As she works her family’s 5 acres with the help and company of a wise neighbor, Brenda Peterson discovers the wonder of nature in a musical, generous cornfield.
The following is an excerpt from I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth by Brenda Peterson (Da Capo Press, 2010). Peterson’s childhood in the high Sierra with her forest ranger father led her to embrace the entire natural world, while her Southern Baptist relatives prepared eagerly and busily to leave this world. Peterson’s crisis of faith colored her rollicking life adventures, and I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth is a dark comedy that diffuses fundamentalism — at once environmental and religious — with remarkable humor and surprisingly equal reverence. This excerpt is from Chapter 8, “In the Garden.”
Nothing had prepared me for the ecstasy of snowmelt flowing up to my bare knees and following my humble irrigation ditches under a full mountain moon. Here I stood, on land that had been in my family for almost half a century, and it was not in the South but in my native West. These 5 acres in Colorado with precious water shares were still rural — dirt roads and a dilapidated farmhouse with a picket fence that had blown over in warm chinook winds. Almost all the abandoned animals — from exotic chickens like Japanese Buffs and fancy Sultans with their scarlet feathers, to stray dogs, to house cats — had vanished.
“That’s what happens when old folks like your great-aunt and great-uncle die so close together. Things just disappear.”
Mr. Vale, my neighbor, nodded as we surveyed our handiwork: little dirt dams and wooden gates diverting the clear, icy water. “Now, your kinfolk, they had more animals to lose than possessions.”
My cornfield was crisscrossed with green rows. In his hip boots, Mr. Vale leaned against his shovel. His face in the moonlight was high-boned, his woven straw cowboy hat dented. He was Blackfoot and had farmed this neighboring land since the 1920s. He looked a little like my paternal grandfather and gifted farmer, Sheriff Rory Peterson, but he was not so stern. And whereas my grandfather had once told my brother, “I’ll teach you to farm, hunt, fish and vote the Republican ticket,” Mr. Vale was a staunch Democrat who believed that tribal peoples had to learn the law and fight what he called “those damn developers” who were still grabbing their lands as relentlessly as the European settlers. Mr. Vale laid fierce claim to his native heritage in a way that my father’s family did not. Though not formally educated, Mr. Vale was diligently self-taught. And he was the best farmer I had ever met. In my family, that was saying something.
Working a cornfield with Mr. Vale was not gardening as I’d known it. Cornfields were a prayer, Mr. Vale told me as I sat behind him on his tractor. Asking only that I “listen to this land,” he did not charge me for plowing and helping me plant 5 acres of corn.
I was unabashedly proud of these fields — my own little Garden of Eden. When I sent photographs back to my father, he seemed more impressed with this accomplishment than anything I had done before. He advised me about certain pests and told me how to tell whether the corn was thriving. But it was Mr. Vale who taught me the mysteries of this essential native plant.
“Corn talks to you, let’s you know what she needs,” Mr. Vale said that night as we listened to the summer wind singing through the stalks. Tall, green music. “If the corn is dry and needs more irrigation, you’ll hear the stalks talking about it. They sound parched, whispering, rattling.”
He lifted his boots from the mud with an audible sucking sound and strode over to fix a wooden gate that the gush of chill irrigation water had trampled. “If the corn is too wet, she’ll just flap flat in the wind, instead of flutter. When you walk in your cornfields, you should hear them growing tall. If the soil is rich and the sun is not too hot and the water is cool, not too cold, then you can hear it in every stalk and ear — happiness.”
I believed everything Mr. Vale taught me because it worked. This was 1977, six years before geneticist Barbara McClintock would win a 1983 Nobel Prize for her genetics research, especially in corn. McClintock, a maverick, nomadic scholar, emphasized a “feeling for the organism,” and often talked about listening to maize to discover genetic codes.
That night, running irrigation ditches with Mr. Vale, I listened to the cornstalks whisper and realized that both my crop and I were content.
As we irrigated my corn, Mr. Vale used his shovel to shore up a little soil levee and let the water flow into another thirsty section of corn. “You can hear the corn just relax when she drinks her fill now, can’t you?”
I closed my eyes and heard it: the green stalk filling with moisture, the leaves plumping, roots suckling, and golden tassels sighing. “Yes,” I said. “I can hear it.”
That summer, Mr. Vale and I harvested a bumper crop of corn. We spent the fallow season fighting water wars to save our irrigation ditch. A neighboring town wanted our water rights, and its high-powered lawyers were buying up shares in our irrigation ditches. All around us, neighbors who had shared this ditch for fifty years were accepting cash buyouts for their shares. But Mr. Vale and I were holding out. My father also held firm. For once, he and I were on the same side of this environmental battle. “That land without water is empty, useless,” he said. “Keep fighting.”
Mr. Vale and I showed up at endless bureaucratic meetings to protest the takeover of our ditch. I wrote letters and stood up and pleaded with other shareholders and panels of developers. At one meeting, Mr. Vale shot up beside me. He said nothing, simply opened his red plaid wool jacket to reveal a holstered six-shooter. It was the only time the Water Board paid us any mind. Mr. Vale and I did manage to keep our few water shares while the city gobbled up most of our ditch.
“You’ve got to keep farming,” my father advised as snow again changed to spring rains. “Use that water or you’ll lose it to the city. Plan your next crop.”
“I’ve already ordered seeds from the catalog,” I told my father proudly.
Mr. Vale and I worked my family farm’s 5 acres for several years together. He has passed on now, but the lessons of the corn stay with me these decades later. Sometimes, when passing a cornfield, I will simply enter the whispering rows and hear again the green music, the generous maize that has fed many creatures for thousands of years. A growing song from a crop that never stops nourishing. Hunger and happiness.