Taming wild plants
A hand-painted wooden sign marks the entrance to Steven Cannon’s community garden, tucked between a sidewalk and some train tracks in Ames, Iowa. It depicts the iconic image of a seedling poking from a mound of dirt. At the far end of the garden, Cannon, a tall and reedy geneticist for the US Department of Agriculture, digs into the soil with a shovel and then his bare hands, pulling up fistfuls of lumpy roots. Strip the scene to its essence—ignore the cars driving past and the power lines strung overhead—and you could be watching a Neolithic farmer. They collected seeds from wild plants, buried them near their homes, and harvested the crop, hoping it would be bigger and better than the last one. That simple act—agriculture—came to define us as a species.
Cannon isn’t trying to re-create the past, though. He’s inventing the future.