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Inside a Global Noah’s Ark for Plants

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is located about 600 miles from the North Pole and contains more than 1.5 billion seeds from the world’s crops. The vault, and the global project to stock it, is the subject of Archiving Eden, a new book by Dornith Doherty, published this month by Schilt Publishing. In it, Doherty documents seed banks and research centers around the world that are guarding against the loss of biodiversity from climate change and other calamities by saving and storing seeds, in high-tech labs, dusty libraries, quiet rooms lined with jars, filing cabinets and cryogenic tanks.

Doherty spent eight years on the project, visiting facilities including the Desert Legume Program in Arizona, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in Austin, Texas, the Millennium Seed Bank in England, the National Research Council of Italy Trees and Timber Institute and the Western Australia Threatened Flora Seed Centre, among others. Doherty was also was granted access to x-ray images made in some of these facilities, and used their negatives to make collages, grids and arrangements of sprouting seeds and plants that suggest the 19th century botanical cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, transported to a more urgent age.

In the book, Doherty writes that she was heartened see people from countries around the world coopering on the project. “It became apparent to me that by saving seeds, individuals and institutions from around the world were working together to ensure the survival of entire plant species,” she writes. But creating a kind of modern day Noah’s Ark for plants is both a hopeful and pessimistic act, writes Elizabeth Avedon in an essay in the book. The global community is working together to prepare for a disaster they may not be able to prevent. “On one hand volunteers and governments from around the world were collaborating to create a global botanical back-up system, and on the other hand the gravity of climate change and political instability created the need” to keep this system safe, at the top of the world.

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