I’d wager that the average person who pays some attention to the news and has some light interest vested in the sciences is familiar with the Svalbard Global Seed Bank. Located, as its official website states, “deep inside a mountain on a remote island in the Svalbard archipelago, halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole”, it is hardly tangibly accessible, as a physical site and even, I think, a concept.
“Oh yes, like Svalbard,” a person might say after they ask why I’m knee-deep in mud, picking seeds in a salt marsh and I reply “For seed banking purposes.” Yes, like Svalbard. But what is Svalbard? What does that mean to you?
I had never sat down to examine Svalbard as a complete concept. In fact, I didn’t think to until a New England MFA candidate documenting seed banks mentioned the “interplay of Science Fiction and Reality” as it pertains to my job. Science Fiction?
If you look at Svalbard slanted, not over a Jeopardy answer board or a glass of white wine at a botanical garden soiree, it’s staggering. Biologists across the globe are up there in the snow hoarding seeds like so many winter-fearing squirrels anticipating the hunger of the future. The very nature of seed banking anticipates disaster: the loss of a regional genebank at best, the loss of a habitable world at worst. And who is to say that a habitable world is a guarantee in our future? Will the seeds I collected today even have healthy soil to grow in tomorrow?
I brought up my newfound grim outlook on our work with my mentor during a long drive back from a successful field excursion to Cape Cod, some twenty canvas bags of seed bouncing gently in the backseat. He was quick to dismiss that line of thinking, reminding me that it is the job of every conservationist not only to prepare for the worst, but also to anticipate the best. It was a long conversation with much back and forth, but here is what I took away: