The Transubstantiation of Grain

 

New corn, field of hopes.
New corn, a field of hopes.

Have you noticed that seeds and grains possess identical appearances? Wheat planted as a seed is identical to the grain harvested later in the season. If so, why do we distinguish seed from grain when they are the same object? In the answer to the question lies what I believe is part of the mystery in the human story.

A seed planted produces a plant that reproduces itself as a seed. Grain, however, is a seed transformed by human intention when put in the service for other purposes. Further, I believe the cultivation of grain lies at the heart of civilization. Communal life as we know it, and the cultural elaboration that followed from it was, and remains, impossible without the cultivation of grain. Deep beneath the material aspects of grain cultivation lies a bit of cosmic mystery.

A grain appears identical to a seed but it isn’t. Grain’s destiny isn’t as a means of plant reproduction but as an agent of human transformation. It’s subtle but bear with me. Growing up on a farm, I participated in the differentiation of seeds and grains. Each spring we planted seeds to produce a crop in order to harvest the grains. Seeds were the means to the end, which was the harvest—the surplus production and sale of seeds beyond those needed for planting.

Oat harvest - fruit of rain, soil, labor.
Oat harvest, not for seed but for feed.

Planting corn or wheat each spring was our act of faith because we couldn’t control the weather, prevent infestations of wheat rust or cut worms, or changes in the price at market. Everyone depends on agriculture—grain—but few of us are directly connected to it. Nowadays we know grains indirectly and invisibly through their by-products: flour, grits, pasta and ethanol. Culturally, we think of ‘harvest’ and Thanksgiving as wrapping up a season in hoped for abundance and material security. It’s a warm, cozy idea but farmers are less sentimental. Harvest is do-or-die; the yield of grain per acre is a judgment on their management of resources and risks. The yield is the fulcrum for debt or surplus.

Grain underlies the larger mystery of settled human populations and the civilizations arising from them. Settled populations anchored themselves around and through the cultivation of wild grasses to harvest their seeds as food. Emmer and einkorn are the Middle Eastern ancestors of the modern wheat. Teosinte, a wild grass of Mesoamerica, became the mother of maize in all its forms, and is no longer a wild plant but depends on humans to reproduce.

Careful observation and selection over centuries produced plants able to produce greater yields of grain per acre, withstand droughts, winds, or blights. Humans chose grains with particular traits to maximize production on various soils and environments. Just as our ancestors domesticated or shaped the evolution of wild plants, in like manner the plants and their needs influenced and domesticated the shape and structure of human communities and cultures.

Corn harvest, the fulcrum.
Corn yield per acre, the fulcrum of success.

Dry grains, easily stored and transported, and densely nutritious, made it possible to amass surpluses to support larger communities and specialists, like potters, weavers, warriors, priests, and doctors. Cultivation accentuated the division of labor, the creation of classes, and defined gender roles. The particular needs of each grain—wheat, maize, sorghum, oats or barley—distinctly shaped the labor, lives, idioms, customs, and celebrations of the people who depended them. The relations between grains and humans is a symbiotic one. Neither modern civilization nor contemporary grains came into existence without the other.

Before the ‘Big Bang,’ our universe is believed to be compressed into something the size of a grain. Yet, within its cosmic hull lay everything that was, is, and will be. In a nano-second, this proto-universe hurled toward eternity the myriad potentialities that have and still interact, combine, and recombine as suns are born and die, galaxies form and disappear into black holes, civilizations rise and fall, and people are born, nourished and die.

Like the universe before the ‘Big Bang,’ a seed contains all the potentialities of the plant that grows from it and, by extension, the grain contains human intentions whose use will have primary, secondary and tertiary effects on human lives and civilizations. Grain is transformational in the human story. Although grain retains the outer form of a seed, the reason for its existence—its purpose—is altered, as if in a secular version of transubstantiation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

March Madness – Minnesota’s tournament blizzards

It’s now late March, the Girls Basketball tournament just finished in Minneapolis while a major snowstorm has begun crawling across southern Minnesota where I grew up. These blizzards often come in just after a prolonged thaw, when most of the snow is gone. The storms often begin warm and wet, with lightning and thunder before they dump heavy snow with lightning. Snow comes down on a driving wind that piles up drifts four-five-six feet high. March snowstorms aren’t rare—they’re normal—yet there is something especially wonderful about them. They’re massive and unpredictable.

During my childhood, the weather reports were general—at best. An accurate forecast in the 1950s came out in phrases like: “Scattered showers are possible across southern Minnesota,” or “There’s a chance of snow tonight with strong northwest winds.” That was about as close as a forecast came to what actually happened. Weather satellites, Doppler radar, and climate models added more detail but uncertainty remains.

Farmers I knew didn’t rely on the Farmer’s Almanac—only town people mentioned it. When it came to the weather, everyone was his own forecaster, and pretty much took his bearings from things we all understood—the temperature, the smell of the wind (did it smell damp), the kinds of clouds, the wind direction, whether the velocity was rising or dying, and whether the clouds moved with, against, or across the wind.

For a ten-year-old like me, the weather was a great mystery, a powerful force living just over the horizon. In the spring of my tenth year, we had a string of blizzards that began in February and ended near the end of March. Snow blocked our county road and driveway for several days each week before the county plow got through.

By the time the road opened, the forecasters were hinting at more snow in a few days. We hurried to town in the pick-up to buy groceries and anything else we needed—just in case. The next morning, I waited at the top of our driveway for the school bus. The temperature hovered at freezing and the damp air and south wind foretold approaching weather. School let out right after lunch the next day as heavy snow fell. Our bus slipped and skidded slowly along the roads, dropping off students who almost immediately vanished from sight in the swirling flakes.

All night, the wind howled in the treetops, the thermometer held steady at 32° F, and wind-driven snowflakes hissed against the window panes. I woke up in the morning confident ‘they’ wouldn’t cancel school. Mom turned on the radio at breakfast. In those days, we listened to WCCO, the CBS A.M. radio out of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Over Rice Krispies and toast, I listened eagerly to hear the announcer mention ‘Janesville’ on the list of closed schools. Another day to read pulp western novels.

Weekly blizzards continued until late March and each one kept us snowed in for several days at a time.  I missed about half of the school days that month, not that I cared. Drifts piled up, and one across our driveway stood at least six feet high. By mid-March, the snow was too deep for Dad to clear the driveway with the Ford tractor and scoop. He called a man with a bulldozer and the ‘Cat’ worked hard to push back the dense drifts—until the next blizzard closed the road and driveway five days later.

Like Paul Bunyan, these spring blizzards have gained legendary status among Minnesotans. They roar in from the Great Plains about the time high school teams assemble in Minneapolis-St. Paul for the state basketball tournament. Sometimes the teams had to stay a day or two extra before the roads opened. It didn’t take long for Minnesotans to connect basketball tournaments and spring blizzards.

While snow falls in Minnesota, I write this from southern Mexico, and feel the excitement of my ten-year-old self once more. For a day, at least, I wish myself back at the farm, feeling secure inside the old house, and watching the thick veil of blowing snow obscure my view of the woods along the river. In a day or two, the sun will eat up the drifts, and then spring will come, and March madness will end.

 

 

 

 

 

Days of Giving Thanks

Late November. This is the perfect season for a day of thanksgiving – at least in Minnesota. Autumn is over, except on the calendar. The day for giving thanks comes at the end of harvest, as it should. Now the season’s harvest of corn, oats and soybeans – the fruits of considerable cost, risk, and sweat – was secure in the bins and cribs. Unless snow came early, we usually finished plowing most of the stubble. November days are cold, the sky is cloudy most of the time, occasional skiffs of snow blow through and winter lurks just over the western horizon. It’s the kind of weather that draws us closer to each other. Thanksgiving Day punctuated our year far more than did Christmas. Continue reading “Days of Giving Thanks”

On home soil where the rain falls gently.

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Free Association.”

I first knew ‘home’ as a drafty, gray house set in an oak grove on a farm in southern Minnesota. It is April 10, 1947, and we have just arrived from New Jersey under a leaden sky after the rain has given the black, fallow soil an oily sheen. I am three-and-a-half years old, and see my home through the mud-smeared window of our 1940 Plymouth sedan.

As a child, I don´t question the defects in our old house and even older barn. They are a natural, unchangeable part of all that makes up ‘home’, just as much as my father’s blue eyes and my mother’s premature gray hair are integral aspects of my parents. At the age of four I experience the world as an organic web of things living and inanimate; cows and barn together, tractor and fields, in a unity of relationships whose separate parts I don’t yet distinguish.

Dad´s fascination with the soil verges on excitement. Southern Minnesota’s earth is the product of decaying grass and plants that built up, millennia by millennia, to produce ‘black gold’ in the form of highly fertile soil for raising corn and soybeans, oats and wheat. Agriculture is a highly choreographed ballet of fungi and bacteria, insects and worms, sun and rain, heat and cold, seeds and roots. These hidden creatures and forces move together as the plants draw nutrients from the soil to produce corn, eight feet tall and heavy with fat ears; a harvest to sustain for a year.

As a city man turned farmer, my father quickly learned how our lives are entwined with the invisible life of the soil. Neighboring farmers talked of ‘working up’ their corn ground, as if it were something inert to be acted upon.  But dad didn’t think that way. His words and actions were those of working ‘with’ his corn ground; as a team. And after the crops took all the nutrients they needed, and we harvested the grain, we plowed under the stubble, feeding the microbes that broke down the plants and released the nutrients to the soil for next year’s crop. As I grew, dad never missed an opportunity to impress on me, along with lessons in courtesy and respect for others, the simple idea of the soil as a living thing that – like a child – must be nourished and enriched and protected. In our home, the care of the soil was care of the family.

Across southern Minnesota, only one day in four, on average, is cloudy and rain falls less frequently than that. Most of the time we welcomed the rain, a few times we have prayed for it to fall, and at other times we prayed for it to stop falling. The kind of rain set the mood for the day or the season as surely as my mother’s tone of voice set the mood in the house.

As March days warm, flurries give way to slow, disconsolate showers dripping from a deck of flat, gray overcast. It’s a gloomy kind of rain holding out the promise of real spring some day, but not that day. In the long hours of daylight before and after the summer solstice, the earth warms and rain falls as frontal storms blow through. As a boy I spend many afternoons fascinated by the cumulous clouds building along the southwest horizon and riding forward as billowing mountains, like whipped cream, seamed by shady canyons where my imagination plays hide and seek with whatever mythic creatures might live there. Such rains come in a rush, driven by wind, the droplets soaking into the cracked soil, percolating to the roots of growing corn. Dad and the other farmers hope these rains are ‘soakers’ and not violent ‘gully washers’ that will send our prairie river over its banks and into the fields.

Rain halts the outside work and my dad relaxes, knowing this and other well-timed rains assure the heavy harvest in a few months. But we are less welcoming of rain in September and October, before the harvest is in. We can’t harvest wet corn; we want the summer days to stay a little longer, to linger with us like a sweetheart on the front porch, unable to say good-night. Living on a farm you never forget that a rainy day isn’t about your convenience or inconvenience; you know it’s about something larger of which you are a very small part.

Without rain and soil I have no sense of ‘home’. Within me, these three are inseparably bound up in a feeling beyond emotion. It is a sense of being settled, rooted; of being bound up in a web of being far greater and more profound than my own sense of self. It is belonging to a moment of fulfillment ordained by Providence or the cosmos. It’s an unquestioning acceptance of the rightness of all things, if even for only an hour. My choice has nothing to do with this sense of ‘home’ because this moment, every moment, is ‘just how things are’ and nothing can change that. It’s perfection.

I felt and still feel this connectedness on days when the rain falls softly, steadily, giving the soil enough time to soak it all up and dissolve the nutrients bound up in grains of mineral, or dead corn roots; to feed the myriads of fungi and bacteria that are the silent partners of every farmer. Listening to the rain, even in the city, my thoughts and memories return to the days when we had little or no work to do and stayed indoors. Gathered in the living room, my mother works on a crossword puzzle, my dad reads a book, my sister and I play Parcheesi spread out on the floor. And if it is a Sunday, we listen to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on the radio.

Now sixty years past childhood, my parents are dead and their ashes rest in the soil on a wooded ridge across the prairie river that cuts through the farm. They are forever at ‘home’. The title to the land now belongs to another, a friend, but the ‘home’ with its soil and rain remains with me.  Whenever I sit quietly, listening to the rain falling gently, as fat droplets ‘plop’ hitting the soil, I feel the family at home, gathered in the house. We rest, the soil rests, the rain rests, and in my time, I will rest in the soil where the rain falls gently.