A month ago, 200 of us gathering in a piney mountain park near Slivered City NM to celebrate the life of Richard Felger, the Dean of Desert Ethnobotany. My first words that day were this: “To be out in the desert with Richard Felger was liking going to another planet with Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak or Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. All the weird plants were his familiars. They and anyone who cared about them, were his family.” Richard did a curious thing with many of us who interned with him on science writing projects. After a point he’d say with the authority of a Zen Master, “You’ve learned all you can from me. You can make it on your own.” And most but not all of us did. To him, we were the desert’s ephemeral wildflowers, and that alone was a great gift.
Cary Fowler, the great global seed conservationist first imagined and drew the Svalbard doomsday Seed Vault for three of us on a paper tablecloth in a seaside restaurant on the west coast of Italy one afternoon. He could look twenty years out and see where he would be going. He convinced me right after I received my Master’s in plant sciences and joined the “junior faculty” to speak out at a House Hearing in DC against the patenting of seeds, especially Native American seeds.
He not only helped me write my testimony–somehow he already knew all that rhetoric–but bought me my first “rep” tie so that I could even get in to the Capitol. Right before I was to speak, he whispered in my ear, “I was just tipped off by a legislative aid that they are out to get you. Under no circumstances should you say that you speaking as a junior faculty member of the University of Arizona or that you represent the views of other faculty. It’s a trap. Your Dean has sent a letter condemning you as a scientist for ‘getting political.’ You’re bound to be fired when you get back if you don’t watch you words.”
When it was my turn to get up, Congressman Kika de la Garza of Texas barked at me, “Young man, just who do represent today?” Trembling, I meekly replied, “I speak for plants, because they haven’t had a voice in the decisions that affect them!” He was stunned and angry. “What university did you say you represent?” “I am here to defend the plant world and do not represent any human institution.” As you can imagine, that brought the House down.
Cary Fowler and I later worked with Kevin Dahl and Hope Shand to write the first Community Seed Bank Kits, distributed around the world in at least four languages. For me, Cary Fowler and Hope Shand are the true Seed Saints of my generation. Bless them both.