Last summer, an unexplained phenomenon gripped nightly newscasts and Facebook groups across America: Unsolicited deliveries of obscurely labeled seed packages, seemingly from China, were being sent to Americans’ homes. Recipients reported the packages to local police, news stations, and agriculture departments; searched message boards for explanations; and theorized about conspiracies including election interference and biowarfare. Despite large-scale USDA testing of the packages, the mystery remained: Who sent the seeds and why?
This week on The Experiment, the host Julia Longoria speaks with the writer Chris Heath about his investigation of mystery seeds for The Atlantic, the byzantine world of international e-commerce, and the dangers of both panic and reason.
A transcript of this episode is presented below:
Julia Longoria: Just start from the very, very beginning. Like, set me in time. Um, where should we start?
Chris Heath: Last summer—people might be aware—there was a story that bubbled in the media for a couple of weeks.
Longoria: In the summer of 2020, writer Chris Heath noticed a strange national news story.
(A low, intense, bumbling melody plays, like a much darker “In the Hall of the Mountain King.”)
ABC6 host Rick Williams: It has been happening all across the nation, including right here in our area.
Heath: You know, it was in most people’s newspapers, and it was on TV all over the place.
Williams: What’s behind this rather odd phenomenon?
(Another melody, high but similarly bumbling, adds a layer of strangeness to the background.)
CBSN host Jasmine Viel: People across the country are getting unsolicited packages. Listen to this. Investigation …
Interviewee 1: No idea where it came from. I didn’t order it.
Williams: People have been receiving mysterious packages that they did not order.
Heath: People all over America had started receiving these completely baffling packages that appeared to have Chinese writing on.
Bay News 9 host: The packages, some of them seen here from the Tampa Bay Times, are usually marked with Chinese characters. (Fades under.)
Heath: And inside were packets of seeds.
Bay News 9 host: (Fades back up.) Some are being called “mystery seeds” and they have appeared in mailboxes in more than two dozen states.
Viel: The USDA has now put out a warning saying not to open these packages or even plant the seeds. Authorities say …
Heath: There’s nothing on the package that seemed to explain what the seeds were, but they were addressed to the people who received them. As far as they were concerned, they had no idea why they were being sent them.
Interviewee 1: I guess it’s something that’s been going around the area. My wife …
Longoria: I had no memory of this news story, but apparently these seeds turned up all over the country last summer—tens of thousands of unsolicited seed packages.
(The unnerving music dissipates, replaced by low and slow drones.)
Heath: I think it would have been strange any year, to have started receiving these packages. But July 2020, I think it was particularly unnerving. We’d been in various stages of lockdown for about four months by then. People were pretty anxious about just any physical things inside their lives. You know, we were all wiping surfaces and, you know, some people were very nervous about what they received in the mail.
ABC6’s George Solis: Officials also stress, if you receive one of these packages, do not plant the seeds …
Heath: You know, these stories carried on for quite a while. But, you know, like most sort of media firestorms, without any sort of new, big twists to it, it slowly began to abate.
Tucker Carlson: It’s amazing! It’s an amazing story. It almost doesn’t sound real but it—it is real. Gordon, thanks so much for coming on!
(A musical flourish, then the background sounds fade out.)
Longoria: (Laughs quietly.) It’s so interesting you mention this, because I actually received a package around this time that I also did not order. Uh, it had Chinese characters on it. It was this kind of impractical coat hanger that you would, like, drill into the wall. I can’t … And then it, like, would fold out in this strange, like, kind of not very [Both crack up lightly at the absurdity.] useful way. Like, I was like, “I’m just going to, like, hang clothes from my wall?” It’s very strange. Um … I was totally mystified by this at the time. And I called all my family members, and friends of mine, just to see if they had sent me this weird clothes rack. And everyone was immediately horrified that I had received this. My partner was like, “Why did you bring that in the house?” My sister was like, “You should throw it away!” And we—we were in a tizzy about it.
Heath: What did you do with them?
Longoria: By the end of that day, I just put it back outside. We were so paranoid! But, anyway, I guess I’ll—I’ll just, like, table that. Go ahead with your story. (Both laugh.)
Heath: Well, no! Like, I was enjoying that. Um, but you know, on one level, that’s got absolutely nothing to do with what happened with the seeds. But on another level, the reaction that you had is absolutely central to understanding the whole of this story.
And it took me a long time … I worked on this story for several months before I realized that.
(Humming rolls up and down in volume like waves. Birds chirp overtop.)
Longoria: This week, writer Chris Heath attempts to solve the seed-packet mystery of summer 2020—and he finds it was not at all what it seemed.
I’m Julia Longoria. This is The Experiment.
(Wind chimes enter for a brief moment, then the sound cuts out to the sustained, pedaled sound of an organ before becoming nothing at all.)
Heath: The first story about this that I can find appeared on TV in Utah on July 22.
(A quick moment of wind chimes play before cutting out to a windy ambience.)
Lori Culley: Checked my mail, opened my mailbox, and I was like, “Oh, yay!”
Heath: A woman called Lori Culley, west of Salt Lake City—she got a package in the middle of July—one of these seed packets—and she was a little thrown by it. And then, on July 21, she got a second packet.
Culley: I hope that, um, it’s nothing too serious.
FOX13 reporter: The label said earrings, but … something else was inside.
Culley: Well, obviously, they’re not jewelry. [Chuckles once.] I opened them up and they were seeds!
Heath: She posted on her Facebook page that she’d received these strange seeds.
Reporter: (Over the sound of a dog barking.) When she posted about it online, she found out, one by one …
Culley: These three are from my daughter.
Reporter: Quite a few people had the same story … (Fades under.)
Heath: She gave an interview to the TV station. And that was the beginning of, um, what became a sort of media moral panic about, uh, mystery seeds from China.
(A persistent percussion line creates a feeling of urgency.)
(A news-tape montage plays.)
KFYR North Dakota host: Over the past week, people from all 50 states have received these mysterious seed packages …
ABC7 New York host: The Delaware Department of Agriculture reported several people in the state received similar packages.
5News Online Arkansas host: Right now, they’re still investigating exactly where these seeds are coming from, and why they’re being sent …
KFYR North Dakota host: With more and more recipients of the suspicious seeds, the USDA is trying to calm any concerns of direct harm …
Bay News 9 host: So far, investigators have not tracked down the origin of the seeds, although it does appear people are finding a variety of these seeds in packages.
Heath: As it turns out, there were all kinds of seeds. At least 250 different species were sent.
(A rain stick plays—the sound of seeds falling.)
Heath: Typically they’d come in a sort of, um, yellow packet with a China Post sticker on the front, with lots of Chinese writing over it. And then inside that, there’d be a clear kind of sachet with the seeds inside.
Interviewee 2: Looks like Chinese script on ’em.
Interviewee 3: Even though it says over here “stud earring” …
Heath: Um, one of the weird things that freaked people out a bit more—and it’s one of the things that freaked Lori Culley out—is that one of the few things in English on the packages would be a customs description. And they wouldn’t say “seeds.” Nearly always, they would say something like “stud earrings.”
Interviewee 4: Said “studded earrings” on the outside package.
Interviewee 5: “Jewelry,” “bracelets,” “stud ring,” um, “wire connectors” …
Heath: As soon as the story was out there, then people were really freaked out because it was that thing that was on TV, and that thing in the papers, and they were getting those weird Chinese mystery seeds.
Interviewee 6: A lot of my friends are like, “What’s up with the seeds?” And I’m like, “I dunno!”
NBC4 Washington host: Do you think someone is trying to sneak some invasive plants into our country?
DownToQuest YouTuber 1: Woah, guys! We’re part of a conspiracy!
DownToQuest YouTuber 2: What is it?
DownToQuest YouTuber 1: (Extended.) Fuck yeah! [Singing.] Conspiracies …
(Repetitive breath work—maybe a didgeridoo—sets a rhythm. Mechanical sounds clink and clank around the beat. Someone types rapidly through it all.)
Heath: I spent weeks reading people’s reactions at the time on the internet, comments on Facebook gardening groups and state agricultural-department Facebook pages. I kept a file of the theories. And, my goodness, there were a lot of them.
Heath: (Distant, as if coming through a radio, he reads the theories.) “It’s a bioweapon to destroy crops in the U.S.”
“I saw on TV that the seeds were filled with cocaine.”
“They’re laced with some kind of poison or virus.”
“Some dangerous organisms or chemicals. Don’t open them up.”
“They probably grow plants the murder hornets like a lot.”
“Deep state, faux-right-wing …”
“Unrestricted warfare from the CCP.”
“Plot twist: Trump is behind this.”
“It’s the whole beast’s system. The beast knows …”
“But what if it’s the cure for the lab-created COVID virus?”
“If the media is pushing the story, you know it’s complete BS.”
(The music gently fades out.)
Heath: “Is there bubble wrap on these items? Beware, and don’t pop the bubble wrap. Just a thought.”
Longoria: I’m wondering … People were claiming it might be bioterrorism—like, is that a total overreaction, or is there a world where we would be sent biological material in the mail as, like, a … attack on the country?
Heath: Well, I think the thing is, is that, you know, whether or not there was a real threat, you know, how seriously you judge that threat to be, you couldn’t rule it out. Logically, it would seem a rather weird, random way to do it. But could it be done? Of course it could. The USDA couldn’t just rule that out. And they started taking this very, very seriously.
And the advice that the USDA and local departments were giving out was pretty strict: Don’t burn these seeds. Don’t put them in the trash. And then, more than anything else, whatever you do, don’t plant them. But, of course, some people already had.
Longoria: (Incredulous.) People planted the seeds?
Heath: Because these had been coming for weeks. And, whereas one person might get a weird coat hanger and freak out and leave it outside after a day [Longoria laughs.]—just as a random example—someone else would go, “That’s weird! I know what I could do with that.”
5News Online reporter: Doyle Crenshaw from Boonville got these strange seeds in the mail two months ago.
Heath: One person who became momentarily a little famous for this was called Doyle Crenshaw.
(Music reenters with a rain stick and a low keyboard line.)
Doyle Crenshaw: About every two weeks, I’d come by and put Miracle Grow on ’em.
Heath: He’d ordered some marigolds, as he remembered it. And then an extra packet came with them, of these weird-looking seeds.
Crenshaw: And they just started growing crazy.
Heath: And then these weird fruits started growing …
(The music fades out.)
Heath: And these fruits are these strange, pale-green, oblong fruits that grow to be about 14 inches long.
5News Online reporter: The Department of Agriculture is removing the plant on Crenshaw’s property for future study, and are urging people to not plant the seeds. Right now, they’re still investigating …
Heath: They took the plants for testing. And they determined they were Benincasa hispida. The fruit is colloquially known as a Chinese watermelon, or a wax gourd, or a winter melon.
Longoria: It’s not some, like, genetically engineered, never-seen-before …
Heath: No! [Longoria laughs lightly.] Meanwhile, the USDA ended up with over 19,000 packages. The seeds went through a pretty rigorous testing process. You know, did everything to absolutely rule out that anything really, truly nefarious was going on.
Longoria: And did they rule it out?
(The sound of intrigue plays: sporadic bass notes, echoing synthesizers, and the occasional electric guitar motif.)
Heath: They didn’t find anything. But, at the same time, all over the place, a lot of apparently smart people immediately thought they knew what this was. It’s basically an e-commerce strategy called “brushing.”
Longoria: So—wait—what is brushing?
Heath: Brushing—it’s kind of tricky to explain, but it’s, um—it’s a kind of e-commerce scam. Basically, companies in China compete for the best rankings and reviews on e-commerce platforms like Amazon. And one way of doing that is to have more sales and better reviews. One way of getting those is to fake them, and to set up accounts in other people’s names, and say that you’ve sent them your fabulous product, and then write a review in their name saying that they’ve received your fabulous product, and that it’s fabulous.
(The music fades out.)
Longoria: So, I—I am a Chinese company.
Heath: You’re—you’re a vendor selling something.
Longoria: Um, I sell expensive headphones.
Longoria: Great! So where am I listing my headphones?
Heath: You’re listing them on an e-commerce platform.
Longoria: Got it.
Heath: So Amazon would be an example, but there’s plenty of others.
Longoria: What is my goal here?
Heath: Your goal is to have lots of reviews saying that you’ve sold loads of these headphones, and they’re fantastic. So: People want to cheat it if they can.
Longoria: Got it.
Heath: One way of cheating it is to set up accounts in the names of random people, say, across America, and say that you’ve sent them packages with your fabulous product, and that they’ve received it, and that they’ve posted a review—which you write because you control their account—saying your product is fabulous.
It’s apparently very easy to get thousands or millions of Americans’ personal details very, very easily on the internet. That’s not even the difficult bit of this. That information is readily available. It doesn’t mean that anyone’s hacked into your Amazon account or your other accounts. This is totally separate from that.
(Light, shimmering sounds weave in and out—a tapestry of horn sounds and guitar notes plucked on loop, synthesizers and triangles.)
Heath: But the way the e-commerce platforms apparently verify whether your review is real is by making sure that a package really went from the company selling the goods to the account-holder receiving the goods. Now, if you’re selling headphones, it’s going to be pretty expensive to randomly send your fantastic headphones to all the people who you want to post these reviews from. So what you do instead is you send them something more or less worthless—something very cheap—maybe a plastic phone holder, or a hair tie, or—maybe, in this case—seeds. That way a package really does go from China to a home in America, and then you can write your review, and it doesn’t get disqualified, because it looks like the transaction really happened.
Longoria: If you Google the seeds phenomenon of 2020, this is the most common explanation you’ll find: that Chinese companies that sell more expensive items—like headphones—were sending packets of worthless seeds to random Americans so that they could then get the delivery confirmation for that seeds package to use to post a fake review of the product they actually sold. The more great reviews they got, the more they would climb in search rankings.
Heath: Basically, this became the conventional, accepted, default explanation for what had happened. Perhaps most importantly, it was the explanation effectively endorsed by the USDA.
Um, I spoke to Dr. Osama El-Lissy, the deputy director who headed up the response. Um, and I’ll quote him, ’cause it’s—the very precise way in which he said it, it was, “We are not able to think of other reasons behind this event aside from the brushing scam at this time.” Um, but, effectively, that sent the explanation out there as endorsed. And I don’t think I’ve seen anything between now and then that’s questioned that.
(The music fades out. It’s replaced after a moment of quiet with a low drone and rare keyboard notes.)
Heath: So I—I assumed the story I was telling was the story that I’ve told you so far, which is to try and really understand and reproduce, um, and really get down in detail with what happened over those weeks. And then I would explain how it was actually brushing. That was the plan.
That was the plan, and that plan did not work out. Um, but we’ll come to that.
Longoria: We’ll come to that, after the break.
(The sound of a tape recorder coming on, the tape getting swallowed up, and a bell ringing.)
Longoria: When Chris told me about his brushing theory, I thought back to the mysterious package that I’d received last year: the impractical clothes rack from China, seemingly delivered to me from no one, for no reason.
Longoria: So I actually found this email dated—oh, it’s actually dated September 23, 2020, um, which, brushing would actually be[Chuckles.] an answer to the mystery. Um, I’m just going to read it to you while I have it in front of me, before we go on. Is that okay?
Heath: Yeah, of course.
Longoria: Okay. So it says it’s actually addressed to our editor, Katherine.
“Um, hi. Very strange thing happened today. My doorbell rang. I went down to answer it, and there was a package on the floor from a Joe Doe in New Castle, Delaware, addressed to me via USPS, labeled on the outside as ‘coat hanger.’ I opened the package, and inside there were two boxes, labeled ‘clothes,’ ‘racks,’ and a thank-you note, written in broken English, saying not to return it to the Delaware address posted, because they can’t receive mail there. I did not order a coat hanger or clothes racks. There is no order on my Amazon or Etsy account for a clothes rack. My sister, boyfriend, roommate, parents were all stumped by this. My mom and I Googled the name of the sender, and this forum came up all with mysterious complaints similar to mine: people receiving toys they didn’t order, people whose Amazon accounts were hacked by Joe Doe under the same address to spend thousands of dollars on products from their account. Some people on this forum actually claim they’re Chinese, and that they are part of the scam, or that they’re Chinese and they’re not a scammer, but use this address in the U.S. to make it look like they’re a U.S.-based company. Very bizarre, but how could someone scam me by sending me a free clothes rack? Is this, like, a Chinese conspiracy to weaken faith in USPS? That’s far-fetched, but who knows? It’s 2020! — Julia.”
Heath: It’s—’cause if you’d found articles about brushing then, you would’ve been 100percent convinced that that was it anyway.
Longoria: So, brushing.
Heath: So my thought was that if brushing works as I explained, then surely the e-commerce companies can identify that fairly easily, because it relies on them identifying those tracking numbers for it to work in the first place. So I went to Amazon first—’cause they’re the biggest, and I’d seen Amazon mentioned a couple of times back in July and August, when all of this was at its height. And they’d said in a couple of media stories, “Well, actually, you know, we looked into it, and we think that, um, this one and that one was an order delayed by COVID.”
And I thought, Well, okay. Maybe one or two. ButI thought now, you know, they’ve had months to look at this, and everyone knows this is brushing. And, you know, they must have privately—you know, this is such a big story; they must have privately analyzed what’s been going on. So I got in touch with Amazon, wanting to talk about brushing, and wanting them to tell me what they could about brushing.
But they got back to me and said, “Well, hold on. You know, we think it isn’t brushing. We think it’s delayed orders.” I was quite contemptuous of this, when it was first said to me, ’cause it just seemed ridiculous. I assumed they were just not really looking into it seriously, and I more or less said, you know, “This is what we’re going to do. I’m going to show you some examples that aren’t delayed orders. ’Cause that’s going to be very easy for me to do. And then maybe we can have the conversation that I was hoping to have.” And they said, “Fine.”
Longoria: So how did you go about doing that?
Heath: Well, I immediately thought of Lori Culley, the woman from Utah, who was—
Culley: And I opened ’em up, and they were seeds!
Heath: —it seemed, a very clear, clean example. She had received these two packets. Um … Now, I did know she’d ordered seeds way back in April ’cause she’d told me, but her memory was she’d received those. So I still thought, Okay, we’re just going to carry on proving it slowly. So I asked Lori Culley if she minded looking at her Amazon order history so that we could pull up the delivery dates of the seeds that she had got, and make a case that there was no connection between the two things.
(Mystery music plays. Funky notes are suspended for irregular rhythms as electronic sounds pulse on occasion.)
Heath: What I found was not what I expected and not what she expected. She’d ordered seeds back in April. She’d ordered three packets of seeds. All of them were from—though she hadn’t known it—Chinese vendors. Um, I’ve actually got the details here. She bought 100 clematis seeds for $1.99, 100 clematis-vine seeds for $1.53, and 25 wisteria seeds for $1.99. Now, though these had been ordered in April, what it said on her account was that they’d not been shipped until between June 15 and July 7.
That in itself was quite something to take in. But then there was something else, too, which is that these companies—once I had the names of the companies, there’s a way of getting through to the Amazon reviews of these real companies who had sold seeds last summer. And their customer reviews are just full of people going, “I ordered seeds, and they never came.” “I ordered seeds, and they came four months later.” “I ordered seeds, and when they came, they didn’t have any information and they said there were earrings. What’s going on?” (Longoria laughs.)
(Music fades down.)
Heath: And so not only did I see an example that I thought was going to confirm something do the opposite, but I suddenly saw a glimpse of a whole other world.
(The music returns with a vengeance, bursting in through a steam vent of sound and PVC pipes being played with quavering electronic notes throughout.)
Longoria: So I’m just floored by this. So, in the moment, what was going through your head?
Heath: I was a bit slow. [Longoria laughs.] Well, I’ve read literally tens of thousands of Facebook posts. [In the background, the sound of Facebook notifications plays at intervals for a moment.] And so many people were telling the same story. And it just seemed inconceivable to me that, en masse, they could be mistaken.
(The music plays out.)
Heath: But then, suddenly, I saw a way, which was that—first, think about where we were in March and April. Suddenly we’re all locked down. So it’s not at all surprising that loads of people would have ordered seeds at that time.
There’s not only the lockdown and the fact that people are in their houses and gardens—it’s also planting season. There’s actually clear evidence that there was an incredible surge in the sale of seeds. So let’s say that bit makes sense. What you’ve got to explain: If it’s not brushing—if you think these could possibly be orders that people have ordered and then somehow forgotten about it—you’ve got to have a lot of reasons why they’re not making that connection.
So then, how are people feeling failing to make the association? Well, we’ve already got the time lag. You know, everybody or most people were probably a bit off ’cause of the pandemic anyway.
Second, they need not to have realized that they ordered seeds from China. That’s easy, because when you’re on an Amazon page, you see the name of the vendor. You have to click through to find out more about that vendor. So I think it’s easy to imagine that people didn’t know they’d ordered from China.
You’re getting a package from a country you don’t know, no description of what it is. Not only that, but you’ve got some weird description that says it’s some strange type of earring.
Longoria: Yeah—why would it say that it’s some kind of earring?
Heath: I think the thing is that, if it isn’t brushing, there’s a perfectly logical reason why these things might be described as jewelry or wire connectors, which is that, while it is possible to have sent seeds legally from China, to do so required a lot of certificates and documentations and approvals. And these $2.99 packets of seeds definitely didn’t have any of that. So they had to be disguised from customs. And I think the presumption is this was the default way to hide them from customs. You just describe them as something else.
Longoria: I see.
Heath: So how could, possibly, they not have been sent for months and then they’re all suddenly being sent? Well, you know, we know what was happening in China in those months. They had one of the strictest lockdowns anywhere, and it was—in the largest part—successful. So we can immediately see a reasonable narrative for how suddenly they were not able to fulfill orders. And then how, at a later date, they may have suddenly been able to fulfill them. Those are all big reasons why you might think it, but then there’s an even bigger one.
(Persistent music plays. Time to investigate, to get into the nitty-gritty.)
Heath: Because it turns out that not many people reported these seeds until there were media stories. And then the flood came.
(The sound of a rain stick—or seeds falling—integrates into the music.)
Heath: Well, there’s a huge difference between receiving a weird package—even with all the factors I’ve just described—in isolation, and receiving a package when you’ve just read about that there’s strange, weird packages coming from China.
(The music goes quiet.)
Heath: So, at that point, you’ve got a choice in your cognition: Are you going to put together all of those steps and think, Maybe it’s what I ordered back in March or April that I forgot about that I—maybe I didn’t get, I can’t remember … Or are you going to think, I got that thing on the news? [Longoria laughs.]
So—so, now, to say all of this isn’t to prove that this is so, but I suddenly realized, That’s a narrative that doesn’t seem ridiculous. And I was absolutely stunned.
Longoria: (Laughs.) So just … thousands of people [A beat.] forgot.
Heath: Well, if they did!
(A new music cue comes in, with a piano line and a recurring gentle beat intermingled with email notification sounds. Time for a journey.)
Heath: Because … So, then, I’m obviously—having had this thought—now I’m really worried.
Longoria: What—what did you do next?
Heath: Well, I needed to find some more people, you know. And after I’d looked, other people at the magazine worked, trying to find more people. You know, I—I sort of asked, I said, “Can we try and disprove what I’m saying?” And we went looking for people to try and do that.
Longoria: So, first, can you—can you introduce yourself?
Will Gordon: I’m Will Gordon, and I’m an associate editor at The Atlantic. I’m a fact-checker.
Longoria: Okay. So what—what was your mission [Chuckles.] in relation to this?
Gordon: Yeah. So, Chris—I think Chris went into it, um, you know, thinking, Well, it’s definitely a brushing scam. But then he realized there were these instances where people would look back at their history and they’ll find out, Oh, I actually did order these seeds. [Longoria laughs.] So he wanted me to kind of stress-test that theory, to see how common it was.
So I contacted these people who may have gotten these mystery seeds and talked to them sort of about whether they ever ordered seeds from e-commerce platforms.
Interviewee 5: Hobbies? I’m big into houseplants. (Gordon hums in assent.)
Interviewee 6: And I—I love the outdoors and gardening and—and flowers and pretty things.
Interviewee 7: Yeah. I get the seeds and then I [Indistinct.] have a two-week rotation.
Gordon: Well, did they forget a transaction or—or is it—can we find an actual example of brushing that occurred?
Gordon: (Fuzzily.) So when did you get the seeds?
Interviewee 5: I want to say it was, like, March, April.
Interviewee 7: So I got that stuff from China. Um, it was—what was it? There was an—I forget … Was it … In August, was it? Or something?
Gordon: Were the seeds from China?
Interviewee 6: Well, I don’t know. [Sighs.] I actually …
Longoria: Yeah. What have you found so far? (Laughs.)
Gordon: I found a lot of people that, uh—
Interviewee 6: (In awe.) I’m trying to remember now.
Gordon: —basically just kind of forgot that they ordered stuff.
Interviewee 6: I didn’t think that I’d asked for them, but now, thinking about it, I may have said, “Yeah, I’ll take those.”
Gordon: If I’m on the call—sometimes when I ask them if they ordered seeds … Or they’ll say, “You know what? Like, actually—actually, now that you mention it, I did order seeds.”
Interviewee 8: I’ll send you the picture—the link to Amazon where I ordered that. Well, I don’t know if that’s where they came from.
Gordon: Maybe they’re mildly surprised. Like, “Oh yeah, I—I did order—I did order these. How funny.”
Gordon: You’re on Amazon right now?
Interviewee 8: (Laughing.) You know what? I must have actually ordered them, because it is saying that I paid for shipping.
Interviewee 5: Yeah. I definitely have a seed order. I saw it. I’ll send it to you.
Gordon: Maybe, at the time, they won’t realize that it’s a Chinese company that they ordered from.
Interviewee 6: (Making sounds as if looking for something.)“Departed mainland—mainland China, May 26.”
Gordon: And it was—it was delayed, basically.
Interviewee 8: So maybe I’d placed the order not realizing that they were coming from China.
Gordon: So, so far, I haven’t found any examples of brushing.
(The music winds down and out.)
Heath: I mean, even just with these examples, one thing we’ve definitely shown is that some of the people who believed that they had received mysterious unsolicited seeds packets from China actually received e-commerce orders that they had made months before and that they’d forgotten about.
Longoria: Chris has since gone back to the USDA to ask about this theory.
Heath: They said, “We continue to believe it is implausible that thousands of people around the globe ordered seeds and either forgot about them or lied about forgetting them.” [Longoria laughs.]
Now, by the way, I don’t think at all that anyone lied. And, you know, I’m prepared to end up looking really silly if I’m, if you know, ’cause it’s …
Longoria: (Laughs.) Well, you’re not the only one, right?
Heath: I guess! [Both laugh.] But, you know, they—you know, of course there may be some other evidence out there. But, whatever it is, I think that, on balance, it’s related to people having ordered seeds and not realized that what eventually arrived in the summer of 2020 was a direct result of what they’d ordered.
Longoria: (After a deep inhale.) Wow. Wow. I mean, I just immediately can believe that that many people [Laughs.] forgot, um, because we had a lot going on!
Heath: Yeah! And I think forgot feels like a sort of pejorative word.
Heath: You know, like, if they did do what I’m describing, like, they somehow did something silly—that someone more on top of it wouldn’t have done. I don’t think that at all.
Heath: I think that, because of the series of things that I’ve described, they failed to make an association—if I’m right—that was a very difficult association to make between, if you like, a click that they’d made sometime in the spring and something very strange that arrived many months later. You know, all those reasons I gave, I think that any one or two of them, I think you’d expect people to sort of nonetheless join the dots. But, you know, the dots really, really got spaced out here, and they had a lot of weird stuff put in the middle of them.
Longoria: Hmm. Do you think the same thing would’ve happened if the packages were coming from Vietnam, or some other country?
Heath: By—by the way, a few of them did come from other countries. That’s another subplot. Um …
[An emergency vehicle siren plays lightly in the background.] But I don’t think it would have been the same, unfortunately, reading a lot of these comments. In some places, it does seem like there’s fairly straight-on bigotry involved. But I don’t think everybody who felt sort of discomforted by that had to have even the slightest amount of that.
I think it was an extra thing that seemed really weird to a lot of people. And I think it probably did seem weirder just because, you know, China was in everyone’s thoughts, and people were desperately trying to understand things they didn’t understand. And then there’s something that you don’t understand that’s from China. It’s like it’s sort of joining in the whirlwind of “What on earth is going on?” in your head, maybe.
Longoria: (Laughs.) Having had that experience myself, it’s just … I just see the way it’s so easy to, um—when you’re in a moment of fear, yeah, to just let your thoughts run away. I mean, because we were all experiencing this, like, once-in-a-lifetime thing that we never thought could be possible.
Heath: No. We were used to fears that seemed impossible or unreasonable coming true.
Heath: And so, once you’ve had that reset, it’s hard not to potentially apply it to all kinds of things around you.
Longoria: Totally. [A beat.] I’m just thinking back to the original conspiracy theories that you’ve read about—including my own, which was, um, you know, that the Chinese government is trying to sew distrust [Laughs.] in the USPS or something … Just all of those theories! What do you make of the theory you’ve landed on?
Heath: I think there’s big lessons here to all of us about how easy it is to get it wrong. And, I mean, it’s a very obvious thing, I guess—but how easy it is to get it wrong and jump to conclusions. People like to do some pretty wild theorizing. Maybe some people are addicted to that, but what’s a little bit worrying and chastening to me is that I think there’s a lot of us, also, who are sort of addicted to setting stories like that straight.
Heath: And if you look at the brushing explanation, it was usually used like that. And I was probably going to use it like that—that I was going to see the sense where everyone had got it wrong, you know, and set everyone straight, make all that confusion and delusion go away. I think we have to be … [Hesitating.] “We,” I say, aligning myself with who-knows-what. [Longoria laughs.]
Um, but I think that there’s, um, you know, people who are looking to correct what they see as a lot of conspiracy and craziness in the world have to be really careful about checking themselves for arrogance, because when that goes wrong, it backfires really horribly.
(Clicking and whirring sounds play for a moment before a softly ringing glockenspiel plays on a loop.)
Heath: So do you have any idea why you got sent the coat hanger?
Longoria: Well … [Laughs.] For months, I didn’t know. And it was this huge mystery. So months passed—like, I think three or four months passed. I was on the phone with my aunt, who gives famously impractical gifts. [Laughs.] She—she was like, “Oh, did you get a package from me? I gave you a coat hanger!” (Both crack up laughing.)
(The music gets louder and unintelligible choral strains enter.)
Natalia Ramirez: This episode was produced by Katherine Wells and Julia Longoria, with help from Honor Jones. Fact-check by William Gordon and Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman and Hannis Brown.
Special thanks to Julia’s aunt, Margarita, for the clothes rack.
Music by Tasty Morsels, Nelson Nance, Joe Plourde, and Hannis Brown.
Our team also includes Gabrielle Berbey, Tracie Hunte, Emily Botein, and me, Natalia Ramirez.
You can find Chris Heath’s full article on mystery seeds at our website: http://www.theatlantic.com/experiment.
And if you liked this episode, please be sure to rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.
The Experiment is a co-production of The Atlantic and WNYC Studios. Thank you for listening.
(Looping more and more closely, like a penny circling the drain, the music suddenly dissolves into thin air, and the episode ends.)
Be part of The Experiment. As #TheExperimentPodcast keeps growing, we’re looking for new ways to tell stories and better serve our listeners. Please visit theatlantic.com/experimentsurvey to share your thoughts with The Atlantic and WNYC Studios.
Use the hashtag #TheExperimentPodcast, or write to us at [email protected].
This episode was produced by Katherine Wells and Julia Longoria, with help from Honor Jones. Fact-check by William Gordon and Michelle Ciarrocca. Sound design by David Herman and Hannis Brown.