The fields adjacent to my house are farmed by their owner each year. The crops are rotated annually, of course, and about every three or four years, corn takes its turn, much to my chagrin.
It’s not unpleasant at first. The green, leafy sprouts of young corn are, if not picturesque at least possessive of an acceptable color palate. This continues for a few months, if the corn is healthy. “Knee high by the Fourth of July” as the old saying goes. The corn around here usually attains that height and then some. Because the fields run right up to my quarter-of-a-mile long driveway, at their peak height the corn stalks give the illusion of a half-pipe. From the car, you can see nothing but the corn the ground and the sky.
Sound, other than animals and/or wind rustling the corn itself, is diminished by the thickness of this feed-plant-in-progress. On especially hot summer days, (of which there are plenty in Maryland) the aroma of raw corn is baked into the atmosphere around my house.
For those three weeks or so at the apex of corn growth, the undulating, viridescent stalks smack of innocent, apolitical Americana. An amber wave of grain my be more poetic in its patriotism, but rows of corn bring to mind the agricultural vertebrae of this nation just as much on sight, if you’re in the correct mood.
Until, that is, the first inches of browning invade the tips of the leaves. This color will dominate the landscape around my home, in one form or another, for months afterward.
Over the first few weeks of autumn this brown lifelessness spreads through every part of every leaf, stalk and husk all throughout the field, until late September or early October welcomes a rigid yet rickety army of dried up future-feed.
The now chilly winds that blow through the seemingly forgotten crop no longer cause a gentle, caressing rustle to be heard. Rather a crackling rattle greets anyone with business nearby outside in the final weeks before the harvest. Gone is the sense of an innocuous half-pipe in my driveway, replaced by the sense of frustrated ghosts surrounding my car as they moan in lament of their existence.
Days lead into weeks of this ugliness, and just as I feel like I can stand the appearance of this deteriorating abomination no more, I wake to find the farmer’s machinery at work, harvesting the cobs from the stalks.
But please don’t think that’s the end of it, or even the beginning of the end of it. For even once the days-long harvest is complete, and the noisy machinery drives off to wherever the corn is to be stored, there is the devastation it leaves behind on the land surrounding my house.
Jagged, broken stalks just anywhere from a few inches to two feet into the air, pointing in various directions. Stray chunks of cob and listless husks litter the driveway, and when the wind is right, the yard. The impression of a bombed-out city stretches across much of my view from either side of my house. Although perhaps a battle would leave a more even, restful pattern on the corn. I remember reading the words of Civil War General Joseph Hooker, who wrote of the cornfield at Antietam after the battle:
“Every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done by a knife…”
Remove from that scene, if you can, the human death and suffering, and warfare seems to have had almost a surgical effect on the corn itself, so neat and clean were the stubs to which the stalks were reduced. There is nothing surgical about an actual corn harvest. Rather it attacks the corn, chops, thrusts, shoots and plows its way into the crop, leaving behind a pitiful testimonial to what had once grown and dried up in these fields.
Nor does the ragged look of a corn crop post-harvest depart in a day or two. If anything, as fall fades into winter, and more stalks are broken by wind and ice and snow and the mud rising up in cold slop around it, the field presents a vista even more pitiable.
One cannot run or even walk through such fields carelessly, as the threat of tripping over stalks, or even being scratched by the same is ever-present. A mere dusting of snow provides no relief to the scene, the taller stalks piercing up out of the snow, their brown-yellow by no means a complement to the virgin white. Covering any trace of the corn harvest would require a snow deep enough to be depressing in its own right. Parents in all likelihood would still refrain from letting their children sled on such hill, for fear of thousands of buried, hardened sticks that have the benefit of tenacious roots keeping them in place.
It’s well that the prodigious deer and wild turkey population in this area find so much sustenance from such fields during the winter, otherwise the entire depressing scene would provide me with almost nothing to celebrate.
Soy. Winter wheat. The occasional type of bean I’ve not bothered to identify. All of these crops, in their turn, fill the nearby field with color, don’t obstruct the view, and have the courtesy to vanish almost totally when harvested, leaving behind simply an empty field. Though neither a purveyor nor a consumer of any of these products, I look forward to their arrival later this year, for it will mark, at last, an end to the remains of animal corn that I’ve lived with for the last few weeks. I can then put it out of my mind.
At least for the next few years.