WHEN APRIL CAME, full of blooming promise, I would make my argument for planting corn. It was, I can see now, a ludicrous statement of myself, growing a few symbolic rows of corn in our narrow little backyard garden.
My wife would object, tenderly, the same objections she made every spring. Corn is grand in a real cornfield, the sea of corn that stretches across the prairie table of the Middle West. But it looks ridiculous in a small garden. It uses up valuable space. Besides, we are usually gone in August, when the corn is ripe.
She always allowed me to prevail. In early May, after the frost date, I planted my little field of corn. Illini Super Chief, highest sugar content known to mankind. Awesomely sweet. A miracle to behold. America was founded on corn, not factories and bank accounts, not armies and politicians, but corn. I was pleased to do my small part to uphold the tradition.
Why did I insist on corn, knowing how ridiculous it looked? I will give my reasons, then I will give the real reasons. If this seems like a innocuous, slightly weird confession, I will answer that it puts me right at home in this age of Americans. Doing is being, as the philosopher said, and every hour of every day we define ourselves by what we do. Afterwards, in our private hours, if we are uncomfortable with the definition, we make ludicrous symbolic gestures to adjust the statement.
So we may live with ourselves. Some people buy the right clothes. Some poeple build cathedrals. Some people put outrageous messages on the bumpers of their cars. I grew corn.
It is a miracle to behold, trying to watch corn grow. The blades of grass in May are muscular green stalks in July, a little frightening that this hard-polished fiber sprang from dried kernels.
When the tassel flowers appeared, I like to shake the stalks and watch the duststorm of pollen, like fecund gold dust swirling in the air. In the summer heat, it does inseminate magically, without my help, and by August, when we are usually gone on vaction, the ears are bursting ripe.
My corn did look ridiculous alongside my wife's graceful border garden. Usually, we left the stalks standing into autumn, when they turned brown and dry, like tired sentries aching from summer. A dead cornfield in October is almost as interesting as a growing one in July.
That's one reason, simply watching the corn. Downtown at the office, I talked about billions of dollars and important public issues. I trifled, with meaningless words like "social welfare" and productivity" and "strategic objectives." At home, I was comforted by the contradictory reality of growing corn, the simple living mystery of it.
As a political commodity, corn is misunderstood in Washington, D.C., which is another reason I found for growing it here. It is literally true, I believe, that if all else goes to ruin, if the nation's capital vanishes into the original swamp and Detroit collapses in fire and pestilence and New York City turns to salt, the republic will survive. Because of corn. Because, more than any other blessings, the nation is most blessed by that great prairie in the Middle West where the wild grasses bloomed and died undisturbed and created the richest soil on earth.
I also get lyrical about compost. Growing corn was an excuse to have a compost pile. My compost is in the alley, possibly in violation of city regulation, where I do my part for nature's great restorative cycle. When I am feeling especially righteous, I carry out the eggshells and melon rinds and bury them among the rotting leaves. How simple are life's pleasures -- digging among the steaming rot and feeling the heat of decomposition. How virtuous it is to make new earth in order to grow my corn. d
One spring, my children's great-grandmother came to visit. She was an extraordinary woman whose precise memories spanned nearly 100 years, all spent on Iowa farms. She remembered in vivid stories how life was then and she marveled at what it had become. Any regrets she kept to herself.
Great-Grandma looked at my little graden in the backyard, freshly cultivated with my annual load of new compost. She shook her head. "Isn't that pitiful dirt?" Anyone who has tried to garden in D.C. clay and has seen the black earth of Iowa will know what she meant.
Pitiful? It was downright ludicrous. Nothing better than a wise grandmother to clear the smoke from one's head. If it was not for the corn, what was my laughable little cornfield for?
To remind myself that I came from Ohio (having left Ohio, I find it easier to romanticize the place). To honor my ancestors, who really did grow corn for their livelihood. To separate myself from the marble chatter of Washington, a city swarming with outsiders trying to become insiders, where yokels pass themselves off as urbane. Deep in my midwestern soul, I preferred to remain a yokel. That's the real reason I planted corn.
For a long time, I thought this was a singular pecularity of mine -- making an absurd gesture merely for its symbolic comfort -- but now I grasp that it is rather common among us. Perhaps it was always thus and ever shall be, that grown men and women need to mount impractical emblems on themselves in order to contradict the daily reality of their lives.
Why do so many of my fellow-city dwellers drive pick-up trucks around the streets of Washington? Why do striving young women wear those ugly neo-Nazi boots? Why, for that matter, do striving young men wear cowboy boots? Why do so many Americans insist upon keeping guns in their suburban homes?
Their subliminal reasons, I suspect, would intersect with my need to grow a little plot of corn. A pickup truck, even if it is useless in Northwest Washington, even if it is equipped with a stereo tapedeck, has an elemental feeling about it, a sense of struggle, an identity that is different.A pick-up truck provides a young lawyer with something that is missing from everyday life at his office. Cowboy boots makes a GS 11 stand tall in the dull corridors of government.
What's missing? A feeling of self-reliance, of independence. These contradictory gestures are, I think, a way of proclaiming independent strength, even when the daily facts remind us that we are not a nation of yeoman farmers anymore, that we have become rather efficient wheels and gears in awesomely complicated machinery. The longing for self-reliant yeomanry persists and finds intellectual expression in the "small is beautiful" vision. It found cultural expression in the upheaval of the 1960s, when young people mounted a melancholy rebellion against the mechanisms of modern affluence. Even white boys sing the blues.
Oh, my, how ludicrous it seems. There is something askew in our cultural perspective when so many people are walking around wanting a little honest dirt under their finernails, even as they squirt canned perfume on their armpits. The yeoman dream sells lots of grass seed in the suburbs, but it has less and less practical meaning in our downtown lives. Perhaps it is worse than flawed; perhaps it is false mythology, a collective cultural memory which is plain wrong.
That's another argument, for another day. In the meantime, I have stopped planting corn. For reasons buried deep in my psyche, beyond my conscious understanding, I no longer need to grow corn. Does this mean I have surrendered -- dreadful fate -- to the idea of being an easterner? Or am I free at last of the tender mythologies of my youth?
Anyway, this year I planted peas. What on earth am I trying to tell myself?