Svalbard Global Seed Vault

Inside a mountain on an island halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole resides the largest collection and reflection of crop diversity in the world.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault stores seed samples of the world’s crops, duplicates of the samples stored in the world’s other seed banks. It has the capacity to store 4.5 million samples. Since each sample contains an average of 500 seeds, the total capacity is something like 2.25 billion seeds. Right now, around 860,000 seed samples are stored there, or between one-third and one-half of the seed diversity stored around the world. More than 150,000 distinct varieties of both rice and wheat, as well as hundreds of much less common plants, are represented. Priority is given, not surprisingly, to crops that are important for food production and sustainable agriculture. Almost every country in the world has deposited seeds there, although China and Japan haven’t yet joined in.

svalbard-1The Seed Vault is housed over 400 feet inside a mountain – “Platåberget,” or “plateau mountain” – on the island of Spitsbergen in the Arctic Svalbard archipelago, just over 800 miles from the North Pole. Cary Fowler, a conservationist who helped start the Vault, has said, “If you look at it, it’s a pretty simple facility. It’s a big tunnel.” It’s so cold at Svalbard that the seeds would be safe even if the refrigeration failed. There is also considerable permafrost, and little tectonic activity there. It’s at a high altitude, so flooding isn’t an issue, and the humidity is very low. The seeds are stored at just below zero Fahrenheit in foil packages, and should be viable for many centuries.

There are around 1,700 gene banks around the world that safeguard food crops. But not all of them are in the best of shape. The seeds are aging, and the technology they use is behind the times. Many of them are vulnerable to natural disasters, accidents, or even the disappearance of governmental funding. War can be an issue, too – the seed banks of both Afghanistan and Iraq have been lost that way, and those of the Philippines and Egypt have been damaged by fire and looters. In fact, due to the civil war in Syria, in 2015 the Svalbard Global Seed Vault authorized the first withdrawal of seeds in its history, to replace some lost at Aleppo’s seed bank (luckily, Aleppo had stored duplicates of some 80% of its holdings at Svalbard).

svalbard-2Conservationist Cary Fowler, with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), started the Seed Vault. When governments started thinking about the potential danger to crops, Norway was one of the few places still trusted by most nations. It was also willing to put up all of the $9 million needed to start the project. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault officially opened on February 26, 2008 with its first deposit, of rice seeds, delivered by Kenyan environmental activist and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Norway even provided for some art for the facility, in the form of the illuminated Perpetual Repercussion by Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne, which runs the length of the facility’s roof and down to the entryway, marking the location of the vault from a distance.

The Seed Vault is owned and administered by Norway’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food. The Global Crop Diversity Trust provides financial support for the operation of the Seed Vault and, until recently, the transportation of seeds to the facility. NordGen, the Nordic Gene Bank, operate the facility and maintains a public database of the samples stored there. The seed vault functions like a safe deposit box, with the Vault owning the building but the depositor owning the seeds.

Food security is a challenge in developing countries. Crop diversity is key in developing plants that can withstand disease, pests, and changing climates. However, there has been some dispute about whether preserving crop diversity is best done by institutions like the Seed Vault or by working in the field with individual communities. Research, for instance, suggests that as much as 75% of global crop diversity is actually held by farmers around the world, most of them women.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is, in a sense, the world’s backup plan – or, to use more dramatic language, a “doomsday vault” – insurance against both catastrophic and incremental loss of the world’s crop diversity.

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Sunday Salon 9-18-16

Sunday Salon badge squareI am deviating from the usual format for these Sunday Salons today, in order to point out the obvious – after a long period of of dormancy, my blog is active once again. My goal here simply is to write about things that interest me, with the hope that they might be of interest to you, too. Music, books, film, history, travel, visual art, worthwhile quotes, and more will all find their way here. I haven’t quite reached my goal of writing a blog post every day. But my recent record of 11 posts in 13 days is pretty reasonable. The diversity level hasn’t been too bad, either:

* Yesterday’s short look at Nalanda, the ancient university in India
* A discussion of Ma Yuan’s lovely thirteenth century painting Walking on a path in spring
* A look at David Helvarg’s book The Golden Shore, on the relationship between California and the Pacific Ocean
* Pictures from my recent visit to Point Lobos, California
* Some history on the Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo, a visit to which was also part of that California trip
* Words from Karen Armstrong, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Mencius on the subject of compassion
* My appreciation of Star Trek: The Animated Series
* A note on Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian
* The collaboration between Walt Disney and Salvador Dalí in the animated short Destino
* Video of 1,000 komuz players performing recently at the World Nomad Games in Kyrgyzstan

This has already been my busiest blogging month since May of 2014, and there’s plenty of time yet. Among the posts I have in the works are some thoughts about two art exhibitions I saw recently in the Bay Area, Emperors’ Treasures: Chinese Art from the National Palace Museum, Taipei at the Asian Art Museum, and the de Young Museum’s exhibition Ed Ruscha and the Great American West. I would also like to write about Cemetery of Splendor, the most recent film written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, along with some general words about this great Thai director and his wonderful, puzzling, mysterious films. An unusual list of some of my favorite symphonies is coming, as is as a detailed look at Edward Hopper’s painting Nighthawks.

One other important point I’d like to make will be the subject of another short blog post soon. But I’ll anticipate myself by saying that one thing you won’t find much of in this blog is negativity. My point in writing is to share my enthusiasms! The freedom with which people criticize, complain, troll, and otherwise share their bile online has become tiresome. And I don’t want to add to that. Moreover, in talking about books and films and such, I don’t consider myself a critic, and it’s the last role I want to take on. I want to share my excitement about these things, not sit in judgment on them.

To conclude, a cartoon, very relevant to the current state of my life, from the series Nancy.
nancy-youre-so-lazy

Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo

front-of-missionThe Mission San Carlos Borroméo del río Carmelo, more commonly known as the Carmel Mission, is only the second of California’s twenty-one missions that I’ve visited, and the first I’ve really had the opportunity to explore for any length of time. It is on the National Register of Historic Places, and has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

The Carmel Mission was one of nine founded by Father Junípero Serra. Nicknamed the “missionary of the cross,” Serra was born in 1713 on Majorca, off the coast of Spain. He entered the Franciscan order just before he turned seventeen. After earning a doctorate in theology, he taught at the Lullian University in Majorca until 1749, at which point he turned to missionary work and headed to Mexico. serra-statueHe became Presidente of the Sierra Gorda Missions in 1751, then worked at San Fernando College starting in 1758. In 1767, King Carlos III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from all Spanish colonies. All the missions in Baja California became Franciscan, and Serra was named Presidente of the Missions of Lower and Upper (Alta) California. The next year, Serra accompanied Don Gaspar de Portolá in an expedition to colonize more of what is now the state of California.

Serra established the first Alta California mission in San Diego in July 1769. Then in June 1770 he founded the Mission San Carlos Borroméo, named after the sixteenth century Italian Saint Carlo Borromeo – Carlos Borroméo in Spanish – Archbishop of Milan and patron saint of Carlos III. Mission San Carlos Borroméo was originally located in Monterey. But Serra was not pleased with the treatment that the local Native Americans were getting from the Spanish soldiers headquartered at the Monterey Presidio (fort). So the Mission was moved to a new location in the Carmel Valley near the Carmel River in 1771. The Carmel Mission became Serra’s favorite, and served as headquarters of the Alta California missions for the remainder of his life and beyond.

courtyardThe Missions served to extend Spain’s influence, and to convert the area’s natives to Christianity. Those Native Americans, from a number of tribes including the Ohlone and Esselen, did much of the construction work for the early Mission buildings. They also took on the tasks of farming as well as becoming blacksmiths, weavers, tanners, carpenters, and more. More than 4,000 natives were baptized between the Carmel Mission’s founding and 1836. Initially, the farming near the Mission was not successful, and those who lived there were dependent on supply ships. Over time that changed, and by 1783 the Carmel Mission produced enough food to support some 700 people. Continue reading

My Top Ten Blog Posts of 2014

Top TenWhen one is a blogger, it’s fairly standard behavior to look back on the past year, be disappointed in how little you’ve posted, and make a New Year’s Resolution to do better. Wanting to avoid being original in any way, I’ve decided to embrace this thinking, and to start 2015 right by looking back at 2014. Since this blog started back in 2010, 2014 was actually, to my surprise, my second most productive year. I averaged about one post a week, which is not terrible. These are the posts that statistics say reached the most people.

1. Southeast Asia Travel Journal
This is actually fourteen separate posts on my February 2014 trip to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. This was also my biggest project of the year, so I wanted to call special attention to it. While I don’t have anything especially revelatory to say in this journal, I’m pleased with how it all turned out. And some of the pictures are nice.

2. Looking at Bellini’s St. Francis in the Desert
As far as single posts are concerned, this was the most popular of the year. Perhaps not coincidentally, the most popular post in the history of my blog, by a wide margin, is a similar explication of a painting with a religious theme, Giotto’s The Lamentation.

3. Roger Lipsey: The Spiritual in Twentieth-Century Art
This is an excellent book on a subject of great interest to me. Along with this review, I followed up with another post with a few thoughts on the same theme, Notes on Spirituality in Modern Art.

4. Chinese Calligraphy, an introduction
This post and its companion, #6 below, were by far my most ambitious project of the year. After seeing the exhibition Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, I was desperate to learn more about a subject to which I had previously paid almost no attention. These two posts took months to put together, and while they don’t pretend to break anything like new ground on an exhaustively-studied subject, I believe that the information is accurate, and interesting (to me at least).

5. Ten Books That Have Stayed With Me
A meme that was making the rounds at the time. Ask me about this in a few months, and I may have a new list for you.

6. Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy
A review of the catalog for the Asian Art Museum exhibition of the same name. See #4 above.

7. The Hungry Ghosts
I believe that I first read about the Hungry Ghosts in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and wanted to know more about this theme that ranges more widely, geographically and historically, than I might have guessed.

8. Umberto Eco: The Book of Legendary Lands
A review of a lovely book on a fascinating subject. The art that comprises a good portion of the book is beautiful and very well-chosen.

9. Quint Buchholz: The Library
A work by a very interesting artist that I came across on someone’s Tumblr.

10. My Home Library, the meme
Another meme that was current a while back. Some of the questions weren’t especially relevant to my experience, but many were, and it was interesting to contemplate some of the issues raised.

Sunday Salon 5-25-14

Time: 7:30 a.m. Sunday.

Place: At my main computer, enjoying the very quiet morning. Most days at this time would be dominated by cars warming up and little dogs yipping at one another.

Reading: This morning I finished Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. It was a long, diffuse, but quite fascinating story of a group of college students that, under the influence of their classical studies, wind up committing a couple of murders and endeavor to keep them secret. Both the characters and story were really compelling, especially appealing for the more bookish among us. Now I’m anxious to move on to Tartt’s most recent book, The Goldfinch. I’m also close to the end of Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live, which has so far helped me considerably in identifying the problem areas in my life, even though the solutions haven’t become evident yet. I am now at that wonderful stage when I can decide what I’d like to read next. I don’t know if it will be fiction or non-fiction, art history or biography or novel. As I’m fairly sure I already own more books than I will ever be able to read in this lifetime, at least I’ll have a range of choices!

Viewing: Two Criterion Blu-rays were the extent of my movie watching this week. Autumn Sonata, oddly enough, I had never seen before. A typically claustrophobic Ingmar Bergman drama, it was just the thing for me at the time. Ingrid Bergman, in the only time she worked with her namesake Ingmar, apparently came into this production overly prepared and spent the first couple of days of shooting overacting terribly. But Ingmar intervened, and now the exchanges between Ingrid and Liv Ullmann (who remains for me one of the most fascinating-looking women ever in film) are pretty mesmerizing. Also viewed was another much-praised film I had somehow missed the first time around, Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which managed to combine rather dark, personal subject matter, a whimsical storytelling style, and vibrant visuals in an entirely wonderful way. Amazingly, this is the first Wes Anderson film I’ve ever seen. Now I must seek out more.

Listening: Not much in the way of music listening this week, other than a few odds and ends on YouTube.

Blogging: Yesterday I posted the final installment of my southeast Asia travel journal, documenting my trip this past February through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. This project also provided me the excuse to go through the hundreds of photos I took, many dozens of which appear in the journal entries. The journal has its own tab at the top of my website now, so access to it is quick and easy. Now that the journal, which dominated several weeks of my blogging, is done, I have to figure out what to do next.

Pondering: A week ago today I broke up with my girlfriend of several weeks, or rather she broke up with me. Little else has entered my pondering recently. Instead of this Salon you’re reading now, I had originally written a long, extremely personal piece about the woman, the relationship, and the breakup. But after seeking out some friends for advice, making that essay public came to seem like a bad idea. So I will keep it to myself, for now at least. While I never actually got a chance to talk with her about what happened, my best guess is that I was looking for a passionate romantic relationship, and she was looking for someone nice to go places and do things with. We were on different life courses. I might have been able to moderate my emotions to be more in sync with her needs, but then I wouldn’t have been true to myself, would I? Nevertheless, I’m still filled with regrets and longing.

Anticipating: Another trip to San Francisco for some art, music, and baseball may be in the offing. Otherwise, though, my thinking has been too dark to do much anticipating of anything.

Gratuitous Rainer Maria Rilke Quote of the Week: As I was in the midst of my emotional tumult of the last couple of weeks, looking through a Rainer Maria Rilke anthology provided me great solace. More than once in my life have I had the experience of opening a Rilke book, sometimes quite at random, and finding a quotation that seems directly relevant to me and my life. The following one was my big discovery for the week. My Facebook friends have already seen this. Perhaps it will hold some meaning for you too.

“It seems to me that almost all our sadnesses are moments of tension, which we feel as paralysis because we no longer hear our astonished emotions living. Because we are alone with the unfamiliar presence that has entered us; because everything we trust and are used to is for a moment taken away from us; because we stand in the midst of a transition where we cannot remain standing. That is why the sadness passes: the new presence inside us, the presence that has been added, has entered our heart, has gone into its innermost chamber and is no longer even there, is already in our bloodstream. And we don’t know what it was. We could easily be made to believe that nothing happened, and yet we have changed, as a house that a guest has entered changes. We can’t say who has come, perhaps we will never know, but many signs indicate that the future enters us in this way in order to be transformed in us, long before it happens. And that is why it is so important to be solitary and attentive when one is sad: because the seemingly uneventful and motionless moment when our future steps into us is so much closer to life than that other loud and accidental point of time when it happens to us as if from outside. The quieter we are, the more patient and open we are in our sadnesses, the more deeply and serenely the new presence can enter us, and the more we can make it our own, the more it becomes our fate.”

SE Asia Journal: Days 17-19

Tuesday, February 25, 4:10 p.m., Bangkok

After this morning’s writing I caught a tuk-tuk and went to the Angkor National Museum, which provides a very nice summary of Cambodia’s ancient history. Their presentation started with a short summary film and the Gallery of 1,000 Buddhas, a collection of Buddha images in stone, wood, and precious metals from throughout Khmer history. They were arranged by posture, time period, and material. While the many small images arrayed along the walls weren’t really accessible or visible, the larger ones were in full view. A fine, meditative space.

The remaining galleries traced Cambodia’s history, from its pre-Angkorian history in Funan, through the different belief systems – Hindu, Buddhist, and to a lesser extent folk religion. Then the major Khmer kings like Suryavarman II and Jayavarman VII were profiled and their works listed. Two galleries were devoted to Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom; the latter was actually the more extensive. Stelae detailing Khmer history and language were followed by the concluding gallery dedicated to clothing styles as revealed in ancient Khmer sculpture, and a final section on apsaras, which I didn’t realize had so captured the imaginations of both Cambodians and tourists.

Day 17 Bayon apsara 2

Pretty females doing sensuous dances will do that. I barely looked at the sometimes extensive texts provided with the individual images, relying on the larger summary texts and the very good audio guide (featuring a voice I’m certain I’ve heard in other museum audio guides).

Then it was back to the hotel for the bus, a flight from Siem Reap to Bangkok – and now I am back in the hotel that started all this. My plan is to set this journal aside for tomorrow, then return to it back home for some final thoughts. Dinner on the river ensues in an hour.

Thursday, March 6, 5:35 a.m., Reno

On the morning that I’m finally getting back to my daily routine of walking, meditating, writing, and so on, it seems appropriate to return finally to this journal to wrap up the final, painful day-plus of my trip. I should start by mentioning that when I returned to Bangkok, my hotel room was in fact larger than my home. Two bedrooms, three baths, three televisions, and much walking space, all just for me.

The farewell dinner cruise on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok was quite nice. Once again there were plenty of vegetarian options for me. Along the river were all manner of noteworthy sights – other ships large and small (many tourist-oriented), large hotels, brightly lit stupas and temples, a very attractive modern bridge spanning the river, and amidst it all a few stretches of older, in some cases decrepit, buildings that hinted at what the river might have looked like in times past.

Day 18 Chao Phraya River

Along with the scenery, pleasant views along the river, and food, there was much pleasantness and picture taking with my fellow trip members. I said goodbye to everyone, and got some addresses and information from people. How lucky I was to be traveling with such nice people who also proved to be up for anything and everything the trip offered. I had two beers that night, which was probably one too many given that I had to rise at 3:30 a.m. for the following morning’s flight. Read more

SE Asia Journal: Day 16 part 2

Tuesday, February 25, 7:35 a.m., Siem Reap

In around half an hour I will be heading out to the Angkor National Museum for a visit. Before that, however, I want to recount the events of yesterday afternoon.

We started at one of the gates of Angkor Thom, the great (3 km by 3 km) city of King Jayavarman VII.

Day 17 Angkor Thom entrance

Day 17 Angkor Thom causeway

At the center of Angkor Thom is the Bayon, the state temple for Jayavarman’s Mahayana Buddhist faith.

Day 17 Bayon 1

Day 17 Bayon 3

Compared to the immensity of Angkor Wat, the Bayon is quite small. Yet R, our guide, finds the Bayon to be his favorite of the Angkor sites, largely because of the 200-plus smiling faces – of Avalokiteshvara, the great Boddhisattva of infinite compassion, and Jayavarman VII simultaneously – on each of the four faces of the 54 temples, each representing one of the regions of Jayavarman’s kingdom. Those faces smile down on you from every direction.

Day 17 Bayon three faces

Day 17 Bayon more faces

Day 17 Bayon face

The remarkable bas reliefs, in much greater relief than those at Angkor Wat, provide a portrait of daily life at the time. Scenes range from fishing to childbirth to cockfighting to a huge naval battle, presumably against the Cham from south Vietnam that took over Angkor briefly from 1177 to 1181. Read more