on Dreaming About Other Worlds in the Face of the Unknown
I am corn as much as I am human.
To think of myself as a being separate of corn is impossible; corn is there, dominant in the background of all of the landscapes of my earliest memories and starkly present in my most formative life experiences. Corn has become a sentient force in this world in the face of the depth of its entanglements with humanity – an agent of change, an embodiment of all futures. There are worlds within a single stalk of corn; a field of corn, then, the whole of a universe. Corn, in more ways than one, is home to me – growing up where the Rust Belt meets the Corn Belt in the northeastern Ohio, my life is comprised of a scattered series of cornfields. Somewhere, I am still sitting on the back porch of my century farm-house; small hands shucking corn with rhythmic intensity – August’s harvest setting in for the first time, every time.
I find myself here among the beings that comprise my very essence.
10,000 years ago, or even 100 years ago, the image of corn so fixed in the collective American consciousness was virtually unrecognizable. Corn began as a grass called teosinte, selectively bread by women in Mexico and carried into the Southwestern part of what we now consider the United States somewhere between 7000 and 10000 years ago. Planted and replanted and planted again and again for desirable traits – heartiness, resilience, taste, color – teosinte slowly and surely became maize, but in full color. Maize appeared in reds and blues as much as yellows. Corn seeds are smaller than my fingernail and hold just as many stories. Corn silk, the vehicle that pollinates the plant, is one of the softest things I have ever met. One ear of corn contains the genetic material for an entire cornfield – each kernel in a cob is an individual, as distinct from the pieces of yellow that surround it as I am from my siblings. An ear of corn, in its distilled form, is a community as much as it is a commodity – a cornfield is a civilization spun slowly, sung to loudly, and transformed as we as a human species swiftly found ourselves. I cannot touch my face, my car, or my favorite foods without touching corn too – it is in ethanol, it is in everything I put on my body, it is the basis of the materials that I am compelled to consume. Nothing, therefore, is possible without corn – and corn, in all of its complexity, is impossible without our consistent touch.
Things so close to home have never felt this alien – things so easy to touch have never felt so cosmic.
The immediacy and presentness of the things that matter most in our world is highlighted as we face the unknown. Dreams, suddenly, have become more tangible than ever before. By dreaming, I don’t mean to suggest that opportunity necessarily feels reachable but perhaps something on the contrary; in this great unknown, it is the intangible, the other realities, the impossible which feel attainable.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking to cornfields. This time has taught me more about dreaming than anything else.
Corn requires space to grow, and I ran like hell from the seemingly endless cornfields that raised me and straight into the depths of the smaller cornfields of the Northeast. Some transformations are less gradual than others; corn has transcended itself, and humanity has increased its presence while siphoning power from seeds that hold the dreams of peoples still singing and the stuff of stars. Zea mays, the Western-scientific name for maize, a post-colonial name for maize – my corn – reached its peak as agriculture became industrialized in the 20th century. Though humans have actively genetically modified corn for our entire shared lifespan, corn’s genetics reached heightened importance for the American economy in the last 100 years. Corn, at this point in its timeline, met the lab. Capitalism rendered corn commodity instead of lifeforce. By genetically modifying corn, a process that rendered subsequent generations of corn seeds useless but also made corn plants more resilient, corn was both mechanized and stripped of its power – the transformed plant only holds its brief and singular life. Each kernel in a cob has become genetically identical to its siblings, and according to a publication by Iowa State University’s Extension Office, kernels look not like siblings but instead 800 clones in 16 perfect rows. This is far from community, and far from family. The corn seed is a micro-chasm, therefore, of colonial violence – indigenous peoples have been and continue to carry–or, save—corn seeds, actively and carefully changing them from generation to generation and into eternity. Corn, as I have touched it throughout my lifetime, cannot be conceptualized without specific attention to colonial violence. Corn has been stolen and violently transformed as the Americas were colonized. It has been appropriated, stripped of its intended purpose, and even I am complicit in this.
In South Dakota, there is a Corn Palace; a standing emblem of Manifest Destiny, a statement of the vastness of the American empire, a palace built of solely corn. Corn, just corn, supporting the heartland of an empire on land where it was once considered something akin to God, something akin to mother, something akin to eternity. Marilou Awiakta writes in her book Selu that “indigenous peoples of the Americas have formally recognized corn as a teacher of wisdom, the spirit inseparable from the grain.” Where is the wisdom in industry? Where can we find love in a sea of stalks, maintained with pesticides that render other life impossible? Violence is the death of love, the loss of home; corn fields, rippling across lifetimes and land stripped of itself.
I fell in love for the first time in a cornfield. I found myself for the first time in a cornfield, too. All among rows aligned perfectly, like aisles in a grocery store, like military ranks, like something meant to be consumed. Corn fuels the world beyond just being the basis for plastics and ethanol. When processed, corn becomes sweet. Corn syrup feeds the world, filling our hearts and minds with something saccharine, something higher in fructose than our guts are meant to handle. Corn is in everything, its nutritional value diminished to almost nothing, dried leaves rustling in the breeze of the foundation of all production and consumption in America. This is just one of the ways that we have become corn – we become what we consume.
It is because of this that
It is here that I still run away into the corn field, just as I did as a child. Roots, it seems, can be violent; it is the vastness of something I can’t comprehend that makes me feel safe. There remains hope amongst the leaves and stalks that feel impossible to see the top of; may we forever find ways to learn from corn’s wisdom. Corn’s wisdom shines broad-reaching; corn has known gender for the entirety of its existence, agriculture gendered for as long as we have practiced it, women’s hands inseparable from soil always. When corn met Dr. Barbara McClintock in the middle of the 20th century, science changed forever.
It is too simple to say that Dr. McClintock loved corn – corn, it seems, also loved Barbara; they spent their lives entwined. Barbara McClintock’s jumping genes transformed modern genetics, later biology as a whole. McClintock’s work took the form of watching the mutations occurring in ears of corn – this occurred over decades of observation, every day walking through cornfields, noting changes. Her corn responded to this; it seemed that it’s genes, demonstrated by arrangements of kernels, could move. Up to this point in time, popular conception held that genes moved linearly – but to Barbara, genes seemed to jump, to transpose. She published this finding, calling these elements “transposons,” but had no proof beyond observation, thus finding massive criticism from the science community which was elevated as a result of her gender. The corn kept talking, Barbara kept listening. 35 years later, another scientist proved her theory; transposons, mobile genetic units, are universal – present in each our genetic sequences, incomprehensible before corn. Prior to accepting her Nobel Prize, McClintock wrote “it might seem unfair to reward a person for having so much pleasure, over the years, asking the maize plant to solve specific problems and then watching its responses.”
Corn has, and always will, be more powerful then we can know.
There is a special kind of wisdom in the things we have evolved beside; as much as corn is a product of its entanglements with human lives, we are also a product of the ways it has domesticated us. We cannot separate our lives from the lives of corn – we are bound, cosmically connected, stuck to each other in space. Corn is a common thread in my existence, but also the existence of everything I can tangibly comprehend.
Corn still needs space to grow, seeds planted at a depth of 1.5 inches and 30 inches apart.
Corn has already followed us to the stars. We are all corn in our most fundamental, molecular forms; corn is a place we can call home as we face apocalypse, a being some of us have been in dialogue with for a millennium. We are conscious to our unconsciousness. We must love ourselves and the soil that holds us enough to know what we can and will create, accept the pain we have caused in order to create anything new.
I look into the cornfield and I am home, all of my past and future selves silently looking back at me from between the stalks.
So much of this is from my head and lived experience as a farmer and student of Corn.
Awiakta, Marilou. (1994). Selu: Seeking the Corn-Mothers Wisdom. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub.
Chomet, P., & Martienssen, R. (2017). Barbara McClintock’s Final Years as Nobelist and Mentor: A Memoir. Cell, 170(6), 1049–1054. doi: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.08.040
Corn Planting Guide. (2006). Iowa State University Extension. PM 1885
Ravindran, Sandeep. (2012). Barbara McClintock and the discovery of jumping genes (Vol. 108). Proceedings of the National AS.