Minnesota Weather—It’s Mythic Enough

Do you write off a mythic account as an entertaining  yarn, a bit of folklore or a campfire tale? In other words, does a mythic story lack truth? Minnesotans love to talk about their weather because it is truly mythic in its reality.

Mythic comes from mythos, a Greek word for allegory, narrative, and parable. In ancient times, mythos was used to explain complex, unknowable aspects of life—truths that defied explanation solely by logos—the Greek word for reasoned discourse, an account or an opinion. Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for its weather is truthful when recounted as both logos and mythos.

Halloween Snow totals 1991
Halloween Snow totals 1991

My state lies in the crosshairs of three major climate systems: moisture streaming north from the Gulf of Mexico, cold fronts barreling southeast out of the Canadian Arctic, and a gentle Pacific flow off the Rocky Mountains. At any moment, any two of them may collide over the state. Non-Minnesotans think our weather is hyped, a fairy tale, like unicorns or Paul Bunyan and his Blue Ox. It’s true, we brag about our weather to non-Minnesotans, especially around the benighted hot-house souls living in warmer climates. We do it for effect. Our reality inhabits our mythic weather stories.

Today—November 18—is a perfect example. I woke at 7 a.m. to the loud rumble of thunder and strings of cloud to ground lightning, then a heavy downpour that swept floating islands of oak leaves down the street. When the rain stopped, hail plinked against the windowpanes and rattled on the wooden deck like peas in a can. The sun almost shone for a few minutes before heavy mist wrapped us in gray droplets. Sleet hissed as it fell on the leaves. An hour later, the snow began; first as a light flurry, then a heavier fall driven by the wind.

At this time yesterday (2:00 p.m.), the temperature stood at 58° F., the sun shone in a clear sky, and I mowed the lawn for the second time this November. Now, the lawn lies under a pallid sheet of snow, the temperature hovers at 34° F., the northwest wind howls at 35 mph with a wind chill of 21° F.

Today’s storm, like so many November storms , follows the southwest to northeast track of its many predecessors. As the Gulf moisture glides north, it is shunted northeast when frigid Canadian air slams into it over western Minnesota. As I write this, a blizzard with eight inches of snow, and counting, pummels the farms and villages west of Minneapolis. Roads are closed and the plows have pulled back. The plume of heavy snowfall is shifting northeast toward Duluth. For there, it will drift up the North Shore of Lake Superior and bury my cabin under a foot or more. This snow may last the winter. There is a stark magnificence in the North Country’s first snowfall. How I wish I could see it!

Blizzard. No school today.
Blizzard. No school today.

We cherish our blizzards because they test us and we survive them! They’re terrifying if we’re caught on the highway but we feel especially cozy and blessed in our homes. Blizzards leave us with eidetic memories. My favorites are those of my childhood on the farm. Heavy snow meant no school and no chores. I was 10 the year we had six blizzards in succession. They all started the same way. Mild temperatures on Monday and Tuesday, then light snow on Wednesday, heavy snow on Thursday, and white-outs on Friday. Drifts of four-five-and six feet piled up in the windbreak behind the house. They rose across the roads like mountain ranges. No one moved.

The 'Cat' clears the way.
The ‘Cat’ clears the way.

The county plow struggled to clear a lane by Saturday or Sunday. When it cleared the road, Mom raced to town for a week’s worth of groceries. I went to school on Monday, and things went back to normal until Wednesday, when the snow began again. This pattern repeated itself all of February and into March. We had so much snow the county hired bulldozers to buck the drifts rising eight and 10 feet. Dad hired a ‘Cat’ to clear our 400 feet of driveway—only to have it drift in again. I wondered at a world reshaped by the night wind—and I loved it!

Great Armistice Day Blizzard
Great Armistice Day Blizzard

The elderly of the ‘Greatest Generation’ still remember the Armistice Day Blizzard of 1940. The day began clear with temperatures in the 60’s. Hundreds of men went out hunting ducks and pheasants in their shirt-sleeves and light jackets. Temperatures plummeted, from the 60’s on the 11th to the single digits by the next morning. Without warning, heavy snow—at least 16 inches in Minneapolis—moved in driven by 60 mph winds. When the storm blew out, 49 people lay dead, many of them hunters. This isn’t a myth.

Halloween blizzard 1991
Halloween blizzard 1991

Fast forward a half-century to the Great Halloween Blizzard of 1991. It followed today’s storm track. That evening, I took my girls trick-or-treating around the neighborhood. We left in a snow flurry and came home an hour later, scuffing through leaves and an inch of snow. How novel! We woke the next morning with 18 inches of snow on the ground, and a total of 28 inches by the time the storm ended two days later. Hardly anything moved for days, and the snow stayed until April. This is a memory, not a tall tale.

Is Minnesota weather mythic? Yes! But it’s not a legend or a fiction. It’s our reality. We don’t create myths to describe the weather of our state. That is isn’t necessary. All need to do is look out our windows and report on what we see. That’s mythic enough.

 

 

 

Waiting, Hoping and Wondering

As a boy, I waited eagerly for many things. Waiting generated anticipation, hope, and impatience for time to pass swiftly. Waiting tested my self-control, and I learned to distract myself from the object of my attention. When you are a boy, and you think a day of waiting is an eternity, it helps to have something else to do.

Despite summer’s many delights on our farm, I longed for mid-October. Nothing delighted me like the shorter days, colder nights, the half-harvested fields of corn, the frost on the grass, and the pastel sunsets. Why? Because the seasons for hunting pheasants and ducks began in October. At the age of 13 or 14, I had no qualms about taking the lives of sentient creatures. I waited for glorious day when I could blast them out of the sky with a single shot.

Pheasant season opened in mid-October, and on that day my mother prepared lunch for the usual gang of hunters. Besides my father, there was John, our banker; Irv, who ran the feed mill, and his son Buddy; Doc, our dentist; Ed, the retired forest ranger, and me. We gathered in the house about 11 a.m., filled our plates with sloppy Joes on a bun, potato chips, a pickle, and a soda or coffee—the traditional opening day lunch. The dogs—two Weimaraners, and a setter—waited outside.

Our clock struck noon. Time to go. We heard muffled ‘booms’ in the distance where other hunters shot at birds. Each of us shrugged into our canvas hunting jacket, picked up our shotgun and stepped outside to start the ‘drive’ or sweep across the fields. Dad organized everyone so two men walked the sides of the cornfields and the rest of us spread out between them with the dogs.

State law limited each hunter to killing three rooster per day, and no hens. Holding our shotguns across our chest at port arms, we crashed our way into the cornfield. I heard the flutter of wings, followed by ‘Hen!” No shots. Then another flutter and the ‘BOOOM!’ of someone’s 12 gauge. And so it went all one opening afternoon in the mid-1950s. We spent hours working through each cornfield and weed patch where pheasants hunkered close to the ground.

I was about 15, and our gang had hunted most of the farm, and were walking back toward the house for coffee and cookies. We walked seven abreast across a hayfield, each man about 50 feet from the next. Easy walking there because the alfalfa was barely ankle height and offered no real cover to hide a bird. The afternoon was about spent, and so were we. We walked along, talking, with our guns slung casually over our shoulders. Suddenly, a rustle of wings. Cackling. A rooster shot out of the alfalfa at the far left end of our line. It flew six feet off the ground and 30 feet in front of us. The pheasant’s wings beat frantically, its neck stretched straight out, and its bronze feathers gleaming in the late afternoon sunshine. Pheasants always appear easy to kill on the wing.

“I got ‘em!” Ed yelled. BOOM! but the bird kept flying. As the rooster flew along our line, each of yelled, “I got ‘em!” BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! As the terrified bird flew faster. One by one we fired until the cock reached the right end of our line, soared upward a few feet, cleared the top of some brush, and vanished in our woods. Nary a feather did we touch. We stood in place, mouths agape. No one said anything. Then Ed laughed, a sneezy, nasal laugh. A laugh of self-mockery. We caught it and laughed until we wept, laughed until we gasped for air. The bird made a fool of us all. It was worth waiting for.

Besides pheasants, I waited for the ducks. Waterfowl fascinated me until I was obsessed with them. When I could, I stalked the riverbank in hopes of flushing a mallard, or went over the ridge to a pothole hoping to bag at least a blue-winged teal. The greatest prize, however, would be downing a Canada goose.

At that time, the Canada geese were non-existent in our area. The only ones we saw were the northerners migrating south ahead of the Canadian winter. Some men I knew spent a lot of money to hunt them farther west. That was out of my boyish league. Someday, if I waited, I might afford it.

I bagged all the geese I could ever want one November day in the late 1950s. A steel gray overcast covered the sky and the chilly north wind foretold wintry weather ahead. Dad and I were picking the last of the corn when I heard something and looked up. High above us, I saw a skein of geese winging south. Then another line of geese, and another.

All day, hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of geese passed over our heads. I wanted to hunt, then and there, but they flew too high to reach them with my shotgun. Hour after hour, they moved in long undulant lines, in skeins of rippling birds honking, cackling, and muttering as they rode the the hard north wind. They traveled in large flocks of Canada geese, snow geese, blue geese, and the smaller brants.

I had never seen so many geese before, nor have I seen that many in the years since. Each year I waited and hoped I might see such a migration again. Before going to bed that night, I stepped outside in the windy darkness. They were still there, high up, calling, cackling, honking on ahead of the winter gales. It was a moment of wonder that has lasted a lifetime.

Silence and Solitude

In our present moment of the Presidential and Congressional campaigns, we try to shut out the noise, the claims, the counter-claims, the lies, the half-truths, the unsupported claims. We all just want it to end. Political campaigns, as existential torture, lead us to yearn for an imagined age, simpler and quieter than the present one. We say we want silence and to be left alone—solitary.

Silence and solitude live as natural partners. Inner and outer silences have their counterparts in inner and outer solitudes. Until a century ago, the world’s peoples enjoyed true silences and real solitudes more than now. Most of us live in a world of noises, voices, and sounds. Daily, other people invade our private space physically, mentally, and emotionally through the television and internet. Where do we find silence? Most of us get out of town and head for a national park, a lodge, a retreat. However, even the wildernesses of national parks and forests pulsate with sounds, voices, disturbances. Where are true silence and solitude?

I think of silence as a personal attribute, a capacity innate to each of us. The way in which we use and work with our sense of silence shapes an aspect of our personality. When I’m truly silent, I find the important, intimate words to direct toward others. When I’m angry, troubled, or perplexed, I unconsciously try to avoid inner silence. In my fear, I don’t want silence because it is the place within where I must release control over my life. Sometimes I’d rather not let go.

In the course of life, I’ve encountered silence in many forms and guises. I’m not referring to the absence of sound in a chamber, the dead air of nothingness in an abandoned house. That’s external silence. I’m speaking of internal silence and solitude.

When the cry of the oppressed goes unheeded, I hear silence. When I suppress my outrage at injustice, I hear silence. When I fail to rebut the lies about others, I hear silence. When I rationalize my indifference to the poor, I hear silence. This is the silence of my own evil.

There are also positive forms of silence. When my being is silent, I hear my heart beat; it beats as a rhythmic organ of my body, and it beats with the truth of my being. It’s hard to hear the inner heart when I focus chiefly on my needs. I need solitude to hear the small quiet voice of my conscience. Within deep silence, it’s possible to let go of external things and see myself as I am with greater clarity. This is the silence feared by dictators, totalitarians, and oppressors. It is the silence outside the claims of state and ideology. Our inner silence isn’t and can’t be under external control unless we permit it.

I’m an introvert who hungers for silence and solitude. Both are sources of my energy and direction. My extroverted friends find their energy and direction through associating with others. Their sense of silence and solitude differs from mine. American culture treats extroversion as ideal, a social good. Our extroverted society often treats introverts as asocial, and reacts to our and solitude with suspicion because they believe the silent, solitary ones are hiding something. We aren’t hiding anything—we are being ourselves.

Thomas Merton mediated on silence and solitude. In The Wisdom of the Desert, he wrote of the early Coptic Christian monks—the Desert Fathers—who “…sought most of all … their own true self…” He elaborated this theme succinctly in his meditation, Thoughts in Solitude: “The solitary life, being silent, clears away the smoke-screen of words that man has laid down between his mind and things. In solitude we remain face to face with the naked being of things.”

For this, we need silence. Silence is the soul of solitude, it is the fullness of sound where listening is more potent than hearing. In silence, I hear the voice of my being, my true self. In silence, I know I am more than the persona reflected for the benefit of others. My silence, your silence, they are a presence, a tangible yet invisible attribute we share with the entire cosmos. Our inner silence possesses weight and gravity that anchors us inside ourselves. We all feel the silence at times. It is the ground of our being.

 

 

Autonomy and the Risk of Anarchy

 

Today is dedicated to celebrating liberty and our independence from British oppression. Besides backyard barbeques, there are many earnest recitations of the Declaration of Independence, political speeches, and idealized stories about American patriots. The pageantry is a celebration of the American credo about the people’s rights—the autonomy or liberty—to live as they see fit. Balancing individual autonomy with social order goes to the heart of America’s argument with itself since 1776. The American Revolution continues because our high-minded ideals are in conflict with the supremely murky human motives that pit us against ourselves.

My ancestors lived in Vermont during the Revolution and their experiences highlight how easily autonomy can slide into anarchy. From 1761 until 1791, Vermont was an unorganized no-man’s land called the “Hampshire Grants” claimed by the colonial governments of New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. It served the French and Indians as a backwoods staging area for raids on New England.

Arlington, VT, the town the Searl's established.
Arlington, VT, the town the Searle’s established.

In 1761, after 125 years in Massachusetts and Connecticut, John, Reuben, Lemuel, and Gideon Searle along with 58 other men secured 25,000 acres in the ‘Hampshire Grants’ from New Hampshire’s royal governor. The grantees called it Arlington, chose John Searl as the town moderator, and levied taxes for surveys and roads. Several years later, New York’s royal governor granted 26,000 acres covering the same land to New Yorkers. When New York surveyors showed up in 1769 and 1771, a armed men with New Hampshire patents drove off the surveyors. New York captured and tried nine men represented by Ethan Allen but, finding no justice in court, Allen organized an armed force called the “Green Mountain Boys” that included Gideon Searl Sr. and Jr. The local Committees of Safety used the militia to run off New York claimants, surveyors and sheriffs.

Ethan Allen, opportunist, leader, and speculator.
Ethan Allen, opportunist, leader, and speculator.

During the low level conflict with New Yorkers in the political vacuum of the ‘Hampshire Grants,’ Ethan Allen, Gideon Sr. and Jr., and others took advantage of Vermont’s autonomy to speculate in land. Gideon Sr. and Jr. also secured interest in a New York grant given to British Major Phillip Skene at the end of Lake Champlain. At the same time, Skene and Ethan Allen schemed at creating a new province extending across northern New York from the Connecticut River to Lake Ontario. The plan died in1775 when Skene rejoined the British army and Allen’s militia captured Ft. Ticonderoga. Allen had two aims: drive the British out of the Lake Champlain Valley to show solidarity with the colonies and create a potential bargaining chip with the British.

Fort Ticonderoga, gateway to Lake Champlain
Fort Ticonderoga, gateway to Lake Champlain

In the face of the war, and to protect their holdings, Allen and his allies proclaimed the republic of Vermont in 1776 with a constitution, an organized government, troops, and control over the Loyalists. In this chaotic period, many men saw and seized opportunities for personal gain. Vermont’s government set up courts of confiscation to seize and sell Crown and Loyalist property to fill the Vermont treasury. When William Searle, Gideon’s brother, confiscated Loyalist property on his own, the Vermont Council of Safety found him guilty of illegally keeping the property and ordered him to pay the government. Gideon was more prudent, however, and bought confiscated properties from the state in several locations during the lulls in his four years of militia service.

The Green Mountain Boys, Gideon Searl's regiment.
The Green Mountain Boys, Gideon Searl’s regiment.

The Republic of Vermont sent delegates to the Continental Congress in 1777 but New York opposed them because of the over-lapping boundary claims between Vermont and New York. Southern states and states with competing claims also opposed Vermont’s admission. Meanwhile, Ethan Allen opened negotiations with Britain in 1781 to reunite with it but the talks ended in 1783 when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. Vermont remained autonomous until 1791, when it joined the United States along with Kentucky.

With the end of hostilities , Gideon Jr., John Jr., Reuben, Lemuel and William Searl petitioned the Vermont Assembly in 1781 to establish a township and grant them title to “a Certain Vacant Tract of unappropriated Land” south of Lake Champlain within a part of New York claimed by Vermont. It was a politically opportunistic move that Vermont’s government declined. When the State of New York sent its militia to enforce the border it claimed inside Vermont, a larger force of Vermont militia, including Gideon Sr., met them at the border. Both sides backed away from open conflict at the last minute.

Gideon Sr. and Jr. moved from Arlington to Whitehall, New York, in 1782 and settled on the land they originally leased from Skene at the end of Lake Champlain. They owned adjacent farms, operated a sawmill on Castle Creek, and held various local offices, including assessor. Not until 1815 did negotiations resolve the issues of the New York-Vermont border and conflicting land titles.

The Revolutionary War was a messy affair unlike the idealized picture of a continent populated by selfless, armed patriots opposed to British oppression. It is estimated only a third of the American colonists supported Independence, another third opposed it (Loyalists), and the remainder were indifferent. My ancestors’ experience was typical of the times. They seized great opportunities with near total autonomy but the excessive autonomy threatened to become anarchy in the absence of an effective government.

This lesson is worth remembering in our restive times. Our current political struggles over the limits of governmental authority and personal autonomy have hardened into absolute positions that defy compromise. The political paralysis of our current divisions points to several dangers as grave as the anarchy in Vermont—the lack of a broad social contract, a Congress incapable of acting effectively on matters of great national importance, an executive extending its authority to act in the place of Congress, and a sharply divided court. The partisan electoral system is corrupted by money, serves the interests of powerful groups and produces broadly unpopular candidates at least one of whom slyly condones if not inspires mob-violence. It’s our nation’s 240th anniversary, and these are truly the times that try people’s souls.

 

 

You don’t need a tour guide

New fir tips
New fir tips

Let me begin by pointing out the qualitative difference between a tourist and tour-ism. A real tourist is well-informed about what she wants to see and what he wants to do. Modern tour-ism is an industrial system organized to maximize profits for airlines, hotels, national parks and service businesses by co-opting a person’s normal curiosity and then herding them into an artificial experience, too often at the lowest common denominator, for a high price. Industrial tourism, as critic Edward Abbey pointed out, separates the tourist from what he originally came to see by inserting a commercial veil that dilutes the experience the traveler hoped to have.

Twin flower
Twin flower

A true tourist doesn’t expect guarantees of satisfaction from his experience. Traveling is a risk and  satisfaction depends on the traveler’s personal resources, her encounters with people she doesn’t know and his capacity to notice new and different things in the places and people he meets. Travel is a state of mined and you don’t have to go to distant countries and continents to be a tourist. No! You can be a tourist, even an explorer, in your own yard. Emily Dickenson roamed the world from her garden and Henry David Thoreau discovered the world from his cottage on Walden Pond.

Glacial groove
Glacial groove

I often travel to distant places but today I was a tourist in a familiar place as I climbed 500 feet to the crest of a barren ridge overlooking Lake Superior. Today I looked at the route with the eyes of a tourist and saw anew how the afternoon light slanted through the trunks of spruce trees. On the trail, I stooped to admire the tiny blossoms of the twinflower, noted the two-toned green of new fir needles, the tough three-toothed cinquefoil growing in the cracks of a granite knob, and the groove in a granite knob left by a retreating glacier. To be a tourist is to be mindful of the moment, to take nothing for granted, to humbly suspend one’s ordinary assumptions and expectations of the familiar in order to see the extraordinary world in front of him. For me, this keeps the world perpetually new.

Afternoon light in spruce
Afternoon light in spruce

Dreaming, learning, and then executing one’s plan of travel is the true joy of being a tourist. My daughter and I read up on Utah’s canyon country and then hiked for days in Arches, Natural Bridges, Canyonlands, and Mesa Verde national parks without a guide or outfitter. Our most important equipment consisted of open minds to we could see what was before us. I travel this way in Mexico. In the company of a Mexican friend, we rode rural taxis through the mountains to attend patronal festivals, visit indigenous pueblos, and share coffee with her friends. We didn’t have planners, clerks, guides, or tour buses to get in our way.

Our experiences weren’t fabricated according to predetermined metrics ofGranite knob customer satisfaction; they occurred spontaneously out of curiosity, mindful observation and personal interactions. So, go on tour, close by or far away, keep your mind clear, your eyes open, and you will be your own best guide.

 

Granite knob

 

 

 

 

 

The Impossibility of ‘Empty’

Emptiness, the quality of ‘empty,’ doesn’t exist except in our egotistical imaginations. ‘Empty’ is a conceit of seeing ourselves as the center of the particular personal, social, or physical universe we currently inhabit. Nothing is truly ‘empty.’ The word simply reflects our failure to see what is directly before us, outside the veils of our notions. We say a place is ‘empty’ when its existence doesn’t fulfill our preconceptions for it.

Wetlands to cornfields.
Wetlands to cornfields.

During the 1950s, when I was a boy, a part of our farm was a wetland or ‘slough’ and produced nothing— nothing we wanted. This ‘empty’ space was too wet to plow and plant to crops we could harvest and sell. To fill the ‘empty’ place, we dug a ‘Big Ditch’ through the slough to carry off the water from four or five miles of subsoil tiles. The next year, rows of corn and soybeans displaced the resident plovers, bitterns, frogs, arrowroot, sedges, and cordgrass. We did what 10,000 other Midwest farmers did with assistance from the U.S. Department of Agriculture—we ‘reclaimed’ empty land in a common belief that agriculture was the only proper use for soil and water.

Great American Desert.
Great American Desert.

Calling a place ‘empty’ when we don’t encounter what we expect or desire has a long history in North America. In 1807, Lt. Zebulon Pike led an expedition from St. Louis west across the plains of Kansas to Colorado. From his account and those of other explorers, the empty region was called the ‘Great American Desert,’ unfit for settlement or cultivation. To Pike and the other explorers reared among eastern forests and settlements, the plains seemed empty—a void of grass, sage and wind, populated by a few nomads. To the Dakota, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Pawnee, and Comanche peoples, the Great American Desert constituted a well-settled land of plenty because they knew what to look for. ‘Empty’ didn’t exist.

Writers of fiction and science have and still do write about the dark void of space, the emptiness between celestial bodies. That description worked for a while but now we are learning it isn’t true. The dark void, isn’t ‘empty’ at all but filled with ‘dark matter’ we don’t yet understand, gamma rays we measure, and ‘black holes’ we can’t see with our naked eye but measure as gravitational force. Stars, nebulae, galaxies and their suns, planets and moons don’t float in nothing but exist in the gelatinous matter of space, like peas suspended in aspic.

Dust Bowl Farm 1938
Exile from Eden, Dust Bowl farm.

The idea of ‘empty’ fascinates because we can project onto it whatever fantasies, desires, or dreams we pursue. In the settlement of the American West, politicians, charlatans, and honest settlers projected their fondest visions onto the land without seeing or incorporating what was already there. The boastful later claimed they made ‘something out of nothing’ but the facts of history say otherwise. Homesteaders believed ‘rainfall follows the plow,’ and broke the plains in order to recreate their version of a democratic Eden. Years of drought and blowing dust soon exiled from this garden as surely as Adam and Eve. Political subsidies dammed rivers to irrigate saline soils until they turned too salty for crops. Hydro dams on the Columbia River ruined a valuable salmon fishery because all that waterpower was going to ‘waste,’ going for ‘nothing.’ Empty.

Looking back, I see how we and other farmers fell into the same emptiness trap on our farms and used the ‘empty’ space of the ‘slough’ as a screen on which to project our particular vision of a better world. Our singular vision served us as its principle beneficiary in terms of more acres for crops, more bushels per acre and more dollars per bushel.

Surplus corn from drained land
Surplus corn from drained land

It worked, in the short run but not forever. Not for us, and not for many others. After half a century of widespread wetland drainage across the Corn Belt, the nation had more land in production than it needed. Drainage hindered ground-water recharge, lowered water tables, hastened precipitation run-off and severe flooding. The productive acreage gained from drainage added to the on-going economic problems of grain surpluses and lower prices. Collectively, we did this to ourselves.

My father retired our fields after 50 years of cropping and enrolled them in a conservation program. He planted the farm to grass and trees, he severed the tile lines to stop drainage, and used the levees that once kept water off the fields to hold it in. Today, rushes, cord grass, sedges and arrowroot grow around the water’s edge; mallards and teal breed there, so do terns, sandpipers, herons and bitterns. Pelicans rest during migration along with coots or mud-hens. This isn’t a fully restored marsh, it’s a prosthetic one. It’s making amends, an admission we didn’t value what was there in the first place.

Empty doesn’t exist. If we think it does, it’s because we are blind to our conceits. We see something as ‘empty’ because we lack the imagination, the humility, or the desire to look beyond our presumptions and notice what already exists. Emptiness exists only within us. We risk harming ourselves and others if we are blind to what is already in place and then call it ’empty.’

 

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.