It’s not unusual to see vegetation sprouting through cracks in the pavement, but these little plants were growing in mud alongside a railroad track that had been thoroughly covered with oil. They speak to me of the resilience and continuity of life. In this instance, seeds from dying plants sunk into the mud and were overlaid with more mud and water, snow, ice and oil spills. Nevertheless, despite these conditions and the harsh winter, when the moment was right, the cells within these plants awakened to the call of Spring and, rising in the direction of heat and light, gave birth to the forms of their “ancestors.”
Observing this process—and relating it to the lifecycle of maize plants—the ancient and modern Maya adopted the belief that death gives rise to life. While the ancients believed that only divine kings would reincarnate, the general population believed—as many do today—that their sons and daughters “replace” the souls of their grandfathers and grandmothers, providing continuity of their lineage essences. Ethnographers studying the Maya report that within certain societies, when an elder dies his relatives begin to look for his “kex,” a newborn replacement for him within the extended family. Also for them, as with maize and other crops, birth and rebirth demonstrates conclusively that life is not a straight line of events from birth to death, but a continuous cycle, a sacred round wherein life—consciousness—“breathes” in and out, allowing old forms to die and new forms to be born.
Although the forms we take bear some resemblance to those of our fathers and mothers, and we carry within us their genes—along with many of their values, beliefs and aspirations—we are, like the plants in this image, new and unique individuals carrying forward the essences of our ancestors. Just as the composition of the soil influences a plant, the physical, mental and social composition of the environments we grow up in condition our thinking, responding and creating, often in ways that are different from our parents. Because consciousness increases with complexity, each generation is more knowledgeable and aware than the last. And this increased awareness, particularly as it multiplies and globalizes, will lead us—gracefully or painfully—to assume greater responsibility for the quality of the “soils” that will nourish our grandchildren and their grandchildren when they “Touch the Earth”—the Maya’s way of referring to being born.
For indigenous people, maize was the perfect metaphor for life because a single stalk will be toppled by gusts of wind. To survive, it must grow in community where there is support. This is also true for us.
To live is to communicate life, because life is essentially a spreading, growing phenomenon. Therefore, the more one communicates life, affirms life in one’s fellows, gives oneself to enhance their lives, the more one is alive, is truly living, and thus, is truly oneself.
About This Image
Title: The Persistent Seed
File #: DC4169
Before 9/11 I often photographed in railroad yards. Since then, because of security restrictions, it has become difficult to gain access. This image was captured at a railroad crossing close to the highway. Judging by the number of pools of oil up and down the tracks, there had recently been a leak or spill from one of the tankers. This little green plant, poking its leaves out of the muck, called to me and I couldn’t resist. In Photoshop I increased the contrast of the ground and raised the saturation of the green leaves.