In the November 2010 issue of NEBRASKAland Magazine was a feature entitled “In the Corn,” in which passages from this essay were supported by images from Nebraska. Below is the completed essay, as originally published in Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment.
I am walking in the cornfield behind my parents’ house in north-central Ohio. I’m always surprised to find that the furrows between the rows permit easy passage, since from a distance, they seem closely set. Since the first hard frost has drained the green from the leaves, stalks, and husks, everything seems blond and gray. When I pull back the loose husks, the gold kernels are the brightest thing in the field. Meredith, Kim, and my nephew Matthew fill their pockets with ears of corn to feed to the squirrels and bird-feeder birds.
The yellow-gold kernels, the stiff, blond husks, the red-brown silk spilling from the end of the red-brown cobs, evoke memories in me. I remember the hand-cranked corn sheller in Great-aunt Pertsie and Great-uncle Harvey’s barn. Jamie and I took turns cranking the sheller while the other fed ears into the hopper. Then we fed the kernels and cobs to the hogs. I remember the beauty of black cattle eating golden ears from a wire mesh corncrib near a red barn. I remember sitting on the back step pulling the ribbed green leaves and creamy floss from ears of sweet corn and the sweet, milky fragrance of newly exposed kernels. I remember that when Jamie and I were little, we’d eat sweet corn as if we were typewriters–right to left; at the end of the row, we made a bell sound and like the return lever moving the platen back to the right, we began eating again, right to left. Ding-scrap. We didn’t stop “typing” until the cob was clean and the spaces between our teeth filled with hulls. I remember hand-shelling the corn that my friend Stephanie and I stole from the edges of a field near our junior high school, so we could “corn” houses on Halloween. I remember riding with my college friend Paula in her dad’s combine as it ate its way through a central Illinois cornfield, snapping, shucking, and shelling many rows of corn at once, leaving crushed leaves and stalks in its wake. I remember orange pyramids, heaps of sunlight, each at least as tall and as wide as my house, rising near the train tracks and panpipe-like grain elevators and train tracks in every little town along two-lane highways in southern Nebraska. For most of my life, corn was the constant, the background, the seemingly unremarkable always-there. I have known corn and cornfields for so long that I don’t have a first memory of either.
From the middle of this Ohio cornfield, I see nothing but pale stalks and gray sky. As the wind rustles thousands upon thousands of brittle corn leaves, I imagine the crackle of the corn-fritter batter that my mother is frying for supper and the dark Karo Corn Syrup in which we will dip the fritters. That night, I dream of cornstalks as thick and tall as trees.
A Marvelous Strange Plant
From a distance, a just-emerged cornfield consists of faint green lines scoring a black background. But up close, you see one newly unfurled first leaf after another. A just-emerged cornfield is a tender, delicate thing.
Growth in the bamboolike stalk occurs in the internode, the section between each of the eight to twenty jointlike nodes on each stalk. One wavy, sword-shaped leaf sprouts from each node on alternate sides of the stalk. Under good growing conditions, the sliding of the internode from its sheath occurs so rapidly that you can hear the stretching and popping of many thousands of elongating cornstalks. Turn-of-the-millennium hybrid cornstalks are belly-, even shoulder-high by the Fourth of July. By maturity, the average corn plant of the Great American Corn Belt has twenty or so leaves.
When you fly over corn lands in an airplane, you see dark green squares in the Midwest and dark green, irrigated circles on the Great Plains. From the highway, you see shimmering leaves and the uniform placement of the ears on the stalk. From within the cornfield, you see that the tassel is a spray or starburst of feathery wands crowning the stalk. You see that the plant’s curious blossom is comprised of a long thread extending from each kernel and spilling out the end of the husk. Like the mangrove tree’s aerial roots, exposed prop or brace roots encircle a stalk that grows increasingly heavy with leaves and ears. Corn is not a beautiful plant, but it is as familiar to me as my toes. And like my toes, the more closely I look at corn, the odder it seems.
On a wheat plant, the male and female flowering parts are borne within the same floral structure. But corn stamen and pistils not only don’t share the same floral structure but one is at the top of the stalk and the other midway down. The sixteenth-century Flemish herbalist Rembert Dodoens wrote that corn bears no resemblance to any other grains “for it bringeth forth his seeds cleare contrarie from the place whereas the floures grow, which is against the nature and kinds of all other plants, which bringeth forth their fruit there, whereas they have borne their floure.” Corn is, Dodoens said, “a marvelous strange plant.”
The corn plant’s method of fertilization surely ranks as one of the strangest in the plant world. An unfertilized ear of corn consists of numerous pairs of female flowers, each attached to the cob by a very short branch. The sticky, threadlike style or silk extending from a female flower catches pollen drifting from the tassel or male flower of the same plant or, more likely, from another plant in the field. When caught, the sperm or pollen grain divides. One sperm nucleus forms a six-to-eight-inch tube within the silk for its twin to slide down to the egg at the base of the silk. This twin fuses with the egg inside the ovary to create the embryo, the kernel’s germ, the site of the valuable corn oil. The other twin creates the endosperm, the starchy part of the kernel upon which the developing embryo feeds. The egg has become a kernel of corn. The kernel is not a seed; rather, it is a fruit containing a seed. If you split open a kernel, you will see the flame-shaped germ or center seedlike section near the tip where the kernel attaches to the cob. If ancient peoples had had access to microscopes, surely they would have mythologized this story of twin creators and womb-bearing kernels.
Ten to fourteen days after fertilization, the kernel is fluid-filled like a blister. The kernel ripens in five stages, apparent from the location of the “milk line”: the “milk” stage, when the starch in the kernel is white and liquid; the “soft dough” stage, when the starch is like paste; the “hard dough” stage, when the starch solidifies; “glazed,” when the hull or pedicarp, the hard outer covering that is water-resistant and undesirable to insects, becomes set; and “ripe” or fully matured, when the milk line is near the base of the kernel and the outer end of the kernel is dented. Tightly wrapped around each ear are husks, specialized bundles of leaves that sprout from the nodes to protect the naked ears from pests and the weather. From start to finish, corn growing in the center of North America requires 90 to 150 days, depending on the weather and the type of hybrid seed planted. Shortly after the kernel ripens, the rest of the plant dies.
The kernel is the beginning and the end.
How Metaphors Cluster and Extend into Myth
A stalk of wheat grows two-to five-feet tall; the leaves are long, slender, and alternate; the narrow wheat head holds the kernels at the top of the main center stem. Grass.
The corn tassel is a shock of hair; the mature corn plant looks down on you. The bladelike alternate leaves are outstretched arms; the down-pointing ears at the middle of the stalk are extended hands, penises, bent elbows. The kernels are rows of teeth or embryo-cradling wombs. The silk is a clump of pubic hair. When magnified 1,210 times, the male pollen grain looks like a breast, a plump hemisphere with a nipple and areola. The language used by corn breeders further imputes human qualities to corn: male plants are “fathers”; females are “mothers.” To remove the tassel is to “castrate” or “emasculate.” To crossbreed two types of corn is to “marry them.” Corn copulates, consummates, makes milk and progeny.
Where It Came From
For the American Indians, maize was a gift of the gods. In some origin stories, it arrived from the heavens ready for planting and abundance. In the Pawnee corn origin story, Evening Star, the mother of all things, blessed people with corn from her garden in the western sky where it was always ripening. Many tribes tell stories of a great flood that destroyed all living creatures except for those people and animals that the gods protected by placing them underground. When the waters receded, Mother Corn led the people out of the earth and to the place that would become their earthly home. There she provided seed for them to plant either by turning herself into an ear of corn or by cutting open her breast so that corn could spring forth from her body.
Whether maize (Zea mays), the Indian name for corn that botanists prefer, sprang from a divine body or had a more mundane origin, it no longer exists in a wild state and its ancestry can’t be directly traced to a wild plant as can that of other grains. However, most experts believe that about seven to ten millennia ago, the pollen of teosinte (Zea mexicana), a wild, perennial grass, fertilized maize or that maize fertilized teosinte. In sketches I have seen of teosinte, it looks wild and weedy. The plant is bushy, with each branch ending in a tassel. One to one hundred “ears” grow along the branches of each plant rather than on the stalk as with cultivated corn. Each ear consists of six to twelve orange or brown kernels stacked one on top of the other. Each kernel is enclosed in a hard, indigestible shell, each of which is wrapped in its own husk or pod. Despite the numerous husks, the wheatlike grains were easily procured: the kernels grew so loosely that they fell off the cob and planted themselves. The people living in central and southern Mexico from about 8,000 to 5,000 b.c. did not plant this maize-teosinte cross, but they did tend, gather, and eat it.
What bridged the gap between teosinte and corn wasn’t a gradual, Darwinian evolution but a sudden transformation. According to botanist Hugh H. Iltis’s catastrophic sexual transmutation theory, about five thousand years ago, a catastrophe, an abnormal environmental condition, triggered a hormonal shift in perennial teosinte that caused it to undergo a rapid sex change. Through radical contraction and condensation, the central spike of the male tassel, which had appeared at the end of a lateral teosinte branch, became a female ear of corn attached to the central stem or stalk. A radically shortened, condensed branch became the shank at the base of the ear; the teosinte leaves became the husks on the ear. In one grand, macroevolutionary leap, the spike became the ear. Humans liked what they saw and continued to select these attributes.
The earliest known remains of cultivated corn are the seven-thousand-year-old, fossilized corncobs that archeologist Richard MacNeish found in a cave in Mexico’s Tehaucan Valley. The plant that produced such ears may have been a tall stalk with a one-inch-long ear containing fifty to sixty tiny kernels and a tassel growing out the top of that ear. On this plant, which was an intermediate between wild teosinte and maize, the reproductive parts were close together, making it more similar to a tulip, tomato, or wheat plant than to modern corn. What is most curious about these ears is that if one of them dropped to the ground and the seeds germinated, they would have died from overcrowding. Unless humans gathered and planted the seeds, corn would have become extinct in just a few generations. Corn was and continues to be dependent on people.
How Metaphor Clarifies and Obscures
Cut a ripe corncob in half and the cob encircled by kernels is the ray-encircled sun, our center of the solar system, a fitting symbol. Corn is the most important crop grown in the United States, the quintessential American food, our national grain and vegetable.
About three-quarters of the dried corn kernel is starch; the remainder is protein, oil, sugar, fiber, and ash. Seventy-five percent of the starch locked in corn kernels becomes cattle and poultry feed, which in turn becomes meat, milk, eggs, cheese. The remaining cornstarch is used to produce syrup, textiles, leather, adhesives, detergents, beer, paint, ink, candy, tortillas, toothpaste, crayons, batteries, mouthwash, baking powder, salad dressings, yarn, soda pop, paper, soap, gravy, peanut butter, shoe polish, plastics, embalming fluids, pharmaceuticals, ethanol, and so on. We could go decades without eating anything that looks like a corn kernel, but we probably couldn’t go more than a few minutes without relying on something made from cornstarch. It is our staff of life.
Several “corn belts” or zones of intense corn cultivation have developed in the recent history of this continent. The first true corn belt, writes historian Nicholas P. Hardeman in Shucks, Shocks, and Hominy Blocks: Corn As a Way of Life in Pioneer America, was the Atlantic Coastal Plain from New England to Georgia. Initially, the presence of forests and Indians limited this belt to an area near the tidewater strip. But gradually it expanded westward to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. This first corn belt existed throughout the colonial period and well into the nineteenth century.
In the mid-1700s people emigrated from the seaboard states to the western side of the Appalachian Mountains, where they cleared the land and planted corn. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, the premier corn belt was located in what is now Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, what in more recent times was known as the “tobacco belt.” In 1840 these states along with North Carolina and Ohio were the nation’s leading corn producers.
Following the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which added the vast expanse between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains to the United States, two new corn belts unfurled westward. From Georgia the southern belt sprawled along the Gulf Plains into Louisiana. Though during a typical year the total number of acres of corn in the pre-Civil War Deep South surpassed the total number of acres of cotton by about three to one, and though the value of the corn crop was more than twice that of the cotton crop, this area was known as the “cotton belt,” the place where cotton was king.
The corn belt that extended from Ohio to beyond the Mississippi, an area once lush with big bluestem, the dominant grass of the tallgrass prairie, became known as the Great American Corn Belt. This belt was and is comprised of those states in the central part of North America with deep, well-drained soils, an average rainfall of eight to ten inches from mid-May through mid-October, daytime temperatures of about eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit and overnight temperatures of about fifty degrees Fahrenheit during corn flowering time. This includes Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio and parts of Nebraska, Kansas, and Missouri. With the creation of new short-season, quick-maturing hybrids in the 1940s, the Great American Corn Belt expanded to include South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. In the early 1990s, the United States accounted for about 40 percent of world corn production. Six states–Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio–accounted for 82 percent of the U.S. corn yield, with Iowa alone accounting for 22 percent of that total. No place in the world grows as much corn as Iowa. It is the center; it is the sun of the corn-growing solar system.
Every war fought in the United States or what would become the United States from the beginning of the French and Indian War in 1756 through the Civil War, as well as most Indian treaties, concerned control of corn lands. The events that led to the United States acquiring the prime, corn-growing lands around my growing-up place in southeastern Iowa was played out in a similar fashion all across the corn-growing regions of the country. In 1800, the Sauk and Fox (Mesquaki), two allied Algonquian nations, claimed most of Illinois, all of Iowa, and northern Missouri. In 1800 Saukenuk, the principal Sauk settlement near what is now Rock Island, Illinois, had a population of three to six thousand people and was set upon eight hundred acres on the point of land between the Rock and Mississippi Rivers. Along a 240-mile stretch between what is now Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, and Hamilton, Illinois, across the Mississippi from Keokuk, were several smaller Sauk and Fox villages. In his autobiography, Black Hawk (1767-1838), a Sauk leader and, after his death, the patron saint, of sorts, of my hometown, said: “The rapids of the Rock River furnished us with excellent fish, and the land, being good, never failed to produce good crops of corn, beans, pumpkin, and squash. We always had plenty–our children never cried with hunger, our people were never in want. Here our village stood for more than one hundred years.”
Corn figured prominently in the lives of the dwellers of Saukenuk. According to Black Hawk, when the Sauk returned to the village from the winter hunt, they readied the fields for corn planting and repaired the fences around them. As soon as the women finished planting, they prepared a feast in which the men selected the women they wanted to marry. When the corn was about knee high, the young men left to hunt deer and bison. Black Hawk reports that when the corn was ripe, “another great ceremony [took] place, with feasting and returning thanks to the Great Spirit for giving us corn.” Afterward, the Sauk sold the surplus corn to the traders.
But change was coming. In 1804 William Henry Harrison, the first governor of the Northwest Territory, enacted a treaty with members of the Sauk and Fox tribes. These tribal representatives were not empowered to make treaties; nor did they realize that the treaty they signed extinguished their rights to some twenty-three thousand square miles of land on the east side of the Mississippi. Black Hawk repudiated the treaty, and for a while it wasn’t enforced.
But compliance was demanded after the War of 1812 in which the Sauk and Fox had sided with the British. More than fifty million acres in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin were taken from the two tribes and they were forced into Iowa Territory, thus clearing the future state of Illinois of Indian claims. Waves of emigrants from the Kentucky-Tennessee-Virginia corn belt, including my mother’s mother’s people, entered Illinois Territory through the southern tip, settling the future state of Illinois from bottom to top. The Sauk, who denied that they had ever ceded their land, continued to reside part of the year in Saukenuk.
When land sales began in and around Saukenuk in 1829, Indian-immigrant tensions mounted. Under the Corn Treaty of 1831, the Sauk and Mesquakie were forbidden to return to their Rock River home, were assigned lands along the Iowa River, the home of the Iowa Indians, and were given an oral promise that the U.S. government would reimburse them for the corn and other crops left behind at Saukenuk–a promise only partially fulfilled. That year, Black Hawk and some of his followers returned to Saukenuk. Black Hawk was sixty-four years old, an old man who wanted to be buried among his ancestors at his birthplace. When Governor Reynolds heard of the Indians’ return, he ordered the Illinois Militia to remove them. At the presence of so many soldiers, Black Hawk and his followers fled. From an island in the Mississippi, they watched the militia burn their village. The next day, Black Hawk surrendered all claims to Saukenuk. Shortly thereafter, “the whites,” as Black Hawk called them, moved in.
But Black Hawk did not give up: he fought battle after battle. In the Black Hawk War of 1832, most of his followers died or deserted; he was imprisoned and later put on display in U.S. cities. In 1832, the U.S. government appointed Keokuk (1780-1848) chief of the allied tribes. Through a dozen treaties that Keokuk helped enact between 1832 and 1845, the Sauk and Fox were dispossessed of their lands, first in Iowa, then in Kansas. Finally, they were sent to Oklahoma. The way had been cleared for waves of land-hungry newcomers to break the Iowa prairie and plant corn.
In 1854 members of the Fox nation pooled their resources and sent a committee to Iowa to purchase land. Many Fox and a few Sauk left Kansas and settled on their 3,200-acre purchase in Tama County on the Iowa River. The Mesquakie Indian Settlement was not a reservation but the legally purchased property of a corporation. Theirs alone. Safe.
I have spent my entire life thus far in Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, all part of the Great American Corn Belt. Corn is so near and constant that I often don’t see the vast and many cornfields that separate towns and cities, the walls of tall, green corn on either side of the highway in August, the streets that end in corn rows. I easily forget what an unnatural creation a cornfield is: many thousands of rows of a plant that can’t reproduce itself in fields chemically purged of quack grass, foxtail, thistles, sunflowers, prairie grasses–everything but corn. It was corn that made Iowa the state with the most intensely altered landscape and consequently, the least amount of relatively “undisturbed” land; in other words, land in a relatively natural state. Corn is the force behind mass movements of people, including my own family. And the way corn is produced determines the way, at least in part, in which we live.
How Metaphors Reflect and Create
In his 1901 Corn Plants: Their Uses and Ways of Life, Frederick L. Sargent sees the corn plant as both a “self-building food factory . . . governed by advanced business methods” and “a wise and enterprising manager in charge of its affairs.”
But almost a century later, “How Corn Grows,” an article on Iowa State University’s maize Web site, reveals a telling shift in how some corn growers and corn breeders perceive corn. Here the cornfield is a manufacturing community; each corn plant is a factory; the manager is not the corn plant but the farmer. Water and mineral nutrients from the soil and carbon dioxide and oxygen from the atmosphere are the raw materials that the internal machinery of the corn plant transforms into starch, oil, carbohydrates, proteins, and mineral nutrients. The entire operation is powered by sunlight. The differences between hybrids result in different internal machinery in the individual factories. Corn farmers manipulate the environment with such managerial practices as tillage, fertilization of the soil, irrigation, weed, and insect control.
Domestication of maize may have begun when people noticed that the plants that sprouted from the kernels they’d dropped in the soil near their dwellings produced more grain than their counterparts in the wild. So they cleared the area of other vegetation and sowed seeds. In this controlled, human-made environment, people preserved desirable mutations, which would have been selected against in the wild.
People also noticed that wherever two races of corn grew close to each other, the wind-borne pollen of several plants fell on the silks of many other plants. This natural cross-pollination produced chance-born hybrids. By exerting control over the fertilization process, people could influence the type of offspring. Planting maize and teosinte was one effective cross. Because maize and perennial teosinte have the same number of chromosomes, they easily interbred. But because the chromosomes were not perfectly paired or aligned, new genes were exchanged through the various crossings. “The ultimate result,” wrote corn geneticist Paul C. Mangelsdorf, “was a gene pool so extensive and so rich in variation that almost any kind of corn could evolve from it through natural and artificial selection.” Different people bred maize for different effects. Purity of color. Variety of color. Pattern of color. Ear length or plumpness. Number and position of ears per stalk. Kernel size. Flouriness of endosperm. Tightness of kernel. Softness of hull. Depth of grain. Husk coverage. Height of stalk. Time of maturity. Disease resistance. Reduction in the number of nutrient-stealing tillers.
Corn breeding continued among the new occupiers of the corn lands. In Corn and Its Early Fathers, Henry A. Wallace and William L. Brown recount the story of Robert Reid, the creator of one of the most popular Great American Corn Belt dents. When Reid moved from his farm in Ohio to a farm near Pekin, Illinois, in 1847, he brought with him Gordon Hopkin’s Red, a southern gourdseed. This late-maturing white corn, with many rows of soft, starch-filled kernels, did so poorly in Illinois, that Reid replanted the mounds with Little Yellow Flint, an Illinois corn with a slender ear and hard, starch-filled kernels. From this cross, Reid and his son James selected for an early corn with cylindrical ears bearing many (eighteen to twenty-four) rows of kernels. In 1893, after almost a half century of selecting, James Reid took the corn to the Chicago World’s Fair. Reid’s Yellow Dent won a grand prize and was quickly adopted by farmers throughout the Corn Belt. Such corn-breeding experiments had been occurring in North and Central America for thousands of years.
People continued tinkering with corn. Charles Darwin experimented with self-and cross-pollination in corn and other plants. He found that when diverse heredities or unrelated strains were united or crossed, their progeny were more vigorous. In 1877 at Michigan State College, William Beal greatly increased yields by doubling the crossings. First Beal created pure strains through self-pollination by putting paper bags over both the ears and the tassels. Then he sprinkled the pollen collected from the tassel onto the ears of that same plant. Next he crossed the inbred strains by sprinkling the pollen of one strain of corn onto the silks of another. Finally he crossed the offspring again. Beal found that such crosses are more productive than their parents, though not enough to justify the laborious process of bagging ears and tassels and hand-pollinating.
Three decades later, George Shull, a geneticist at the Carnegie Institution Station for Experimental Evolution, isolated purebred lines of corn through artificial self-pollination. The resulting ears were more uniform though less vigorous and productive. But when Shull crossed two selected purebred strains, the offspring were uniform and more vigorous and productive than their parents. Shull determined that because inbreeding reduced vigor and that crossing restored it, only seed obtained through the crossing of pure strains should be used for crop production. Shull’s method of corn breeding based upon the exploitation of heterosis or hybrid vigor was, according to Mangelsdorf, “a creative achievement of the first order.” Presently, about 80 percent of the hybrid seed corn planted in the United States is the result of a single cross. But in Shull’s day people were skeptical because of the costliness of obtaining hybrids by crossing inbreds.
In 1918 Donald F. Jones, of the University of Connecticut Agricultural Station, produced a double-cross hybrid by crossing four inbred parents. The resulting vigor provided a practical method of producing hybrid seed for farmers. “The double cross is actually an ingenious device for making a small amount of scarce single-crossed seed go a long way,” Mangelsdorf wrote. “A few bushels of single-crossed seed can be converted in one generation to several thousand bushels of double-crossed seed.” In 1921 the Connecticut Agricultural Station released the first commercial double-cross hybrid corn to retain full propagative vigor: the Burr-Leaming double cross. Until the 1960s, double crosses were the most widely-planted hybrid type.
In 1923 Henry A. Wallace, Iowa farmer, agricultural economist, and later FDR’s secretary of agriculture and vice president, used one of the Leaming inbreds to create Copper Cross, a single cross, the first hybrid corn to be commercially grown in Iowa. In 1926, Wallace formed the Hybrid Corn Company in Des Moines, the forerunner of the Pioneer Hi-Bred Corn Company. Farmers were slow to accept hybrid seeds. In 1934 only 0.4 percent of U.S. corn acreages were planted in hybrids. But during the drought years of the Depression, farmers noticed hybrid corn far outproduced open-pollinated corn. By 1944, 90 percent of all Corn Belt acreage had been converted to hybrids. By 1956, the entire Great American Corn Belt had converted.
The change from open-pollinated to high-yield hybrid seed corn is a blessing and a curse. Because of hybrid seeds and changed agricultural practices, U.S. corn yields have increased from 30 bushels per acre in 1930 to 130 bushels per acre in 1990. Because hybrid ears stand at a straight and uniform height on the stalk and mature at the same time, they are easier to harvest mechanically than nonhybrid corns. But large-scale mechanization means larger farms, which means fewer family farms, which in turn means the decline of rural communities. Larger farms mean bigger machines, more fuel, more pesticides, more fertilizers, more paid farm workers, more investments from big corporations, which means more centralization, more industrialization, and more corporate domination. While hybrid corn isn’t the sole reason for the loss of labor-intensive, relatively self-sufficient family farms and once vibrant, rural communities, it is a substantial contributing factor.
In addition, hybridization has drastically reduced the varieties of races of corn in the world. Wallace observed that when Reid’s Yellow Dent “swept the Corn Belt from 1890 to 1920, it destroyed thousands of forgotten corns. When hybrid corn swept the Corn Belt from 1930 to 1960, it destroyed most of what remained.” By the 1960s, corn diversity in the United States had reached a record low. Trading the health and vigor of genetic diversity for the convenience of monoculture has created vulnerability. For instance, in 1970 a new mutant strain of southern corn-leaf blight wiped out about 15 percent of the commercial hybrid corn crop in the United States. The epidemic was the result of the genetic homogeneity of single crosses and the widespread planting of hybrids containing Texas male-sterile cytoplasm, used to eliminate the need to de-tassel. Major Goodman, professor of Crop Science, Statistics, Genetics, and Botany at North Carolina State University, writes that most of the corn germplasm in use today in the United States is derived from mixtures of only two major races. The continual reworking of this limited genetic base could diminish breeding progress. Goodman says that the simplest means of increasing the genetic diversity in corn is “to introduce unrelated sources of germplasm, most of which are found in the tropics and subtropics.” But he cautions that “to do this intelligently is a formidable task.”
Once corn was its own geneticist. Gradually over the past several millennia, humans took over. In the end, the search for larger, more abundant, more uniform ears of corn has resulted in much more of much less.
Seeing the Corn through the Prairie
I am walking through the Neil Smith National Wildlife Refuge just east of Des Moines near Prairie City. On this June day, the coneflowers and milkweed are blooming, but the prairie grasses are short, green, and unremarkable. If rainfall is adequate, in September this grass will be purple, bronze, and gold, the plumed, turkey-footed and tasseled seedheads towering above me like mature cornstalks.
This is not virgin prairie. Rather it is former corn, soybean, and hog farms planted with native grasses and forbs grown from seeds collected locally–a challenge since only .1 percent of the prairie that once covered Iowa remains. These seeds, local ecotypes, are superior to prairie seeds from Illinois, Nebraska, or even other parts of Iowa because they are adapted to the local climate, soil type, diseases, and pests, and they preserve the local gene pool. Volunteers collected the seeds from within a one-hundred-mile radius of the refuge on tiny postage-stamp prairie relicts along the edges of cornfields, train tracks, or in unkempt cemeteries. Now at more than five thousand acres, the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is the largest reconstructed prairie ecosystem in the United States.
Even though I’ve lived all of my life in places that were once part of the grasslands that covered the center of North America, I didn’t experience tallgrass prairie until September 1989. But when I stood before the open, shaggy, grass-covered earth at Nine-Mile Prairie near Lincoln, Nebraska, shortly after my thirty-third birthday, I didn’t see prairie alone. I saw the prairie in terms of the features, structure, and significance of the cornfield.
Now, I still see the prairie through the corn. But, too, I see the corn through the prairie. I see that the cornfield is nothing but corn. But the prairie is comprised of big and little bluestem, Indian grass, switch grass, grama grasses, prairie dropseed, leadplant, sages, milkweeds, wild roses, indigos, orchids, and a baffling array of composites–asters, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans, coneflowers, goldenrods. Corn roots are laterally spreading and shallow and die at the end of the growing season. Prairie grasses are so deeply and widely rooted that there is as much if not more prairie beneath the earth’s surface than above, and the roots persist for years, decades, despite subzero temperatures, prolonged droughts, and periodic fires. Even in August when corn leaves form a shady canopy, the cornfield contains more space than plants. Yet tallgrass prairie is so crowded with bunch and sod-forming grasses that walking through pathless tallgrass is like walking through water. In strong winds, cornstalks break but prairie grasses bend. In a breeze, corn flutters its leaves and tassels, but the entire prairie moves as if, as Willa Cather observed, “the whole country seemed, somehow, to be running.” There is as much sky over a cornfield as there is over a prairie, but the defining lower edge has a different cut: uniformly ragged in the case of the cornfield; roughly torn in the case of the prairie.
While a cornstalk is humanlike, I do not transfer this quality to the cornfield, which is but a geometrical arrangement of plants. Prairie grasses and forbs are plants; yet, because of the way in which the grasses move like pelt and the way the boundaries of plant communities shift in response to the slightest change in moisture levels or soil conditions, prairie is mammalian. Cornfields are common, uniform, and abundant; tallgrass prairie is rare and diverse. Yet if all human life were to vanish tomorrow, cornfields, too, would perish. But prairie, whether hand-planted or a never-broken relict of the original prairie, would not only persist but reclaim the land. Corn, once a benevolent deity or the gift of a benevolent deity, has been made over in the image of those who most depend on it, its genetic material and living conditions as controlled as those of hothouse orchids, cultivated irises, test-tube human babies, or race horses. Prairie is self-maintaining, adaptive, wild, abiding.
After I leave the preserve, I begin the drive home to Lincoln–three hours by interstate, but four hours by the two-lane highways that I prefer. In the unmown ditches along the road, I glimpse a few native plants–sunflowers, goldenrods, tufts of little bluestem, and sumacs. Along the edges of one cornfield after another, I glimpse signs advertising Pioneer or Golden Harvest or NK hybrids. When I look down the corn rows, one identical vanishing point after another whips past.