Seeds from the Streets to the Seas (2019)

Zayaan Khan

I walk through so many parts of this city and see what life I can see. Sometimes I’m in a place where the land is completely buried  under concrete and tar.

And my eyes will find life in the periphery. I move my head and immediately my eyes will meet lizard or bird or insect or cat. Someone not human. And I observe --at all times- what is growing where. I see plants for the shape of their leaves, the colour of their greens, their softness or thickness. Their ability to produce wood, or not, in the cascade from sea to mountain, to produce flowers or not. I begin to understand their ancient way of being – their culture. And how that relates to me, and my being and my culture. And of course, none of this exists within a vacuum. Plants come from a long lineage, from the waters of the beginning. And me too, a long lineage. Our histories are so intertwined, we have co-evolved to know each other intimately. Sometimes so intimately we take advantage of all the wisdom plants carry for us. We see this in the seed, we hear it, we smell it , we feel it. It has wrapped our tongues around its being. Did you know that the origin of the word inch, is because of seed? My grandmother used to adjust her material in inches, sometimes off her thumb when she made our clothes for Eid, always trying to teach me but it never stuck.

So I walk around the city, from the graveyards to the coasts, the townships and big city to the quiet quiet spaces, seeing and believing each plant I see, I’m so curious for us to get to know one another better.

I notice the plants that people plant and cultivate in their homes and how many of those we can eat or use to make rope or paper, to make ink or dye, or medicine… so many ways. And I begin to carefully harvest, those that I know need a harvest so it will be useful for us both.

Here I find Strelitzia Nicolai, I have shame that my first language in plants is Latin, but its what I know. This is a tree that’s a cousin of the Bird of Paradise flower, or Crane flower because of the shape of its head, Strelitzia reginae. This flower is famous for almost three hundred years around the world on coins and luxury wallpaper. But this cousin I meet, a tall tree with a very similar flower except black and blue and white, is almost precious for me as underneath all its cover lay a most significant almost-secret. I look up and see the flowers have died and dried, ripped open and exposing the woody seedpod, as beautiful as a flower itself, so unsuspecting that I could come from such a blossom. And inside, seeds so magnificent and easy to identify.  These plants tall as trees, grow out of a stem that’s almost sponge-like, the fibres are woven in a succulent sense. And if you had chop down the stem you would see big holes between the fibres. And so it is the most surprising thing to find that the seedpods which open out of soft, succulent flowers, are hard hard wood, and sometimes you cannot open them if they are not ripe enough and you have to wait for them to ripen. Because in this situation unfortunately I do not have a beak, my fingers are inept and thick and rounded at the tip, too soft and with little grip.

These seeds are sooo provocative, when they’re fresh, the nut tastes the texture of fresh pine nut with a very subtle taste that’s not quite sweet, white on the inside and black on the outside. And when they dry out, they taste more bean-like. And the most phenomenal thing is attached to each seed is a bright orange aril. An aril is a soft floofy attachment meant to encourage seed dispersal. This arils give the seed inside these magnificent seedpods, a very particular magic.

If I had walked on by I would most certainly miss this moment of discovering such bright colour so deep hidden inside layers and layers of dry decay. Sometimes when you walk under a canopy of these trees in seed, you see these brightly coloured arils discarded by some birds, as if they are annoyed they need to clean these extra bits. Interestingly, a distant cousin of the Strelitiza who lives on the island country of Madagascar has similar seedpods and seeds except the arils are the brightest blue, somewhere between electric and dusk blue, but neon. This plant, Ravenala fits the mystic profile of things that live on Madagascar, and its blue arils are such because it is pollinated not by birds, but by lemurs, their sap and eventually seed, a wonderful exchange. Anyways, I reach up and through the trees to cut the seed heads with my secateurs, careful to not catch my finger in unnamed mushy things, soft rot or unexpected water or snail body.

I carry on my journey through the city, passing millions of seed along the way. For now it’s our season, the rains have begun to fall and for seeds to pop to bury themselves within all this nourishment, now is the time. Seeds tiny, tiny tiny, almost invisible, seeds produced in the hundreds and thousands, seeds that need to be lifted into the air and whisked away on the wind… or seed heavy, drooping, enrobed in fruit sometime poisonous, sometimes delicious…

I meet Phoenix reclinata, long strong thorns at the base of each growing petiole out of its centre. This is not a plant you should fall onto. Our version of a date palm, the fruits are thin but sweet, not much flesh but enough for birds and mice and so.

I collect these green dates, not yet mature, the seeds surely still soft and white. I click my secateurs and cut them off, jangling them as I walk, a comforting percussion.

Eventually I see the sea, all the way down south. The land of washed up everything. I’m here to collect kelp, seebamboes, the seaweed that grows as forests around our coastline. Here in the southwestern cape, in the very southwest of Africa, our forests grow beneath the sea and not on land, our winds are too much for a forest I guess. The kelp washes up and dries slowly by sea air, salt and sand time. They harden so much that they are so hard that beating them on concrete does not break them and may surely chip the concrete. Thus filling them with sand or seed makes for beautiful percussion, one could build a particular percussion family from kelp alone. I pick up suitable ones and head home to prepare all that I have gleaned today.

I rip the bracts from the Strelitzia, millipedes and insects scuttling out. I remove the seeds and soak some for food and separate others for instruments. I clean the green dates and drill tiny holes for beading. Perhaps a bracelet, perhaps a tasbih. I clean the kelp and drill holes to insert long nails in an attempt to make a rainsong.

I’m drawn to work with seeds in other ways, outside of sowing and knowing, purely to allow for their stories to sprout.