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Creek Running North

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December 16, 2005

Corn

corn.jpg The storm we had two weeks ago did some damage to my corn. The stalks are still healthy, a good sixty degrees off vertical and canted to the north.

I tear off two or three long leaves, feed them to the rabbit.

The middle of December and the ears are still not ready. I have abandoned the idle notion of blanching kernels in lye, rubbing off the skins, and making tamales from the masa thus produced. I planted this corn in June, dark purple kernels an inch below the soil. A cupped blade-like leaf pushed through the surface from each kernel, then another, from inside the cup, then another from between them. Turn your back and the stalks are four feet high. I pulled a firm fruit from a stalk last week after our first frost and shucked it. The kernels were small, pale white with only the slightest purple stripe. I will plant earlier next spring, and buy tamales from the carniceria up the street.

I bought the corn from that same store, dark purple dried ears, maiz morado imported from Peru. In the Andes children drink chicha morada, water that has been boiled with this purple corn and the skins of a few pineapples. Their parents sprout the corn and make a weak beer chicha, from the malt. When I go to Bolivia I will relax my no-drinking policy.

The lack of harvest saddens me only a little. We eat well, and even were I so allergic that a bite of corn would send me into anaphylactic shock, I would still grow it. Call it a tic, though one requiring more time and planning than most. I plant corn and watch the stalks grow. We have perhaps a hundred square feet of garden bed. Fifteen of them are in corn, wedged between the asparagus and the Cabernet vine. It is not a garden without corn. I feel the swelling ears through rough papery husks. That is sufficient. Any eventual tamales are a bonus.

My job is to put the kernel in the ground.

In 1993 I got a call from a man I didn't know. Hopi elder Thomas Banyacya was slated to give a speech at the United Nations to mark the close of the International Year of Indigenous People. The man asked if I would organize a benefit in Berkeley to help raise travel funds for Thomas. I said I would, and went back to work and forgot all about it.

Twelve years ago last week I realized the event was in a few days. I had made no preparations, asked for no help, arranged for no venue, gotten no publicity. I made a somewhat nervous phone call, and then another, and then got back to editing my magazine, due at the printer in a day.

The next morning the phone rang. It was the director of a small local event hall in Berkeley, offering the space for free. I thanked him and hung up. The phone rang: the proprietor of a local native arts store offered her place for a second event, and the schedule she suggested would work just fine. I hung up. The phone rang: the host of the morning show on KPFA asked for the event info so that he could publicize it on the air in the week before the event. I thanked him and hung up.

Both venues were full. We didn't charge admission. Thomas passed the hat at the second event. He raised more than a thousand dollars in a few minutes.

His flight to Flagstaff was at five the next morning. At 4:15 we sat in the Oakland airport eating vending machine cinnamon rolls. Thomas fretted mildly about his schedule. All the traveling, the giving speeches, all the advocacy for the Hopi and their way of life, he said, was getting in the way of his important work.

In the 1940s, Thomas spent seven years in Alcatraz for draft refusal. Hopi prophecy foretold that three great, world-shaking events would take place, representing forces symbolized in Hopi culture by two important icons: the sun and the swastika. Then a gourd full of ashes would fall to earth two times. The gourd would be able to boil the oceans and burn the land. This would signal the advent of a time in which the world was in great peril. This age would culminate in the day of purification. Our fate that day would be determined by whether we lived their lives well, whether we lived them ethically.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Hopi elders told Thomas that the gourd full of ashes had been dropped twice, that the great earth-shaking events were the two world wars, the most recent one with the sun and the swastika actually on the flags of the combatants. How much more clearly could a prophecy be fulfilled? Go to the front door of the house of mica, they told him, as is spoken in the prophecy, and bring the assembled people of the world the Hopi message of peace. For four decades he had tried to address the people in the house of mica, but had been rebuffed each time. Now they had invited him in. He was a week away from the culmination not just of his career, but of the central myth of his whole people. According to the prophecy, the fate of the world went with Thomas to the house of mica. And he fretted that all of it was getting in the way of his important work.

He was afraid he would not have time to plant corn that winter.

Hopi farmers do not water their corn. The plants must rely on rain, snow, and groundwater. Hopi farmers do not plant their corn in rows. Instead, they drive a stick a foot into the earth and drop a handful of seeds into it. Planting this deep will kill most varieties of corn, but Hopi farmers have bred their corn to breach that thick cover of soil. A foot down, moisture from winter rains will linger, feeding the growing plants until they bear fruit. A Hopi cornfield is a sparse, compelling thing, thick clumps of stalks some feet apart. The outer stalks take the brunt of desert wind and sun.

Thomas had filled two pickup trucks with ears that spring, ears of all four Hopi colors – blue, white, yellow, and pink. You take the white, he said, and leach it with wood ashes to make hominy, then get some lamb meat from a Navajo herder and boil the two together for a few days. This is called Noq Qi Vi and I should try it. But he had little time to plant before heading to New York. He was afraid the planting season would slip away. He woould try to get as much planted as he could that week, then he would give his speech and fly home to plant more.

Corn has forgiven us a multitude of sins; the sterile male plant debacle of the 1970s in which nearly the entire US corn crop failed, the loss of a hundred different varieties to F1 hybrids planted in Mexican valleys, the splicing of soil bacteria code into its genome. It has to forgive us. The plant cannot husk itself, shed its seed and push it an inch - or twelve - into the ground. It is a wonder of evolution that it is accompanied by a being that can fulfill those necessary tasks. Five thousand years this partnership has lasted, corn evolving from teosinte to maize, into Hopi blue and Mojave and Mandan reds and the tasteless, insipid white industrial corns, Silver Queen and whatever monstrous cultivar they use to make chips these days.

We are corn's way of making more corn. What choice does it have but to trust us? What choice do we have but to plant it? What more fitting life than to watch it grow?

The year after I met Thomas, a Native activist with whom I was meeting loudly questioned my commitment, my worth, and most importantly my ancestry. I smiled and nodded. I forget what we were talking about. He seemed to regret his anger. He left the room and came back with a bundle, handed it to me. Inside was piki, a flatbread made by the Hopi by spreading blue cornmeal paste on a very hot rock. "Try some!" he urged, and I broke off a leaf, thin and translucent as phyllo. It nearly disappeared on my tongue.

"That's the best you'll ever have," he told me. "No one makes piki like Mrs. Banyacya."

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 16, 2005 11:37 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

I learn so much over here, and you weave so many connections between seemingly disparate things. Thanks, Chris.

Posted by: Orange at December 16, 2005 05:05 PM
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The genetic, evolutionary legacy of domestication and its implications about humankind's place in the natural world is a fascinating subject, though as a critter person I've done more research on the domestication of animals than on plants.

When you're taking about an area(or a particular species population) that's been changed and altered by hundreds or thousands of years' worth of human impact, the terms 'artificial' or 'unnatural' start to get a little weak. The differences between 'domestic' and 'wild' species are also often unclear.

Domestic breeds and species of both plants and animals represent an invaluable wealth of biodiversity that has the added benefit of providing a living window into human history, as well.

/ rant

I love this subject.

Posted by: Shannon at December 16, 2005 06:04 PM
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I can never get corn to ripen in December here, either.

Posted by: doghouse riley at December 16, 2005 07:01 PM
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You know, Chris, there's a gray area between making your own darn masa and buying tamales, and it's called "buying a bag of masa at the store."

Posted by: bitchphd at December 17, 2005 04:57 AM
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I love how a single kernel can produce so much-- like an idea, a story, a stalk with more kernels.

Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at December 17, 2005 08:33 AM
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we planted three color corn last summer. also a bit late. we ate the last ear at the end of september. we are lucky enough to have a large garden space, so corn doesn't displace more rational crops. many years ago, in another place, i grew enough corn to freeze some ears. such a wonderful plant. the ears are wrapped in a convenient husk and ready to freeze right off the plant.

Posted by: dread pirate roberts at December 17, 2005 08:54 AM
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Down here those beautifully colored ears of corn are considered ornamental fodder for autumnal centerpieces. You mean we can actually eat those? Sadly, I'm not kidding.

Posted by: Jamie at December 17, 2005 11:38 AM
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Jamie-- We had some corn by Seeds of Change called Triple Play Sweet Corn (Zea Mays). It's a tri-colored corn in white, yellow and blue. Here's a quote from the package:
"When the yellow shows it's ready to eat, blue showing and it's really sweet"
I'm not sure that all tri-colored corn is edible and some probably are grown for ornamentals.

Posted by: Rexroth's Daughter at December 17, 2005 03:23 PM
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All corn is edible. Most of it is edible raw in what's called the "milk" stage - the stage at which sweet corn is eaten.

We used to call the corn my uncles grew as livestock feed "cow corn," and I've probably snuck a couple bushels of it over my lifetme to eat raw out in the field.

Any of it - including popcorn - can be ground for meal. Some varieties are better than others. If it's grown commercially for ornament, the farmer may have used pesticides on it that aren't listed for food crops. But if you buy (or grow) organic ornamental corn, feel free to make soup or whatever.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 17, 2005 03:34 PM
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Thanks RD and Chris - ya'll are too nice, and apparently quite learned on these things. Now I know what will fill (hopefully) my new backyard this spring! If you can excuse my infantile questioning, Chris, when you say "can be ground for meal," is that a feasible activity to engage in on a small scale? Googling "Noq Qi Vi" lands a fellar in foreign-language land, too.

Posted by: Jamie at December 17, 2005 03:50 PM
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My experience of corn is based in Africa rather than America, or at least southern Africa where the "mealie" is king.

There are many refugees housed in the particular London borough I live in. I shall never forget cycling through back streets towards Wembly past a giant gulag tower-block and seeing a woman in one of the tiny patches of ground at the bottom leaning on her hoe, barely visible between the rustling mealie stalks.

Posted by: qB at December 18, 2005 03:15 AM
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