There are seasons of being when a cloak of meaninglessness seems to slip over you, over everything, muffling the song of life. It is not depression exactly, though the two conditions make eager bedfellows. Rather, it is a great hollowing that empties you of that vital force necessary for moving through the world wonder-smitten by reality, that glint of gladness at the mundane miracle of existence. A disenchantment we may call by many names — burnout, apathy, alienation — but one that visits upon every life in one form or another, at one time or another, pulsating with the unmet longing for something elemental and ancient, with the yearning to see the world as beautiful again and feel its magic, to find sanctuary in it, to contact that “submerged sunrise of wonder.”
Katherine May explores what it takes to shed the cloak of meaninglessness and recover the sparkle of vitality in Enchantment: Awakening Wonder in an Anxious Age (public library) — a shimmering chronicle of her own quest for “a better way to walk through this life,” a way that grants us “the ability to sense magic in the everyday, to channel it through our minds and bodies, to be sustained by it.”
Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
May — who has written enchantingly about wintering, resilience, and the wisdom of sadness — reaches for the other side of that coma of the soul:
This life I have made is too small. It doesn’t allow enough in: enough ideas, enough beliefs, enough encounters with the exuberant magic of existence. I have been so keen to deny it, to veer deliberately towards the rational, to cling solely to the experiences that are directly observable by others. Only now, when everything is taken away, can I see what a folly this is. I don’t want that life anymore. I want what [the] ancients had: to be able to talk to god. Not in a personal sense, to a distant figure who is unfathomably wise, but to have a direct encounter with the flow of things, a communication without words. I want to let something break in me, some dam that has been shoring up this shamefully atavistic sense of the magic behind all things, the tingle of intelligence that was always waiting for me when I came to tap in. I want to feel that raw, elemental awe that my ancestors felt, rather than my tame, explained modern version. I want to prise open the confines of my skull and let in a flood of light and air and mystery… I want to retain what the quiet reveals, the small voices whose whispers can be heard only when everything falls silent.
The Leonid meteor showers of 1833. Art by Edmund Weiss. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
To lodge herself out of this existential stupor, she turns to various fulcrums of wonder — meteor-watching and ocean-swimming, gardening and beekeeping — returning again and again to what has been my own most steadfast remedy in those seasons of inner withering. A century and a half after Thoreau made his ardent case for walking as a spiritual endeavor and a generation after Thomas Clark’s marvelous manifesto for walking as a portal to self-transcendence, May writes:
When I walk, I fall through three layers of experience. The first is all about the surface of my skin, the immediate feedback of my senses. It is often twitchy and uncomfortable: my boots are too tight; there’s a twig in my sock. My backpack won’t sit square on my shoulders. My walking is stop-start in that phase, curtailed by an endless series of adjustments. I am never sure if I really want to go the distance. But if I walk on through that, those sensations eventually fade and they’re replaced by bubbling thought, a burgeoning of ideas and insights, a sense of joyous chatter in the mind. This is the point in a walk when the interior of my mind feels luxuriant, a place so pleasurable to inhabit that I never want my legs to stop. It’s a creative space, a place where problems are solved in unfathomable ways, the answers arriving like truths known all along.
With the awareness that “our bodies have answers to questions that we don’t know how to ask,” she adds:
If I carry on walking, eventually that fades, too. Perhaps it is low blood sugar, or perhaps the popcorn brain burns itself out eventually, but at some point I reach a very different state of mind, a place beyond words in which I feel quiet and empty. This is my favourite phase of all, an open space in which I am nothing for a while, just an existence with moving parts and a map in my hand, whose feet know the route and do not need my interference. Nothing happens here, or so it seems. But in its aftermath, I find my most profound insights, whole shifts in the meanings and understandings that underpin who I am. In this state, I am an open door.
The most enchanted form of walking takes place in that most enchanted of places, the forest — that living reminder of the dazzling interleaving of life that prompted Ursula K. Le Guin to write that “the word for world is forest,” that cathedral of interdependence where trees and fungi whisper to each other in a language we are only just beginning to decipher.
Art by Violeta Lopíz and Valerio Vidali from The Forest by Riccardo Bozzi
In consonance with the emerging science of “soft fascination” — which is illuminating how time in nature jolts the brain out of its rut and unlatches our most creative thinking — May writes:
The forest… is a deep terrain, a place of unending variance and subtle meaning. It is a complete sensory environment… It is different each time you meet it, changing with the seasons, the weather, the life cycles of its inhabitants… Dig beneath its soil, and you will uncover layers of life: the frail networks of mycelia, the burrows of animals, the roots of trees.
Bring questions into this space and you will receive a reply, though not an answer. Deep terrain offers up multiplicity, forked paths, symbolic meaning. It schools you in compromise, in shifting interpretation. It will mute your rationality and make you believe in magic. It removes time from the clock face and reveals the greater truth of its operation, its circularity and its vastness. It will show you rocks of unfathomable age and bursts of life so ephemeral that they are barely there. It will show you the crawl of geological ages, the gradual change of the seasons, and the countless micro-seasons that happen across the year. It will demand your knowledge: the kind of knowledge that’s experiential, the kind of knowledge that comes with study. Know it — name it — and it will reward you only with more layers of detail, more frustrating revelations of your own ignorance. A deep terrain is a life’s work. It will beguile, nourish, and sustain you through decades, only to finally prove that you, too, are ephemeral compared to the rocks and the trees.
Often, her reconnection with wonder is a function of the poetry of perspective — something she brings to the seemingly mundane fact of the tides, daily lapping Earth from both ends under the pull of the Moon:
There are two giant waves travelling endlessly around the earth, and twice a day we see their full volume. We barely sense the scale of what is really happening, because we only ever witness it locally. We rarely stop to think that they join us to the entire planet, and to the space beyond it.
When I feel the pull of the tides, I am also feeling the pull of the whole world, of the moon and the sun; that I am part of a chain of interconnection that crosses galaxies.
“Planetary System, Eclipse of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiacal Light, Meteoric Shower” by Burroughs’s contemporary Levi Walter Yaggy. (Available as a print and as stationery cards.)
Again and again, she faces the tension between our reliance on rationality and our longing for magic, for some deeper truth resinous with transcendence. A century after the Nobel-winning physicist Erwin Schrödinger bridged the newborn quantum mechanics with ancient Eastern philosophy to make the striking assertion that “this life of yours which you are living is not merely a piece of the entire existence, but is in a certain sense the whole,” May writes:
Both are just ways of conceptualising a foundational fact of living. The alchemy comes in understanding the truth that seems so easily hidden: that everything is interconnected. That there is only one whole. That we exist within a system that includes every degraded human act and every beautiful one, every blade of grass and every mountain; that shines and snaps and varies like the surface of the sea. We as individuals contain it all. We hold within us the potential for the greatest good and the most dreadful evil. We know, intuitively, how each feels, because there are lines traced between us and everything else. I don’t have to believe in God as a person. I can believe in this instead: the entire mesh of existence binding us together in ways we perceive only if we listen. Each of us is a particle of this greater entity. Each one of us contains it all.
With an eye to our reflexive inability to hold such a totality in view — perhaps because it contours a larger consciousness that transcends the cognitive limits of our own — she adds:
We find this absolute connectedness hard to grasp. We often prefer to forget it. We often push back against it. But it is there, real as sunlight, behind everything we do. Since it is too big for us to swallow whole, we approach it through metaphor. We tell stories about monsters and magic and elemental gods, but really we are finding a way to understand. Really we are talking about us, all of us together. Some of the old stories don’t work anymore. We are finding them harder and harder to understand. But that doesn’t mean we abandon them. Instead, we need to double down on the storytelling, and find new ways to tell out our meanings. Perhaps that is what we’re meant to do: remake our stories until we finally find the one that fits.
God has always been a name whispered between us.
One of French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century paintings of celestial objects and phenomena. (Available as a print and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Radiating from May’s quest is the intimation that wonder is not a property of the world but a property of the story we tell ourselves about the world. She ends with an invocation of a better story to tell ourselves — an invocation that is also an invitation to self-enchantment:
Our sense of enchantment is not triggered only by grand things; the sublime is not hiding in distant landscapes. The awe-inspiring, the numinous, is all around us, all the time. It is transformed by our deliberate attention. It becomes valuable when we value it. It becomes meaningful when we invest it with meaning. The magic is of our own conjuring.
Couple Enchantment with the pioneering neuroscientist Charles Scott Sherrington, writing a century earlier, on wonder and the spirituality of nature, then revisit the great naturalist John Burroughs’s superb manifesto for spirituality in the age of science.
“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity,” Rachel Carson told a class of young people in what became her bittersweet farewell to life, after catalyzing the modern environmental movement; she urged them: “You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery — not of nature, but of itself.”
More than half a century later, another visionary of uncommon tenderness for the living world addresses another generation of young people with a kindred message of actionable reverence for the ecosystem of interdependence we call life.
In Heart to Heart: A Conversation on Love and Hope for Our Precious Planet (public library), the fourteenth Dalai Lama and artist Patrick McDonnell — who illustrated Jane Goodall’s inspiring life-story — invite an ethical approach to climate change, calling on young people to face a world of wildfires and deforestation with passionate compassion for other living beings, and to act along the vector of that compassion with the Dalai Lama’s fundamental philosophy:
Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.
Told with the simplicity and sincerity of language native to Buddhist teaching, the story begins with an improbable visitor showing up at the Dalai Lama’s doorstep: a giant panda — the vulnerable bear species Ailuropoda melanoleuca, endemic to China and beloved the world over, both ancient symbol and Instagram star.
His Holiness greets the furry visitor with the same attitude he greets everyone:
I welcome everyone as a friend. In truth, we all share the same basic goals: we seek happiness and do not want suffering.
Together, they venture out into the wilderness to savor the natural gift of the forest and contemplate the delicate interleaving of life within it. Along the way, the Dalai Lama tells his life-story, laced with his relationship to the natural world — the wild yaks, gazelles, antelopes, and white-lipped deer he encountered on his first journey across Tibet when he was recognized as the next Dalai Lama as a young boy, the comfort he took in the smell of wildflowers after leaving his home, the long-eared owl he watched soar over his first monastery, the mountain foxes, wolves, and lynx roaming the surrounding forest.
With a wistful eye to the decimation of wildlife populations in his lifetime, he tells his new friend and his young reader:
We must never forget the suffering humans inflict on other sentient beings. Perhaps one day we will kneel and ask the animals for forgiveness.
But forgiveness, he intimates, is not enough — we must urgently amend our actions and recover our respect for other living beings, which demands nothing less than a transformation of the human heart and a radical unselfing. Leaning on the Buddhist precepts, His Holiness writes:
Compassion, loving-kindness, and altruism are the keys not only to human development but also to planetary survival.
Real change in the world will only come from a change of heart.
What I propose is a compassionate revolution, a call for radical reorientation away from our habitual preoccupation with the self.
It is a call to turn toward the wider community of beings with whom we are connected, and for conduct which recognizes others’ interests alongside our own.
There is, of course, nothing radical in the notion itself — it is a simple recognition of reality, consonant with the great evolutionary biologist and Gaia Hypothesis originator Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” The radical portion is the commitment to actionable course-correction and recalibration of habitual action — something young people are uniquely poised to do as they take our planetary future into their growing hands and growing hearts.
A century and a half after the great naturalist John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” His Holiness writes:
Everything is interdependent, everything is inseparable.
Our individual well-being is intimately connected both with that of all others and with the environment within which we live.
Our every action, our every deed, word, and thought, no matter how slight or inconsequential it may seem, has an implication not only for ourselves but for all others, too.
In a sentiment that calls to mind philosopher and activist Simone Weil’s poignant meditation on the relationship between our rights and our responsibilities, he adds:
We are all interconnected in the universe, and from this, universal responsibility arises… Everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world.
He goes on to explore how this change begins within, with cultivating “a peaceful mind and a peaceful heart” for oneself — the fulcrum of all kindness and compassionate action. Again and again, he returns to Hannah Arendt’s insight that “the smallest act in the most limited circumstances bears the seed of… boundlessness, because one deed, and sometimes one word, suffices to change every constellation,” inviting his young readers to remember that the smallest actions in the present accrete into sizable change for the future:
There are only two days in the year that nothing can be done.
One is called Yesterday, and the other is called Tomorrow.
Today is the right day to love, believe, do, and mostly to live positively to help others.
He ends with a prayerful meditation on the inner transformation necessary for a civilizational evolution of consciousness:
May I become at all times, both now and forever,
A protector for those without protection
A guide for those who have lost their way
A ship for those with oceans to cross
A bridge for those with rivers to cross
A sanctuary for those in danger
A lamp for those without light
A place of refuge for those who lack shelter
And a servant to all in need.
For as long as space endures,
And for as long as living beings remain,
Until then may I, too, abide
To dispel the misery of the world.
I spent large swaths of my childhood by my grandmother’s side in rural Bulgaria as she tended to her subsistence garden, tilling and planting, watering and weeding. Each August, we did something that felt to me like partaking of magic — we would choose the sweetest, most succulent tomatoes from the vine, cut them open, carefully extract the seeds, and lay them out on newspaper to dry, knowing that they would become next spring’s seedlings and, with nothing more than sunlight and water, next summer’s bright red orbs of delight. So it is that, year after year, my grandmother refined her tomatoes into a cornucopia of unparalleled sweetness and perfection. Last summer’s seeds are already growing as I write.
This magic was made possible by a visionary of science who set out to save humanity and died for his values the year my grandmother turned nine.
Tomato, or Love-Apple, from Elizabeth Blackwell’s pioneering 1737 encyclopedia of medicinal plants. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
While the physicist Sergei Vavilov was presiding over Stalin’s Academy of Sciences and spearheading the Soviet atomic bomb project, his idealistic older brother was laboring at something of orthogonal impact on humanity — a way to end an elemental form of suffering that has haunted our species since its dawn.
The botanist, geneticist, and explorer Nikolai Vavilov (November 25, 1887–January 26, 1943) was still a boy when he arrived at his dream of ending famine. He had heard his father’s stories of growing up in poverty and constant hunger due to crop failures. When Nikolai himself was four, the early arrival of winter decimated crops all over the country, sending millions into starvation. All the tsar could do was offer his subjects “famine bread” — loaves made of milled husks, bark, weeds, and moss, rationed out in the freezing cold. Vavilov’s father had spent his life rising from poverty and now had a comfortable life as a merchant, so the family was protected from the worst of the famine — but from his precarious island of comfort, the boy watched the ocean of suffering and sorrowed. Half a million peasants perished that winter as the aristocracy feasted on imported delicacies from Europe — grim structural inequality that became the ignition spark for the long-seething people’s revolution a quarter century later.
Vavilov saw the contours of a different kind of revolution — one no one else could envision, not in Russia and not anywhere in the world.
in the diary of his youth:
Do what you can. If you can’t do something you wanted to do, then you will be forgiven, but if you don’t want to try to do anything, you will not be forgiven.
He decided to do nothing less than end the world’s hunger, vowing in his diary to devote his life to science — an endeavor aimed at “everything that brings joy, calmness of emotion and reason” — so that he may “understanding nature for the betterment of humankind.”
After graduating from the Soviet agricultural academy as a botanist, he set out to travel through Europe and absorb all he could from the best scientists in every related discipline. In England, he worked with William Bateson, who had coined the word genetics to explain heredity and had pioneered the study of this script for transmitting the message of life.
Upon returning to Russia, Vavilov founded an institute under which to commence the great project of his life — collaborating with nature on enhancing her strengths and allaying her weaknesses by using the new science of genetics to cultivate plant species that would thrive in conditions none had survived before. He had a revolutionary insight: There must be wild varieties of common agricultural plants with different genes that make them more resilient than their farmed cousins — genes that could be used to strengthen agricultural crops by breeding stronger species that would feed humanity even through droughts and freezes. He called them his miracle plants. It wasn’t just an idealist’s dream — he knew the science that would make it a reality, and he would devote his life to it.
When World War I broke out, Vavilov, already established as a preeminent botanist, was dispatched to present-day Iran to solve a mystery — Soviet soldiers there were suffering from brain fog and inexplicable dizziness. He discovered that the mysterious malady was caused by a fungus growing on the wheat of which their bread was made. As bullets flew around him, Vavilov carefully collected samples of local plants, wrapped them in wax paper, and tucked them into his breast pocket. He didn’t yet know it, but this was the birth of Earth’s largest botanical collection.
The pea by French artist Paul Sougy. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
When a drought lashed Russia in 1921 and killed the harvest, more than 5 million people died of starvation in a year, most of them peasants. Vavilov grew determined to never let this happen to anyone again. He understood that if he could equip farmers with the basic science of genetics, they could control for which traits of their crops would dominate, rather than entrusting their harvest to the roulette of chance — they could do what my grandmother did with her tomatoes, selecting for the best traits year over year. Mendel had made a science of agriculture by expressing mathematically the probabilities of genetic variance. Vavilov set out to make of that science an art of resilience, having vowed as a young man to “work for the benefit of the poor, the enslaved class of my country, to raise their level of knowledge.”
He spent the 1920s roaming the world to collect wild varieties of staple foods. He slept little, smiled much, and trekked through the jungle in his tailored three-piece suit, tie, and felt fedora. He traveled to places frequented by droughts and food shortages, from Africa to the Middle East, taking care to learn the language and talk to locals about their lore of growing food in inhospitable conditions. He traveled to the birthplaces of the most nutritious plants. In Brazil, he got cacao, oranges, mangoes, and papayas. In China, poppy and sugarcane. In Korea, soybeans and rice. In Ethiopia, he discovered the mother plant from which all the world’s coffee originated.
Cacao by Étienne Denisse from his Flore d’Amérique, 1846. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
By the end of the decade, Vavilov had completed numerous ethnobotanical expeditions to collect hundreds of thousands of seeds from five continents, including many places where no scientist had set foot before. He was quietly building something unexampled: the world’s first seed bank — a living library of biodiversity that would come to the rescue of the people of any land whose crops were decimated by a drought or a blight. There were 600 kinds of apples and more than a thousand varieties of strawberries among its quarter million plants — a lush repository of resilience, housed at Vavilov’s institute in Leningrad.
Lenin, who had assumed power in the 1917 Russian Revolution, had immediately recognized the political value of Vavilov’s humanistic work — its insurance against the country’s crop failures, its promise of making Russia a superpower of global food production — and had thrown his full support behind it. But when he died in 1924, everything changed.
As Stalin usurped power, he forced peasant farmers off their farms and into large industrial agriculture collectives — tumult that disrupted the harvest and hurled the country into mass starvation. He knew that a widespread famine would hamper his revolution; he knew that more resilient crops would be the solution. But it was not Vavilov’s science he turned to.
On August 7, 1927, Pravda — the newspaper voice of the Communist Party — published a fawning profile of a young “barefoot scientist” in rural Azerbaijan who had never gone to university but was promising an agrarian revolution.
Trofim Lysenko considered scientific education “harmful nonsense.” He rejected Darwinian evolution and Mendelian genetics, instead subscribing to Lamarckian inheritance with its outlandish claim that organisms acquire traits in immediate response to their environments and pass those traits immediately to the next generation — a pseudoscience that fueled the menace of eugenics. There were echoes of alchemy in Lysenko’s bravado — he promised he could cultivate wheat that would turn into rye and rye that would turn into barley. He bragged that his pea crop had withstood winter thanks to an innovative “training” strategy — soaking the seeds in ice-cold water, which he called vernalization. He claimed he could “train” plants within a single generation, making the very next generation more resilient.
Trofim Lysenko measuring wheat
Stalin, having no understanding of science, was blinded by the luster of the young man’s instant gratification claims. So began the greatest anti-science campaign of the twentieth century.
The dictator, who declared 1929 the year of the “Great Break with the Past,” gave Vavilov an ultimatum: he had to breed his miracle plants in three years, or face grave consequences. It was a biological impossibility; in reality — the evolutionary reality of reproductive cycles and genetic development — it would take at least four times as long for new genetic traits to manifest in a species on the scale of a crop. Seizing upon his spotlight moment and his nascent promotion within Stalin’s scientific establishment, Lysenko launched a concerted attack on Vavilov’s research, pitting it against his own “science” as too slow for the urgently needed famine relief in the country, too humble for the economic domination Stalin craved. He did not hesitate to falsify his own research to bolster its claims.
Vavilov had spent years laboring to bring the seventh International Congress of Genetics to the USSR and although it had been initially approved by the government, now the Communist Party abruptly cancelled the global gathering. When it was eventually convened in Edinburgh after a two-year delay and Vavilov was banned from attending, his international colleagues placed an empty chair on the stage to protest his absence — he was already one of the most respected geneticists in the world.
With science itself under assault, Vavilov devoted all of his energies to his institute and the seed bank, vowing:
We shall go into the pyre, we shall burn, but we shall not retreat from our convictions.
When his plants developed in accordance with nature and failed to meet the dictator’s timeline, Vavilov was accused of treason and sabotage. In the middle of a field expedition in the Ukraine, he was arrested as “an active participant of an anti-Soviet wreckage organization and a spy for foreign intelligence services.” His home was raided and all of his field notes destroyed, but his colleagues managed to save his voluminous correspondence with other scientists and his manuscripts, tucking them away in the basement of the institute, beneath the seed bank.
Nikolai Vavilov’s arrest photo
Upon receiving news of the arrest, Vavilov’s brother wrote in his diary:
His big useful life is being ruined… life of tireless and intense work for his homeland, for the people. All his life spent in work, with no other hobbies. Wasn’t it obvious and clear to everybody? What else can be asked and demanded of individuals? This is a cruel mistake and an injustice. It is even more cruel because it is worse than death. The end of scientific work, the slander, ruining the lives of family members, the threat of it all.
Over the next eleven months in jail, Vavilov was interrogated and tortured hundreds of times, sometimes for thirteen hours a time, for a total of 1,700 hours, with the intention of coercing a confession of sabotage and espionage. He remained adamant that his research had been only in the service of science and human welfare.
Like Dostoyevsky, he was sentenced to death by firing squad, but his death sentence was repealed and reduced to twenty years in a prison camp.
This was an epoch of sweeping terror. While Stalin was terrorizing scientists, Hitler was savaging Europe. Leningrad was next on his conquest list — not only because of its geopolitical advantages as a major international port, but because it housed something precious: the seed bank. The Führer well understood that controlling the world’s food supply was key to controlling the world’s population, so he tasked a special SS unit with looting Vavilov’s seed collections.
On September 8, 1941, the Nazis began their assault on Leningrad by severing the last road to the city. The siege would last 872 days as Leningrad refused to surrender. Food ran out fast. By the winter of 1942, all the government could provide was a ration of two slices of bread, made of 50% sawdust. This too ran out. People took to stripping the wallpaper in their apartments, scraping the adhesive paste made of flour and water, and boiling it to make soup. Death swept the city — 800,000 human beings, one out of every three citizens. Bodies lined the streets unburied. Rats emerged by the millions, feasting on the corpses.
At Vavilov’s institute, scientists barricaded themselves to protect the seed bank from the rats and the Nazis. Famished themselves, they took turns staying up all night, warding off the rodents with metal rods. In what may be the most moving sacrifice in the history of science, nine scientists died of starvation, guarding a cornucopia of nuts, beans, rice, and grains. The curator of legumes was found at his desk, an envelope of peas by his side.
The vault survived unharmed, holding the seeds of life.
Clitoria, or butterfly pea. (Available as a print, a cutting board, and stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)
Meanwhile, Vavilov was languishing in prison. Inmates were fed nothing but flour and frozen cabbage. He survived for two years, his vivacious body shrinking to a skeleton. And then, biology gave way to entropy. In the icy Russian winter of 1943, Nikolai Vavilov died of starvation — the selfsame terror he had devoted his life to preventing. His body was dumped in an unmarked mass grave.
He had once written to a friend:
I really believe deeply in science; it is my life and the purpose of my life. I do not hesitate to give my life even for the smallest bit of science.
Like Alan Turing, Nikolai Vavilov was posthumously pardoned by a new government and eventually celebrated as a hero of science. A Russian postage stamp bears his image and the Russian Academy of Sciences awards a prestigious medal in his honor. A small planet discovered by a Soviet astronomer is named after him, as is a crater on the far side of the Moon. A monument of him rises from a plaza near the prison where he died — a site of frequent resistance protests to this day. The Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in St. Petersburg is still home to one of the world’s largest seed banks and was the inspiration for the creation of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank near the North Pole in 2008.
When the next global famine savages our species, Vavilov’s legacy will be a lifeline, purchased with his life.