- The Profit of the Earth: The Global Seeds of American Agriculture by Courtney Fullilove
This is a curious book. Nearly every page conveys the author's curiosity and her insatiable appetite for collecting historical anecdotes, allegories, oddities, and, befitting the subject, seeds. (Interspersed throughout the text are "field notes" in which Fullilove uses tales of her seed-collecting explorations in central Asia to offer wide-ranging musings on how seeds should be understood as "deep-time technologies.") The writing is sophisticated, erudite, and mesmerizing, yet much like the lines from Ecclesiastes from which the title is drawn, this book is remarkably gnomic.
The central theme is clear enough: the book examines the "collection, circulation, and preservation of seeds and plants" (p. 10) that were brought to the United States in the nineteenth century as part of a political and technoscientific project of agricultural development. But rather than narrating a straightforward history of the agricultural innovations of private enterprises and public institutions in the period, Fullilove's chapters are intentionally destabilizing, producing uncertainty rather than clarity. The disorienting nature of the text is intended to support the central argument of the book, which tellingly appears only on the penultimate page of the main text: "Agricultural expansion in the United States, rather than an effervescence of innovation, was a muddled and circuitous practice of accumulation, rebranding, and reorganization of diverse intellectual and material resources in new institutions of commerce and governance" (p. 220). [End Page 990]
Fascinating stories emerge in this circuitous history, such as the efforts of an antebellum huckster to market "Wyandot" maize as wondrously productive due to its supposed encapsulation of indigenous knowledge. We also learn of how the U.S. Patent Office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture worked to gather and distribute seeds and plants to American farmers—for example, wheat from southern Russia (successfully) and tea from China (unsuccessfully)—and how those institutions worked to obscure origins, casting plants "as products of nature rather than artifacts of accumulated knowledge and technological practice" (p. 65). Yet the book also dwells on the pharmacology of Echinacea; the politics of contemporary seed banks; a sci-fi novel about a pharmacist who journeys to the center of the earth via a Kentucky cave; the epistemology of time as explored by Fritz Lang in the 1927 film Metropolis; the contested periodization of the Anthropocene; and why some Mennonites were more successful farming wheat in Kansas than others.
In other words, this is no ordinary history of agriculture. The book is bursting with pithy provocations, e.g.: "For seeds are not merely agricultural inputs, but symbols of prosperity and bounty masking the political-economic requirements of cultivation" (p. 124). Yet as a gnomic text, in which sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are often deeply mysterious regarding their meaning and purpose, the book often seems like the bureaucracy of patent medicine taxation explored in chapter 7: "a locus of disorder and provisional arrangement" (p. 192).
Historians of technology will find the most interesting aspect of the book to be its discussion of seeds as "deep-time technologies." By this Fullilove means that seeds are "not products of nature" (p. 1) but instead encapsulate several millennia of interactions between human knowledge, labor, and the complex and often confounding raw materials of botanic reproduction. This is a thought-provoking concept, engendering sophisticated discourses on the epistemology of history, the politics of periodization, and the questionable assumptions underlying many histories of innovation.
Fullilove is at her most convincing when she explicitly demonstrates how institutions committed to promoting agricultural development staked their claims to innovativeness by obscuring or erasing the deep histories of seeds. In the case of the aforementioned Wyandot corn, for instance, fraudulent claims of Indian provenance were made possible by the fact that Wyandot people "had been forcibly removed from the area ten years earlier" (p. 64). Or, in the case of "Turkey Red" wheat—known in southern Russia as "Krymka"—the Mennonite and Russian farmers who were sent into the Crimean peninsula as agricultural...