On a typical Sunday in early summer, I am walking with my family to Three Rivers Market. As I pass the paved and fenced abandoned lot behind Broadway Carpets, a splash of color catches my eye. A few vibrant wildflowers are growing out of the cracks in the asphalt. They are unusual—not the typical mix of chicory and Queen Anne's lace that are so common along roadsides. These look like flowers from a store-bought seed packet, oddly clustered just in that one spot. One of the flowers is a marigold.
Oh my God, I said. It's a seed bomb.
A seed bomb, also called a seed grenade, is a ball of clay, compost, and seeds that can be tossed into barren land. Throwing one can be a small experiment in trying to beautify a dusty neglected lot or inexplicably paved area. Guerrilla gardener Liz Christy coined the term "seed grenade" in the 1970s. She is also credited as the first person to use seed bombs as a form of activism in an urban setting. However, the use of clay seed balls to resow fields is an ancient farming technique. It was reintroduced by the Japanese agricultural reformer Masanobu Fukuoka, not so much as a form of activism, but as part of a holistic philosophy called Natural Farming. Who in Knoxville practices Natural Farming? I wondered. Who could have thrown a seed bomb in Fourth and Gill?
"We encourage people to throw seed bombs in places where they can observe them grow," says Khann Chov, manager of Beardsley Community Farm, which hosts Katie Ries' Urban Land Scouts summer camp. Making and throwing seed bombs is Level Three of the program. Ries acknowledges it is possible that a seed bomb thrown in Fourth and Gill may be one made by a Land Scout.
"The gesture of throwing a seed ball is full of hope and expectation," says Ries. "It's a poetic and cathartic gesture. Having one in hand makes me look at the landscape differently. I've dropped a couple in my garden to track how long they take and thrown a couple around town. The one in my garden is now a small patch of mustard greens, but I don't remember where I threw the others."
During our conversation about seed bombs, Ries mentions a familiar name: Miss Rumphius, my favorite children's book. In it, a little girl named Alice Rumphius promises her grandfather that she will do something to make the world more beautiful. "But what?" When Miss Rumphius is an old lady, she discovers by accident the thing she can do. The next spring, her village is covered in blue, purple, and rose-colored flowers. Miss Rumphius had done "the most difficult thing of all."
It really is the most difficult thing, to leave the world a better place than you found it. In the clear-eyed despair of 3 a.m., it is hard not to see myself and all humans as careless takers and casual destroyers. Every Styrofoam fast-food container I ever threw away made the world a little worse, and I long, like Alice Rumphius, to do something to make the world more beautiful. "I do not know yet what that could be."