Seeds and Soil

When I was a graduate student, I bought a black pine bonsai seed kit, hoping to grow a miniature tree that would decorate my work bench and perhaps accompany me through the remainder of my graduate school journey.

I waited impatiently as my seed slowly germinated, watching closely for the first appearance of a sprout. As it grew, I was fascinated by the long extensions of green pine needle-like leaves bursting through the seed cap one day, and splayed outward like an umbrella the next. I measured its growth and photographed its physical changes. But despite its successful beginning, my plant met a fateful end while I was away at a science conference. A friend who was plant-sitting carefully watched and watered it, and everything was fine . . . until her cat ate it.

I’ve been thinking about the Parable of the Sower, an allegory for listening to and receiving God’s Word, and I can’t help but bring my bonsai story into the conversation. In the parable, a farmer scatters seeds, which fall on four places: a road, rocky soil, soil infiltrated by thorny weeds, and good soil. The seeds on the road never had a chance, as they are eaten by birds. The seeds on the rocky soil sprout rapidly, but wither because there isn’t enough soil to take root. The seeds in the weeds are choked by their prickly neighbors. Only the seeds that fell upon good ground, presumably fertile soil, grow and yield a harvest of grain.

The most obvious connection between my story and the parable are the seeds that were devoured by birds—or, in my case, a cat. But I’ve also been reflecting on seeds and soil, with a keen interest in what makes soil biologically “good,” and what challenges a hopeful seed faces early in its journey to successful germination and growth.

Seeds are robust and sturdy structures, even more so than the seedlings they produce. Their exteriors are often tough enough to survive the digestive tracts of the animals that eat them, and when they’re excreted, they find themselves in a very fertile situation, where they can begin to germinate and grow. But before it was eaten, my plant had progressed to a vulnerable state—a delicate, leafy green bundle of cells, with nothing more than a waxy cuticle protecting its body. Sadly, not tough enough to survive the claws, let alone digestive tract, of a domestic cat.

Delayed germination

Not all seeds germinate immediately. Many stay in a period of dormancy where they are no longer actively dividing, waiting for favorable conditions before they awaken and emerge. A group of scientists got a thousand-year-old lotus seed to awaken from its slumber in a lab, an uncommon yet remarkable testament to the resilience and patience of some seeds.

Plants produce more seeds than will survive, because many don’t make it, as seen in the Parable of the Sower. The sheer number or even size of offspring (think coconuts!) ensures the survival of at least some of them. At the end of the day, a seed’s success is very much serendipitous. Emerging too soon can result in ruthless competition for limited resources with other seeds or more mature plants nearby. Emerging during unfavorable conditions has obvious consequences, and even emerging under favorable conditions doesn’t guarantee that such conditions will remain. The “decision” to germinate is really an all-or-nothing kind of gamble.

In her book Lab Girl, Hope Jahren describes this process beautifully, likening it to the human experience: “Each beginning is the end of a waiting. We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable. Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.”

The components of “good soil” depend on the type of seed you’re trying to grow. What might be good soil for one type may be bad or just okay for another. Essential nutrients beyond water and sunlight are generally required, mostly common ingredients found in fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium etc.), but some plants can do with less of these elements than others. And many, especially those in extreme environments, have adapted strategies to not only survive but thrive when resources are scarce.

Plants like cacti can grow in a hot desert in because of adaptations like an extra thick cuticle that keeps moisture from escaping, and tight regulation of tiny pore-like openings on their surface called stomata. These pores must open to let in gases like carbon dioxide so the plant can actually do photosynthesis, but anytime they open, the plant risks losing water through evaporation. To protect their water reserve, cacti open their stomata at night when it’s cooler—and when they will lose less water via evaporation than they would in the heat of the day.

Alternatively, plants like cypress tress found in swamps grow in soil saturated by water, their roots and knees submerged in water. If a desert cactus were transplanted to the soil of a cypress tree, its roots would be overwhelmed by the abundance of water, and could die. Other plants, like the Venus fly trap, often grow in what would be considered “poor soil” (lacking in essential nutrients), but these plants maintain a carnivorous diet of insects to get from their environment what the soil lacks. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some seeds don’t require direct contact with soil at all to grow. The Banyan tree, for example, can grow on the surface of another plant. So much for a simple definition of “good soil”!

The soil of my soul

Not every seed—whether in nature or in the Parable of the Sower—will germinate and reach maturity. Likewise, not every sermon I hear speaks to me or results in a life-changing transformation. Sometimes, I wonder how it’s relevant to me at all.

I’ve recently wondered if the problem lies with a seemingly irrelevant seed, or with uncultivated soil. I’m reminded that this experience is not unique to church. Not every science talk I hear will stimulate new ideas, nor will every lecture I give sink in to my students; it’s natural for “seeds” of information to sometimes fall on the road. If “good soil” is relative to the type of seed, does the type of seed determine the soil to be cultivated, or does the type of soil we cultivate select for seeds we want to grow?

In nature, the soil in a particular environment selects for seeds. In agriculture, a farmer can tailor his soil to the seed he desires to grow. What about in the human heart? I think it’s a combination of both, but it ultimately depends on what we want to take root there.

Ciara Reyes-Ton has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Cellular and Molecular Biology, and teaches at a college in Nashville.