As a child growing up in Brooklyn, Kapuler was twinly obsessed
with orchids and baseball, equally able to reel off lifetime home
run statistics or botanical names of obscure flowers. At age 15
he won the Westinghouse National Science Talent Search for his experiments
testing the effects of a mutagenic chemical on his beloved orchids.
He entered Yale at 16, the youngest student in his class of 1,000
and graduated first in his class. His undergraduate honors thesis
earned him the highest grade Yale had ever bestowed and was eventually
published in the Journal of Molecular Biology. After earning his
doctorate in molecular biology at prestigious Rockefeller University
he worked with world expert on nucleic acids A.M. Michelson and
apprenticed at the lab of future Nobel Prize winner Howard Temin.
Those were heady days of discoveries in his field. He looks back
with awe at that time “when the structure of the genetic code
was being discovered...it was the greatest self-revelation about
our common unity with all organisms. They were the mystery of the
ages, and we were uncovering those secrets.” Yet Kapuler,
dismayed by colleagues who were producing lethal viruses for the
U.S. government, suddenly left his fast-track career at the University
of Connecticut and headed for the west coast with his dog, green
van and $1,000. “I had to find my beloved wife and my kids
and a life that had a heart.” He found Linda Sylvester in
Oregon. Together they lived in poverty and he started saving seeds
because he was too poor to buy them, eventually collecting more
than 6,000 varieties and founding Peace Seeds which later merged
with Seeds of Change. Currently he serves as Director of Research
for Seeds of Change. His recent breeding work focuses on developing
increased amino acid concentration as a way of increasing the nutritional
value of food plants.
Kapuler once characterized his Peace Seeds catalog as a “Manual
for conserving the plant gene-pool of planet Earth.” Using
computer-generated bubble diagrams he calls “kingrams,”
he laid out his catalogs in a biological format that shows how groupings
of plants are connected to each other. Inspired by the work of Danish
biologist Rolf Dahlgren, these maps have given Kapuler a sense of
direction in his preservation work, pinpointing what’s really
rare and needs growing.
To Kapuler, “Heritage seeds are essential to our heart chakra.”
They are important not just because they produce a high quality
crop or grow fast, but because they carry the message of the people.
They are important for the same reason life is important. “We
are involved in a process of passing on a heritage of liveness...”
The problem is not hybrids but “ownership of life.”
Hybridizing, an “essential form of innovation,” does
not go far enough. The next step is to make open-pollinated lines
that stabilize the varieties. Rather than owning them, we must return
them to the public domain, giving amateurs access to the gene pool
and opportunities to develop new plants.
Much of Kapuler’s work has centered on de-hybridizing hybrids,
taking that next step to create an equivalent open-pollinated variety.
Among his successes are True Platinum, an open-pollinated version
of Platinum Lady sweet corn, Summer Sun, an open-pollinated form
of hybrid patty pan Sunburst and Swan Lake, a development from the
hybrid melon Swan.
Through the Seeds of Change catalog, he has popularized a number
of heirloom varieties including Elephant Head Amaranth and Hutterite
Soup Bean (which he’d been collecting for 16 years and never
tasted until a chance blizzard marooned him and put him in the mood
for a hearty bean soup).
Like many who came of age in the turbulent sixties, Kapuler could
justifiably echo the Grateful Dead’s anthem, “What a
long, strange trip it’s been.” Kapuler seems to have
weathered it as well as any of us.