Listening to the Land: Life Lessons in a Colorado Cornfield

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.

| March 31, 2010

  • I Want to Be Left Behind
    In her memoir, “I Want to Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth,” novelist and nature writer Brenda Peterson explores the intersection of religion and the environment.
  • Cornfield
    Asking only that she “listen to this land,” the author’s neighbor, Mr. Vale, did not charge her for plowing and helping her plant 5 acres of corn all those years ago.

  • I Want to Be Left Behind
  • 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.

Tim Nelin
6/22/2010 10:48:59 AM

We must all learn to listen to the corn, and all of nature, and realize that if we don't accept responsibility for our own existence and that which we use to survive, then it is the same as breaking something and not knowing how to, or not wanting to bother, to fix it. THE EARTH, I MEAN!

john m_3
6/21/2010 8:04:54 PM

do you still have the land and water rights? corporations are buying up water everywhere they can. soon they will be selling it back to us like gasoline. water is the life blood of this planet. we have to have water. remember the battles fought in the last century over water by not the military but by our farmers and ranchers? no? look it up.

barefoot woman_1
6/21/2010 2:05:02 PM

Wow! Mother Earth, you did it again. You minister to my soul everytime I open an email from you. I've been out conversing amongst my plants in my 5 acres, enjoying the migratory songbirds along the river corridor, and finding joy in my hens that follow me around as I enter the yard again... Thanks for the tip for the book, and I can't wait to get to it - sometime, in the off-season, after harvest - maybe? :) LOL!

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