Saving the Seeds

For ICARDA*

After the Reaper has gathered
More than his fill –
After he has taken all and gone
Into the world of nightmares
With his henchmen who poisoned the waters –
After a silence has arrived
Which is not peace, after the dust
Which is not peace, after the desert
Which is not peace, has spread
Its dust, its hopeless hand –
After the blank faces of the living
Have closed their eyes against hope
Come the gleaners
The gleaners come with sharp eyes
Over the alien land seeking
Not the destitute, the hopeless,
They do not bring food now
For the hungry, nor sweet water
For the thirsty now, they do not come
To bind up the wounds
Neither of people nor the land now,
But nor do they come to strip
The last wealth of the dead
They seek the abandoned by the wayside
They glean the stony ground
Amongst steel thorns in dangerous places –
Within arcs of fire they search for tares
Where the land itself is unsafe
The footing insecure
Where earth could burst up
Through the soles of their feet –
They pause like egrets in mid-step
Eyeing before they stoop, rich morsels –
The seeds of civilisations lying
Amongst the dust of them.

They come with desire in far away eyes
To glean from the hopeless dust.
But not so much as a last straw
Or an ear, but a seed, disregarded-
Except by the expert, the knowing eye –
And picked one by one out of the dust
Cradled in the palm of the hand
More precious than the gold
Panned from Yukon streams
The priceless pebbles
Gleaming in the full moon of the Skeleton Coast.
Where harvests flowed for five thousand years
They are searching the deserts
For weeds, the discarded,
The tares that were rooted out
Flung aside with the men who died –
From the Golan Heights to east and west of Jordan
All the undermined fields of the fertile crescent
Over the killed fields of Cambodia
The Rewere Hills, the parched fields of Abu Ghraib
Searching for the remains of the last harvests
Before the reaper spread orange mists, napalm
Landmines, daisy cutters, cluster bombs.

They are searching for the fragments of hope
In forgotten provinces, lost fields
In the deserts which pass for peace
Picking between thumb and forefinger
A disregarded, priceless, seed,
And here another, and another here, different
Each which may prove unique
Its skein unmatchable
But from its infinite replications.

Now they are gathering to one place a new ark,
The last of the last gleanings of the last harvest.
Of ancient Ur, of Nineveh and high Tyrens –
Before they spring – and wither disregarded
In the wayside stony ground

In Aleppo Mr Noah holds a box
Taken from a high shelf down – in it
The descendants of Shem and Ham
Have caught, falling from multitudes of hands
Which precipitated the harvests
Across the old fields, timely
The lost grains from the abandoned furrows.
Which held up the walls of Babylon,
Kept the priests of Angkhor chanting,
The writers writing and the singers singing –
Mothers putting into the mouths of their children
Languages unknown in tones forgotten.
The seeds holding the unmatchable skeins,
Each twisted thread of life coming through
To be woven to new patterns.

See, here I hold one grain in my hand –
A multitude for those who are to come
To clothe the fertile deserts
With transforming pelts of gold
To be harvested by new peoples
Wading through their unplanted harvests
Singing songs in languages unborn.
*The International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas
(See New Scientist 22/1/05)
One finds poems in unexpected places – if one keeps one’s eyes open.

I read an article about ICARDA, (that is the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas) in New Scientist. Even then I didn’t see it – it was Cathy who said to me ‘You could write a poem about that.’

The main object of ICARDA is to build a gene bank of food grains – the old ones which are no longer cultivated and are therefore ‘lost’. They only exist (if they have survived) in scrubland and wild places, battlefields and areas of no man’s land across what was the Fertile Crescent of Mesopotamia (now Iraq and the surrounding nations) and in forgotten places elsewhere.

It takes an expert to recognise a lost species which may be used in the future to develop new and fruitful strains to feed the hungry living in hostile environments made worse by climate change.

. It takes very dedicated people to go, at times, into fresh battlefields amongst unexploded mines and ordnance to find what they are looking for.

The title was used for our anthology of the same name.

© Martin Underwood

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