Wednesday, December 24, 2014

On Corn's Kingdom


Louis Kahn, the great architect, conducted a master class in his art at University of Pennsylvania in the early seventies. Students reported that Kahn lectured on the materials used in building and spoke these words: "You think about Brick. You say to Brick: What do you want Brick? Brick says: I like an arch. You tell Brick that arches are expensive. I can use a concrete lintel over you. What do you think of that Brick? Brick says: I like an arch. And, it’s important, you see, that you honor the material that you use. You can only do it if you honor the brick and glorify the brick instead of shortchanging it."

I live in southern Minnesota amidst vast fields of corn. So I wonder: What do you want Corn?

In 1993, archaeologist, Stephen Lekson, wrote an essay entitled "The Architecture of the Ancient Southwest." (The essay appears in a catalog for an exhibition at the Chicago Institute of Art: Art from Sacred Landscapes.) Lekson argues:

Culturally, the ancient southwest was a northern extension of the Meso-american world. Ideology, culture, art and the all the numberless elements that identify the high civilizations of central Mexico ran north as far corn, their economic base, could sustain them.

Pre-columbian Mexico defines the characteristics of corn’s kingdom. If we interrogate anthropological evidence as to the cultures that first developed corn and were, then, sustained by that crop, we may understand what it is that the corn surrounding our villages and cities desires from us.

For hundreds of years, botanists had no idea how corn originated. These botanists lived in a scientific age and so, perhaps, were at a disadvantage with respect to this problem. (Our epoch is post-scientific.) The Mayans knew that corn, maiz zea, was a mighty god who had concealed himself for many millennia in caverns honeycombing the earth. Twin-born heroes entered the maize god’s kingdom. The god decapitated was angry and decapitated the two young warriors. In some versions of the myth, their severed heads were used to play ball in sacred L-shaped courts excavated in clearings carved from the green and cacophonous jungle. The ricochet of the heads from the sloping masonry sides of the ball-courts and the thumping of the feet of the ball-players awoke the sleepy corn god and enraged him. To stop the racket, the corn god ascended from his subterranean grottos and appeared on the surface of the earth. The twin heroes, now miraculously reborn, ambushed the corn-god and severed his head. When the god’s head was buried in the rich, black volcanic soil, green plumes like the feathers of the Quetzalcoatl bird emerged from the earth and were, then, borne skyward by lance-like shafts until the seed-cobs were golden and bearded like men and could be harvested to feed all the nations of the world. The Mayans knew that the origin of corn was sacred, that this precious food was the gift of a god that died and was reborn. As far as the Victorian scientists were concerned, the Mayan priests may well have been right – botanists claimed that corn bore no resemblance to any other species of plant. Nowhere in the world does "wild" corn grow. As far as the botanists were concerned, corn was unique, comprising a taxonomy of one.

The riddle of corn’s origin was solved provisionally in the early 20th century. DNA studies have confirmed the hypothesis framed in the 1930's that maiz is closely related to a central-American grass, teosinte – indeed, agricultural corn differs from teosinte by only five genes. Teosinte is an origin for corn, perhaps, more improbable than the plumed Maize God in his cavernous jadestone palace. Teosinte grass is a fibrous woody stalk surmounted by a six to twelve seeds braided around a kind of thorn. The seeds are encased in husks that are impenetrable to jungle insects – that is, rock-hard, tooth-fracturing pellets. Taxonomically, teosinte is more closely related to certain kinds of rice than it is to beans or other agricultural plants. Because it is a noxious weed, useless, prolific, and difficult to eradicate, most central American farmers destroy teosinte when it appears in their fields. Efforts at eradicating teosinte have been so successful in some areas, that this ancestral corn is endangered and almost extinct – and no one seems to be shedding any tears over the extermination of this herbal pest. One species of teosinte is now confined a swampy plantation only 200 meters long, a stretch of marsh in a flooded estuarine river in northern Nicaragua.

Kernels of something that looks approximately like modern corn were found in Xihuatoxtla rock shelter along the Rio Balsas in the Mexican state of Michoacan. These kernels have been carbon-dated to 8700 BC. The best current evidence suggests that teosinte was domesticated by farmers in the central Balsas river valley almost 11,000 years ago. The Rio Balsas is a river that flows from tributaries sluicing down through dry, basalt valleys. The river’s origin is both fire and ice – glaciers on the volcanoes standing sentinel over the Vale of Mexico are the source of the Rio Balsas. Semi-nomadic farmers genetically modified teosinte to produce a cob to support naked seed-kernels – somehow, the fecal-colored, impenetrable dozen seeds braided around a spine of hard thorn were hybridized and cross-bred to produce agricultural maize. This is startling accomplishment, a feat of genetic engineering that is completely inexplicable – teosinte is a rebarbative, vicious-looking plant that seems completely unsuitable for human consumption. Scientific study merely redefines the enigma: how and why prehistoric farmers converted teosinte into corn remains an unsolved mystery. At some point in prehistory, someone must have perceived that the potential to feed a family and, then, a village, and, then, a city, and, then, more than one-fifth of the world’s population was concealed within a spiny, inedible, and thorn-like grass. But how this achievement occurred – surely one of the greatest accomplishments in human history – is unknown. Viewed in this light, the hypothesis of a divine origin to corn remains persuasive.

Corn has evolved with mankind. Corn is man-made; human beings invented corn (although, perhaps, with the help of deities). Once corn was invented, it shaped men and women and their societies to its requirements. The relationship between maiz and human culture is synergistic: ancient Indians invented corn and, then, their invention, in turn, invented their cultures and religions. Culture and agriculture are entwined around a common fibrous stalk, the lance of corn growing from the earth to greet the sun.

So, what does corn want? On the most basic, material level, corn requires soil, sun, and water. The central highlands of Mexico are volcanic. The earth is so fertile that the dead, creosote-smeared stump of a utility pole, planted in the right place, can be resurrected, can rise from the dead like Lazarus and sprout green tendrils and jade buds. The sun is both plentiful and hot. Water is the component of the equation that is most problematic. Much of Mexico is arid and the climate can be unpredictable: droughts can last for decades, even for a hundred years. But mountains grope at the sky and massage rain from the clouds and the high volcanoes are mantled in snowfields always melting to irrigate the valleys. So the corn yearns for the mountains and stands in a certain, necessitous relationship to those summits and peaks, the high places from which water flows. The corn imagines the mountains as pyramids glazed with lime at their vertices, fringed with skirts of heavy stucco from which flamboyant, feathered serpents emerge. The feathered serpents symbolize life-giving springs, columns of water confined in the mountains that are squeezed out of the stony bases of the sierra to moisten the land and bring succor to growing things. The corn looks to the mountains for the water that it requires and causes its people to worship those high places upon which their crops are dependant, even to the extent of building artificial mountains in the form of great pyramids in the center of their cities.

Irrigation is costly and depends upon a centralized authority to design water-bearing ditches linked to mountain springs and rivers. A ditch that runs like a brown-green serpent between fields of growing corn is a complex thing, a feat implicating both engineering as well as law for the rights and obligations of those dependant upon that irrigation must be established, mediated, managed. So corn, requiring irrigation, also desires a centralized authority, both legal and ritual, to manage water and the rights associated with water. Thus corn establishes its priesthood and its judiciary and its temples built like mountains and its cities to administer those temples and courts of law, an infrastructure devised to circulate water to the thirsty fields to the extent that in the Aztec language, Nahuatl, a city was called "a water-mountain." Corn wants government and government wants war and so corn, also, desires war: in Bonampuk, painted on a wall, we can see Mayan warlords, their hair intricate with flowers and the feathers of bright jungle birds, noblemen with towering headdresses that are shaped like ears of ripe corn aimed like golden rockets at the sun. The war lords are torturing prisoners of war, snipping off their fingers and yanking loose their fingernails. This is what corn desires.

Corn knows that it is man-made and that it can’t survive in the wilderness of desert or arid alti-plano or jungle without its human servants. Corn dies each year and must be beheaded and its kernels must be carefully buried in the soil for it to arise again – the tasks of harvest and seed selection and planting all human activities. This cycle, running from year to year and decade to decade for hundreds and thousands of years, is dependant on the work of farmers. Corn establishes time that is not linear but cyclical, calenders that are as round as globes and disks and spheres with no end and no beginning, or, at least, no end and no beginning so long as the human agents continue to perform their appointed tasks and say their prayers to the water-bearing mountains and perform those rituals necessary to maintaining the flow of time which is the same as the cycle by which corn lives and dies and, then, lives again. Corn conceives of time as both cyclical but, also, subject to the desiccating, unpredictable calamity of drought. Time is not linear but a cycle. This cycle is prone to catastrophe, however, and can be broken, thereby ending time. Corn’s people are obliged to maintain time’s cycle by aggressive means – prisoners must be captured, tortured, flayed alive, or eviscerated. Thorns and slivers of obsidian and the stings of sting-rays must be used to open veins and spill the most precious of all fluids, human blood, onto the smoking altars of the temples. Ultimately, corn and human flesh are one and the same thing – man made corn in his image; corn makes man in his image. This reciprocal relationship is celebrated by priests who skin their victims and, then, wear human pelts as stinking, cracked masks and waistcoats. Fat and blood and skin dried by the sun and splitting open, molting the way a snake sheds its skin, symbolizes the sacred moment when the corn seed breaks through its shell, splits its husk so that the dead thing begins to live again. In their noisome temples, the priests enact this ritual to ensure that the fragile cycle of time, the rotation of days and months under the slowly spinning spiral of the sky, will continue. Corn is a divine being, but one that men made and that men must keep alive by their exertions.

More than a fifth of the people in the world are dependant on corn. As a mono-culture, corn destroys the natural diversity of the world – King Corn annihilates competing species. But the more human beings depend upon this monarch, the more capricious and fragile our existence. If our only food is corn, a drought, or a series of droughts, or blight or hail, may starve us all to death. Corn is apocalyptic, thirsty for blood, a colossus that feeds on human beings. Corn makes it possible for men to live in vast cities and sustains multitudes that would otherwise be unimaginable. But as corn increases our numbers and drives our population beyond rationally sustainable limits, this tyrant of the plains and prairies threatens us also with extinction.

One winter morning, several hours before dawn, I drove south. At the Iowa border, I saw fire and great scarlet clouds containing that fire. Columns of steam and marble-white vapor rose into the sky and made a kind of baldacchino, a turbulent canopy heaped over towers of steel and zinc. I had not driven this road for several years and the spectacle ahead of me was theatrical, even, operatic: pillars of smoke and steam, steel shrines full of fire, turrets wrapped in a scaffolding of fragile-looking millwork. As I approached the border, I understood that I was looking upon an ethanol plant, a place where corn was converted into a volatile fuel for cars and trucks. Pillars of cloud lit from flames within columns of steam climbed skyward and made all the heavens livid like an infected wound.

A few days later, I drove north. Near Hope, a tiny village on the flat and featureless prairie, immense steel bins rose from the earth like a stark, columnar cathedral. Augers and conveyors in metal tubes scaled the sides of the towers and capped their heights with dizzying catwalks and iron balconies. Perhaps, a man stood on those heights, far and away the tallest structure visible on these plains, gazing like a sentinel from that lofty watchtower on the fields of corn marching in endless succession to the far horizons.

Once, I stopped my car on a gravel road in the heart of the country. Corn shadowed the road on both sides, a green wall much taller than my head over which I could not see. The corn was odorless and it saluted the sky with a million ears raised like the arms of Germans hailing Hitler at Nuremberg. It was hot and there was a slight breeze and the corn whispered to me: I want your love. I want your love and your beating human heart.


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