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From the Woodlot
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From the Woodlot

From the Woodlot

All my life’s a circle

Sunrise and sundown

Moon rolls through the nighttime

Til daybreak comes around

All my life’s a circle

But I can’t tell you why

Season’s spinning ’round again

The years keep rolling by – Harry Chapin, 1972

In spring a seed waits for water. When rains come and temperatures warm, imbibition occurs. Its integument, the shiny hard seed coating, softens; enzymes catalyze the growth process. The radicle appears followed by root hairs. The hypocotyl extends upward to gather light. A seedling destined for maturity begins its life cycle. The process of germination and the development of seeds into plants are basic symbols representing the cycle of life.

In my 30 years as a grass-based dairy farmer, seeds were a unique matter. As grasses mature and produce seed heads, the nutritive quality of pastures declines significantly. The goal as a grass manager was to maintain a grazing rotation that would prevent seed-head formation and keep the grass plants vegetative rather than reproductive.

But as most grass-based livestock producers agree, it’s really not possible. A seed stalk will eventually express itself in a plant’s effort to continue its existence. I soon learned the value of diversity in pastures to overcome the inevitable decrease in nutritive pasture quality resulting from seed-head formation. Through time I saw the value of seed-head formation as a way of self-seeding to help maintain pasture diversity.

In the famous Arthur Miller play “Death of a Salesman,” seeds symbolize Willy Loman's longing for nature – something he cannot find in his city dwelling. His desire to plant seeds reveals his innate need to nurture growth. He doesn’t do well executing his desires in life. He experiences many failures and feels trapped in an unfruitful world.

“I’ve got to get some seeds,” Loman laments to his wife. “I’ve got to get some seeds right away. Nothing’s planted. I don’t have a thing in the ground.”

Her reply wasn’t encouraging.

“There’s no sunlight there,” she says, referring to their backyard. “Nothing will grow.”

Yet near the end of the play Willy, in a delusional state, is out in the backyard planting seeds – a last effort to create something fruitful with his life.

In fall seeds ripen. The desiccation process results in a hardened embryo in a stable state of inactivity. Dormancy ensues like that of the hibernating black bear. Whether it’s the diminutive onion seed, a decorative Bird Egg pinto bean, or a kernel-sized nut in a brown withered ironwood-tree flower, dry hardened seeds wait out dormancy until the right conditions and fertile ground begins the germination process once more. Some will be eaten by critters or people. Others might wait decades for a chance at fruition. As the seasons spin around and the years roll by, the hardened seeds await their turn at the cycle of life.

As I ripen I’m developing an affinity for using seeds as symbols. They’ve recently connected me to my children in a way that symbolizes the permanence of my love for them as well as a reminder of life’s circle. A satchel with four dry Lina Sisco Bird Egg beans, an old Altoids tin with withered hop flowers including a tiny seed at the base of each flower, a small prescription box from a Wausau Druggist in 1939 with four heirloom Orca beans – these are ways I’ve exchanged seeds with my kids in the past few weeks.

“Keep these close,” I’ve asked them, “as symbols of strength, patience, hope, trust, love and a reverence for the circle of life.”

I keep mine on my nightstand as the cycle of the seasons continues to spin. It’s landed on fall once again.

May your harvest; the reaping of ripe seed, be one that provides you with a sense of fruitfulness, friend. Until next week …

Greg Galbraith, a former dairy farmer who owns woodlot property in eastern Marathon County, Wisconsin, writes about the rapidly changing nature of the agricultural landscape. He has built a lifetime connection to the land and those who farm it.

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