Janisse Ray, author of “The Seed Undergound: A Growing Revolution to Save Food” will speak at today’s installment of Common Hour. 

Throughout her life, Ray has sought to marry her two passions, writing and the environment. Ray attended Florida State University for her B.A., and later went to the University of Montana for her MFA in creative writing. “The Seed Underground” is Ray’s fifth nonfiction book. Ray also has published a collection of poetry.

Ray was invited to the College by Visiting Assistant Professor of History Tom Okie and Rosemary Armstrong of the Environmental Studies program.

Ray’s interest in writing began at a young age. Her deeply religious parents did not allow a television in the house, but did permit visits to the library. Ray credits this upbringing with exposing her to a reading culture she would not otherwise have participated in.

“Books save your life, and they save your spirit,” she said last night.

Today, Ray’s home in southern Georgia, out of reach of the cable companies, has afforded a similar upbringing and way of life for her nine-year-old daughter. 

Student discussion groups met earlier in the week over meals to discuss Ray’s latest book. Andrew Cushing ’12, currently a sustainability outreach assistant at the College, led Wednesday’s book discussion. What began as a conversation about seeds soon turned into a lively dialogue about class, public policy, and the local and organically grown food trend.

“[Ray] doesn’t write as an academic,” said Cushing. “She writes to reach a broader audience.”

Ray builds her writing out of stories, anecdotes, and personal experiences. At a discussion on writing last night, Ray talked about how she pulled passages from the 35 full journals she has kept throughout her life and used them in “The Seed Underground” and in her other works. 

“I often will go back through journals to try and find people, anecdotes, dreams—anything that will illuminate that subject,” said Ray.

Ray credits learning this formula from her creative writing mentor at the University of Montana, Bill Kittredge. Kittredge stressed the importance of writing from life experiences in order to make an impact and make change.

“Facts don’t sway people, emotions sway people,” said Ray. “I try to touch people emotionally.”
Ray says that throughout the years, her idea of what being a successful writer means has changed.
“Success for me is just when I have a person say to me, ‘I read it, it touched me, it made me grow my own garden, take action,’” she said. “My view of success has become more personal, and that’s making me very happy these days.”

Environmental and food sustainability are very personal issues for Ray. She currently runs a farm with her husband in Georgia, where they raise a range of livestock from cows to guinea fowl and have an expansive vegetable crop.

Ray says that she tries to live life as close to nature as possible, which means eating a lot of food she grows herself, not owning a cell phone, and avoiding airplanes. However, living sustainably is not always as simple as one might think.

“We try to live as sustainably as possible, but a sustainable lifestyle is not necessarily simple,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”

Cushing cited similar challenges of green living.

“Your back hurts, you have no office, no insurance,” he said. “It’s a lot harder than people think it would be.”

Today, Ray will be speaking about the loss of the world’s seed diversity and the shrinking number of locally tailored plant varieties. 

“Ninety-four percent of seeds have been lost,” she said. “It’s a huge loss.”

At the turn of the century, there were 7,000 types of apples. However, the average consumer only has a few options left. Ray says this loss is due to the patenting of seeds by large corporations such as Monsanto.

“Whoever controls seeds controls food,” she said. “I believe that we have to retain some seed sovereignty and rescue local seeds that are in danger.”