See(d)ing the Whole

October 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?

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  • Gibran says:

    Thanks for sharing such a powerful story, I am moved by the growing awareness that these are times that call for such boldness and sacrifice. I am so resonating with this need to look coldly at what is, to look at the whole, what is hopeful and what is terrifying, and then from there, dare to live, every day, through every interaction, like a more perfect world is possible.

  • Curtis says:


    What is coming up for me is that these times require a different kind of sacrifice. It is not so much that we are being asked to give up our lives as we are our hold on certain individualistic and self-promoting (sometimes viewed as self-preserving) tendencies. The fear seems great around giving ourselves over to the reality of our connectedness, and yet I can only imagine the collective “sigh” that will result when more of us get there.


  • Jeremy says:

    If you are interested in Vavilov’s work, including some information that brings him up to date, you might like to visit a site I manage to give Vavilov a voice in the digital age.

  • Curtis says:

    Thanks, Jeremey. I enjoyed taking a peek at your blog. Look forward to taking a deeper dive.


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