Sunday, November 23, 2014

Growing Corn

Weather: Snow last Sunday was so fine, it didn’t accumulate in masses. Still it lingered in the shadows for several days, protected by afternoon temperatures that didn’t reach 32 degrees, then by high clouds.

Mornings are now so cloudless the effects of the sun are not mitigated and dawn temperatures average 20 degrees. Cold probably is killing any tender perennials like snapdragons that might have wintered over.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae, piñon, other evergreens, yuccas; leaves on bearded iris, vinca, sweet pea, violet, golden-spur columbine, beards tongues, hollyhock, winecup mallow, alfilerillo, purple aster; needle, June and other grasses.

What’s gray: Four-wing salt bushes, winterfat, snow-in-summer; buddleia and catmint leaves blue gray.

What’s reddened: Cholla, young twigs on peach and apricot; new buds visible on peach.

What’s yellowed: Young stems on globe willow; leaves on fernbush and bouncing Bess yellowing.

What’s blooming indoors: Sun comes in low this time of year for blooming zonal geraniums on inside porch that faces southeast.

Animal sightings: Hopefully cold temperatures are killing off the insects and vermin that survived last winter. There were so many grasshoppers and aphids this past summer from the previous warm winter, it would be a disaster next summer if everything survived.

Weekly update: Our image of Native American farming methods was set by people living in New England. Every year around Thanksgiving the same information is reiterated for a new generation. Darrett Rutman recapitulates:

"They set grains of seed corn into the center of each circle...Here and there along the coast the women fertilized the corn by setting a small herringlike fish, the alewife, with the seed...As the first corn shoots broke the surface a few weeks after planting, the women descended on the fields again, carefully planting three of four bean seeds around the young corn. Corn and beans grew together, the beans climbing on the cornstalks. Sometimes squash and pumpkin seeds were planted in the hills, their vines trailing across the uncultivated land between."

Today, Native Seed, a seed collective in Tucson, tells local bean growers to "plant with corn & squash."

When people actually looked at farmers in the Southwest in the late nineteenth century, that’s not what they were doing. For one thing, among the Hopi, cultivation is divided by gender. For another, First Mesa is at 5700' with annual precipitation averaging 8" to 12" a year. Plymouth Plantation lies on the Atlantic Ocean. It’s at 34' with more than 52" of precipitation a year. It’s ten degrees hotter in the summer in Arizona than in Massachusetts.

The Hopi are matrilocal, which means the women controlled the homes and the springs that irrigated small gardens. Men had jurisdiction over clan kivas and agricultural fields away from the village. Men planted part of the corn crop in the main washes below the mesas that would get flood water during summer monsoons. They grew the other under cliffs where water seeped down. Two locations with two water sources provided security against erratic weather.

Alfred Whiting says men at Oraibi leaned the modern irrigation techniques they used at Moenkopi from the Mormons of Tuba City. They founded the village in a wash as a summer camp in 1870 about 40 miles from Third Mesa. The Mormons arrived in 1875.

Beans might have been grown in lines between the corn rows, but Whiting said, more often men planted them on mesa tops in 1935. They also planted peach orchards in the dunes under the cliffs.

Women had small gardens they watered by hand from their springs. They grew squash, gourds, musk melons and introduced plants like chili, onions, and tomatoes. The dye plants, sunflowers and red amaranth, usually grew in the women’s plots, but sometimes could be found in a corner of a bean field. Other useful wild plants like Rocky Mountain bee weed, devil’s claw and wild potato were left where they volunteered in corn fields.

The method for planting corn was the same in both the Northeast and Southwest. Instead of the long, continuous rows of Midwestern farmers, small circles were cleared about six feet a part.

Walter Hough indicated the Hopi used a planting stick with a wedge point to dig holes where they dropped seed: 6 to 12 kernels in a good field, more in a bad. Whiting added, the foot-deep holes were filled during the season as the plants grew.

No mention has been made of fertilizer in the Southwest. In February they cleared brush and releveled fields.. In April, Alexander Stephen noted they planted rabbit bush. Ericameria nauseosus grows about 6' tall. The shrub blocked winds that uncovered seeds that were planted more shallowly than corn. Elsie Clews Parsons said the men of Oraibi used greasewood fences around their watermelon patches.

The other trait shared between the Northeast and Southwest is the chronological history of crops. Squash was domesticated first, then corn was introduced. Beans came later. In the Northeast, the three merged. Roger Williams recorded the Narragansett of Rhode Island believed in "Kautantowwit. The great south-west god, to whose house all souls go, and from whom came their corn and beans."

In the Southwest, where the climate was different, the crops were kept separate. Corn and beans each had its own set of ceremonies within the annual ritual agricultural cycle.

Hough, Walter. "The Hopi Indian Collection in the United States National Museum," U. S. National Museum Proceedings 54:235-296:1918.

Native Seed/SEARCH. "Planting and Harvesting in the Low Desert," double-sided, single-page guide included with orders.

Parsons, Elsie Clews. Hopi and Zuñi Ceremonialism, 1933.

Rutman, Darrett B. Husbandmen of Plymouth, 1967.

Stephen, Alexander. Notebooks, 1882-1894, edited as Hopi Journal, 1936, by Elsie Clews Parsons.

Whiting, Alfred F. Ethnobotany of the Hopi, 1939.

Williams, Roger. In James D. Knowles, Memoirs of Roger Williams, The Founder Of The State Of Rhode-Island, 1834.

Photographs: Different ways sweet corn is grown in the immediate area. For more on nostalgic corn planting, see post for 23 November 2008.

1. Corn possibly grown for farmer’s market; field is planted every few years, with ditch at the back; 9 July 2010.

2. Corn possibly grown for market; field was planted in cantaloups a few years before; ditch is at the back and has lateral on one side; 12 July 2012.

3. Corn grown in a few rows at the back of the house land, 17 August 2012; variations in height reflect differences in flow of water from ditch in back.

4. Corn grown in a few rows at the side of the house land, 13 September 2013.

5. Corn grown along side the house land, ditch in front, 22 October 2014.

6. Corn grown in widely spaced rows in field separated from house land, ditch in front; 12 July 2012.

7. Corn growing in raised bed at end of trailer; earlier annual four o’clocks were blooming at the base; I’m not sure if this was planted this year, or reseeded last summer; 15 October 2014.

8. Corn grown in opening in a wood lot, 22 November 2011; I think it’s planted every few years and comes back on its own in the intervening seasons.

9. In comparison, field corn grown as commercial crop in Michigan, summer of 1982. With modern seeds and picking machines, corn was planted more densely than it was when I was a child.

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