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The Agency of Wheat

Take a couple of good breaths, because we’re about to take a deep dive into the philosophy of history. Maybe not that deep, because I’m still a farm boy, and my subject today is wheat, but this little essay has to do with how we think about an everyday, material subject like wheat.

Since I have written a couple of books about wheat harvesting, I got the commission to write the 8000-word chapter on wheat for the Handbook of Agricultural History, Oxford University Press. I took this seriously, because, well, you know, Oxford. And I relished the task both because my forebears have inhaled enough grain dust it probably has a DNA presence, and because I am married to the finest baker on the plains. (Challenge that claim if you wish, but you’ll be in for an argument.)

One of the ideas that occurred to me as I considered the 10,000-year-or-more history of wheat and humankind is that we don’t take plants seriously enough. It’s easy to make fun of me when I go out and sit in my prairie garden and talk to the tomatillos, but the duration and expanse of wheat, along with its close ties to humankind, call for more sober reflection. This plant is up to something.

A century ago two scientists, in a task comparable to what I have just completed for Oxford, produced a comprehensive treatment of wheat for Bailey’s Cyclopedia of American Agriculture. They declared that wheat is “a plant of vast economic importance, widely distributed over the civilized world and having a history coincident with that of the human race.” As to the origins of wheat, neither they nor other authorities of the time could tell you much. One of them admitted frankly, “The geographic origin of wheat has never been certainly determined.”

The same author observes, “The classification of wheat seems always to have been in a more or less chaotic state. . . . It is a plant . . . particularly unstable in type.”

Now we know a lot more about the Middle Eastern origins of wheat, thanks mainly to Jewish scientists, so I can tell you wheat as a cultivar emerged with the Neolithic Revolution in the cradle of agriculture, the Fertile Crescent east of the Mediterranean. From there farmers carried it across the Eurasian and African continents, and then millennia later, European colonizers carried it to new worlds.

There are two things that made wheat a great partner to humankind: gluten and instability. Gluten, of course, is the protoid component that produces a nice, porous loaf from wheat flour. Instability has to do with the exasperating (to tidy, traditional scientists) genetic character of the plant. It does behave itself in a nice botanical box.

Which is what delighted ancient farmers making selections of seed, as it does modern plant breeders. Genetic variation produces species and varietal variation that can be channeled as crop improvement.

So then wheat, it turns out, has an independent sort of intelligence that commends itself to humankind. It possesses what historians these days call “agency”--the ability to influence the course of history. Wheat, in a unity with humankind, has taken an active part in global historical movements, energizing colonization, conquest, empire, science, and modernization. It has permeated cultures, defined geographic spaces, even shaped human bodies. It gets credit and blame for its contributions to history. That’s what we mean by “agency.”

Some may say too much milling around in this philosophy of history may spoil the simple appreciation of the grandeur of a golden field of grain or the texture of a crusty loaf from the oven. I say the ancient story makes the sight and the savor all the more sweet.

-Tom Isern

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