Sunday, August 21, 2011

An Ode to the Cornfields

Lend me your ears! what I would say if I were super lame. Poor, neglected Armchair. All of these months without attention and now I'm dusting her off with a post about corn.

I recently spent 3 weeks singing in the cornfields of rural Illinois. It was a beautiful experience, both personally and professionally. But this isn't a blog about my musical life (or really anything at all in particular at this point), so what do you care? And if you do care, too bad, because I'm cultivating my ability to tie a mental bow on a great experience and attempt to move forward with some degree of speed. Onward and upward. On to tomorrow (shout out). Or maybe, in the immortal words of Doris Day (who I recently learned is still alive and planning to release a new album, hence this song being stuck in my head for days), Que Sera, Sera. After all, the alternative to forward motion is wallowing. And wallowing, as evidenced by my junior high school diary, generally results in terrible writing. Or worse, poetry. So instead, to tie the metaphorical mental bow and honor my genuinely lovely experience in Illinois (and satisfy my little writing itch), I present to you a ridiculous tribute to corn. It makes sense to me.

Corn has been a friend of mine for a while now. Do you ever think of things in terms of how you'll remember them when you're 100? The six years I spent living in the Midwest will probably be distilled into two or three main ideas. And one of them could very well be the image of the cornfields. My grandkids will ask, "So what was Earth like at the turn of the century, Gran?" Elderly me will say, "What? I don't know. Corn, I guess. Corn everywhere. What's it to you, anyway? Why is this space pod so cold? SOMEBODY GET ME A SWEATER." Obviously, this will all take place on Mars in some kind of colony that we created after Oprah died and society on Earth imploded.

But it's true. Corn has been a powerful, if unassuming, presence in my life for the last few years. And you know what? I don't know much about it, apart from the fact that I like to eat it, it's supposed to be "knee-high by the Fourth of July," and it's generally inhabited by frightening children. So let's learn something.

First of all, the more globally-oriented/technical/agriculturally precise term for "corn" would be "maize." Most of us are familiar with its origins. It was first cultivated by native Mesoamericans something like 7,000 years ago. People who study these kinds of things are apparently pretty interested in its domestication. Nobody (I guess these people are generally archaeobotanists and the like) is sure how or why it happened the way it did. They use a lot of technical lingo like "intercrossing teocinte" and frankly, I don't have the patience to sift through it all for you. Know that a wild plant was domesticated, spread across the Americas, and rapidly became the most important staple crop for the indigenous population. Then the Europeans stopped by and grabbed a few ears for themselves. And the rest is history. Once again I'm reminded of how I really need/want to get around to reading Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Technically, corn is a grain. It seems obvious now, but if someone had asked me yesterday I probably would have said "vegetable." Sweet corn, the type we eat fresh, has a higher sugar content and is harvested earlier. So-called "field-corn" is used mainly for things like animal feed. Yum. For a plant with such a hum-drum reputation, it certainly finds itself in the middle of a lot of socio-economic and political issues. Pesticides, growth hormones, biofuels...meth. And it's right in the middle of our big ol' global food issue. (Thank you, National Geographic, for the frightening Population 7-Billion series.)

I've always been curious about the mechanics of corn harvesting. I mean, those fields are big. I looked into it. Then I got mind-numbingly bored. Then I found this video of a corn harvest in action accompanied by the Carmen Fantasy. Which doesn't make any sense. But still, jackpot!

Had I grown up in the cornfields, I probably would already have known how it worked. Perhaps I would have even seen it done. What little I do know of adolescence in the cornfields, I know thanks to my dear friend and once-roommate, Sally. Sally grew up in a wee town called Portland, Indiana. You might be inclined to think they have some kind of "port" and therefore a significant body of water. You would be wrong. They do, however, have a lot of corn. Also, lest you lovable East Coast elitists think otherwise, a cornfield upbringing is not to be scoffed at. Sally, it must be said, has been on Jeopardy.

Anyway, as I am nothing if not a diligent researcher, I recently said to Sally, "Hey, I'm writing a blog post about corn. Say some stuff about it." She supplied me with a couple of excellent anecdotes, my favorite of which was a story about a childhood friend of hers who, upon finding herself in a car making its way down a road surrounded by the high corn of late summer, would yell, "CORNCAVE! CORNCAVE!" There was also the young cousin who was manipulated into helping shuck corn by adults who told her each ear was a "gift" that needed to be "unwrapped." So, naturally, every time she successfully shucked an ear she would yell gleefully, "IT'S ANOTHER CORN!" I have memories of shucking corn, too, but it was New England corn. Whole different thing.

Sally was also the first person to introduce me to the urban legend about thieves and bandits jumping out from the corn at four-way stops on country roads. They would then smash your windows and steal your stuff I guess? I think she told me this actually happened to a friend of hers, but I'm skeptical. She's a tricky one, that Sally.

More Facts about Corn
  • 50% of U.S. corn is grown in Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, and Minnesota
  • Some corn can grow to be 39 feet high. 39 feet! ...but most of it is bred to be about 8 feet.
  • The "Corn Belt" includes Iowa, Illinois, Nebraska, Minnesota, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, South Dakota, Michigan, Missouri, Kansas, and Kentucky.
  • Corn is produced on every continent. Except Antarctica, obviously. Isn't it annoying how you have to say that every time something is on "every continent?" Can't we just stop including it as a continent and just have it be its own thing?
  • Archaeologists have popped 1,000 year old popcorn. Gross. And awesome.
  • If conditions are right, corn can sometimes grow 3-4 inches in one night. I know because I sat and watched one time. Just kidding.
Further Corn Research
Corn and Hollywood

(I have to throw this in, too, since I found it back when I was looking for a Doris Day video. 1:25 is the best part, hands down.)

Anyway, presence of tongue in cheek notwithstanding, I really do love those darned cornfields. Until next time, Corn!

1 comment:

Sara said...

That picture of the cornfield at the top is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

You know what I see here in NC? Mountains. I'm so sick of mountains I could puke.

Maybe that's how you felt about corn when you first moved to Indiana, and I wouldn't blame you.

It's a shit ton of corn.

Also, I'm sorry your space pod is so cold int the future.