In midwinter, signs of new life

Alice Oswald's nature column.

Early morning frost in Richmond Park
Early morning frost in Richmond Park. Photograph: Getty Images

All over England, in dark rainy towns, in misty flooded villages, people are flicking through seed catalogues. People with too many children, people trapped in their houses in winter – the thought of seeds is stirring them, giving them a tiny image of escape:

“All those little ones with feathery fronds like parachutes; ones that dress up in tasty flesh to be eaten and deposited elsewhere; ones like cyclamen, whose stem develops into a tightly coiled spring that brings the seed pod back to the earth. If you part the leaves, you can just see a series of springs. Oh, I love the catalogues. I can’t wait till the season comes round again.”

Seeds are simply obstructed leaves. If you bend a branch until it’s horizontal, the sap will slow to a stopping point: a comma or colon, made of leaves grown into one another and over one another and hardened. Out of this pause comes a flower, which unfolds itself in spirals, as if the leaf form, unable to keep to its line, had begun to pivot.

At the base of all this pausing and spinning, made of the same ecstatic stillness you find at the centre of a wheel, there are the seeds. They are very hard-coated and patient. Like 1920s women, saying nothing at the supper table, they hold the whole story of the leaf but their particular skill is to sit tight, waiting their turn: “Poppies, for instance – they can sit 70 years in the soil, waiting for the right conditions. Sometimes, they’re just waiting for the flash of light that comes when you’re digging.

“You know there’s always a flush of weeds when you turn the soil? That’s because there are millions of ungerminated seeds just waiting for your spade to let the light in.”

The seed saver, although she loves the catalogues, doesn’t buy many seeds. “What’s happening now is that our seeds are in the hands of about six companies and they only want varieties that have uniformity and a long shelf life. All the rest are lost. It’s phenomenally dangerous.”

She prefers to save them and swap them. “If it’s peas and beans, I let them dry on the plant. Quite early on, I select which ones I want to save and I leave a variety. I’m looking for a good bean and a random time of development. Broad beans, they have their own special, silky, floppy lining. They’re snuggled into this lovely cocoon; you can see an impression of all the beans in it, like a floppy soft bed.

“I peel it apart and sniff it and pop the seed out and pull off that rubbery grey skin and there’s the bright green bean underneath. But with tomatoes, I just wipe it on a bit of newspaper and tear it off. I remember one old boy who used to squash a tomato under his heel and just wait for it to germinate the following year. As for sweet peas, they’re so rock hard, you can’t imagine they’re going to burst into life.”

Growing pains

She shakes out a handful. They look like lead shot or plastic beads. It’s hard to define how they differ from any of these, except that a bead, once you know it is a bead, seems a finished thing, whereas a seed gives off an atmosphere of becoming. It has the look of something introverted, sealed in, held down, blindfolded, compacted – a little capsule of frustration.

“Sometimes, if you’ve sown quite thickly, the force of the seedlings raises the whole crust of the seed tray. I find that sort of thrilling, the way it pushes up the earth. It shows what power is behind it. They just want to get out; they really, really want to grow.”

Alice Oswald was in conversation with Alison Williams

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