place, this experience, these particular fields. She had us each hold a little handful of seed in our hand. “It’s remarkable, if you think about it,” I remember her saying, “what seem just like little stones have so much plant potential contained in them.” And she set us off with our buckets of seed. Step, step, cast. Step, step, cast.
Now, as the winter has been giving way to the slow warmth of spring, seeding has once again become a part of our life rhythms. As early as March we started seeding alliums in the greenhouse, carefully placing thousands of tiny stones into little cells in plastic trays. Since then hundreds of trays and dozens of varieties of veggies have been seeded, some even directly into beds outside. More recently, a personal project made me reflect more on these little stones we place into soil.
A couple weeks ago I decided to try my hand at malting barley, for brewing into beer. I have made beer before, but only from crushed malted barley purchased at homebrew stores. The prospect of making it from scratch was appealing, so I asked Brad to add a bit more barley seed in the next cover crop seed order.
Malting barley is a matter of getting the seed to sprout to a specific point, so that the starches in the seed are converted to sugar which can then be fermented into alcohol. It is simply a process of alternatingly soaking, draining, letting rest, and then soaking again until the desired level of sprouting, or “chitting”, is achieved. Easy enough.
When the order came in, I took some of the barley and put them into a couple five gallon buckets. The first step, I had read, was to soak the barley for eight to sixteen hours. “No more than sixteen hours!” I had read. These are seeds. Living beings that require care and consideration. They had been dried for storage and needed to be soaked to be re-activated, but too long and they could drown. So in the morning I filled the buckets with water, skimmed off any of the chaff that floated to the top, and noted the time. I’d be back to drain the buckets soon.
But sometimes life gets in the way. Between chores, class, work groups, and more chores, I went to bed that evening without even a thought for the barley. I woke up the next morning in a panic. Twenty four whole hours. I rushed to the buckets and drained them, looking for signs that maybe I hadn’t messed up too bad. No signs; the barley lay inert. A bucket full of little stones. Had I drowned them? No way to tell. Might as well proceed, I thought. Next step was to let them rest now for eight hours, before soaking them again. Maybe it would all be fine. I’ll check back on them this evening, I thought.
Another round of chores, class, work, and chores, and again a night of barley-less dreams. Again twenty four hours of neglect. Again awaking in a panic. Not only had I drowned the seeds (an excess of water!), now I had let them dry out too (a lack of water!). I approached the buckets with sinking heart. I looked at the seeds waiting inside. Little stones. No apparent signs of change. My heart sank a bit lower. Then I stuck my hands into the mass of barley and felt something remarkable.
My hand was surrounded by warmth. The heat of a thousand little living beings. I had read that this would happen. I knew that the seeds were alive; I knew about starch and sugar. From Tyson’s botany class I knew about plant respiration; I knew that heat is a byproduct of that process. All of these things I knew, but still I was taken by surprise to feel so viscerally the proof of the active, living nature of these seeds.
What I was feeling was sunlight. Solar energy captured by photosynthesis and stored away as carbohydrates, starch and sugar, as a promise for the future. A starter pack for the baby plant curled up inside the seed coat. An investment in the potential of a new generation. Now re-activated, the barley seeds had been working hard, converting complex starch into simple sugar, releasing the stored energy. Upon closer inspection, there were tiny little rootlets starting to emerge out of some of the seeds. Despite my neglect, these seeds of barley were fulfilling their potential.
I began to think of all of the seeds that we put into the soil. Not just little stones, but bits of life-force. Placed into pots and trays and soil blocks. Our hopes and doubts and anticipations placed with them. Little droplets of sunlight, waiting to release their stored energy. Carlen says that it’s known that seeds germinate more readily closer to the full moon. I think that’s fitting. There’s something cosmic playing out in each row of beans, in each tray of marigolds. A covenant between the sun, the moon, and the earth. A genetic mandate stretching far back in time, waiting to reveal itself. Though we may fret about ideal moisture and soil temperature and optimum planting depths, the greater forces of life continue to play out as they do. There is something incredibly humbling about this. It feels an honor that I can play a small part in this great epic of life.
I feel obliged to write something about the potential in all of us. The energies that we’ve stored as we’ve moved through this life. All the forces that have come together to sustain us. Perhaps the potential laying inside of us. Little seeds, carefully watching the waxing moon. Waiting to surprise. I think there is something powerful about coming to a new place, stepping out into unfamiliar soil, and broadcasting hopes and anxieties and curiosity. Something powerful about being open to the unknown potential that can result. There’s a tall stand of over-wintered rye in North Waslaske that’s a testament to that potential.
photo credit: grace glasson