See(d)ing the WholeOctober 14, 2009 Leave a comment
Thinking of the fall harvest, the other day I was picking through David Ehrenfeld’s essays in Becoming Good Ancestors: How We Balance Nature, Community, and Technology, when I came across an amazing story about a team of Russian plant biologists. In the first half of the last century, Nikolai Vavilov, who is known as the father of modern crop plant protection, traveled far and wide, gathering samples of crop seeds from all over the world for his Institute of Plant Industry in what is now St. Petersburg. His collection made him the chief preserver of global agricultural diversity.
Vavilov was an outspoken critic of Trofim Lysenko, the chief agronomist under Stalin who subscribed to a non-Mendelian approach to plant genetics. Though Lysenko’s theories were later discredited, Vavilov was arrested for his criticism and imprisoned in a Siberian gulag. In his absence (he eventually died in Siberia), and in the face of the German armies marching on Leningrad in 1941, Vavilov’s dedicated assistants scrambled to preserve the Institute’s seed collections. They prepared duplicates of samples, shipped some to other parts of the country, and secretly planted others in nearby fields. Ironically and tragically, several of these scientists died of malnutrition. They literally chose to starve to death rather than consume the edible seeds that surrounded them.
I am flat out humbled by these scientists’ sacrifice that has resulted in the preservation of the agricultural gene pool for subsequent generations. It is truly proof that heroism comes from all quarters and that we stand on countless unheralded acts of courage and selflessness. I am also struck by the willingness and foresight of these scientists to give their precious lives for seeds. Their service to humanity and biodiversity suggests an incredible ability to act on behalf of the whole, or as William Blake once wrote:
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower . . .
To see the whole and seed the whole – that strikes me as one (or two) of the core challenges of leadership in these times. How do we maintain a systemic view of the problems and puzzles we are trying to solve? How do we reach out broadly in our considerations of how to address complex social and environmental issues? How do we re-member and hold the whole as it presents itself in the minutiae of day-to-day living?