It's autumn, and a (not so) young woman's thoughts turn to Keats.
09 October 2019
We have had three truly glorious days of autumn weather here in Wisconsin, and it almost makes up for the climate in the state all the rest of the year.
At this time of year my thoughts turn to my dear tubercular John Keats, most specifically these lines from his poem "Ode to a Nightingale":
"Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
She stood in tears amid the alien corn..."
When I first read those lines I was in my first year of college in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, ninety minutes away from home, and I burst into tears. I was so homesick. And Keats couldn't have landed any better an image on me to turn on the waterworks.
During this time of year I need and crave to be near cornfields. I mean it's a desperate physical and bodily requirement. Which is funny, because growing up I always had a difficult relationship with corn. Yes, I'm not lying, it felt like a relationship in that my feelings about it were very complex and it took a lot of work. My farmer dad grew field corn, of course, to sell and to use as feed for the cows, but the corn I am thinking of is sweet corn. We sold veggies at the local farmer's market, a job I helped with from about the age of 8 onward. There was always a lot of work and at first our biggest cash crop was raspberries (I have never been a fan of raspberries and I was gobsmacked that anyone would willingly pay--holy shit--three bucks for a pint of the little bastards) and other fruits, but then one year the idea of also selling sweet corn was discussed. And, although we kept selling a variety of fruits and veggies, corn became THE crop. It made the most money but it was also a lot of work.
In my life I have picked probably a million ears of sweet corn. (Actually, I know about how much corn we used to sell, so I should actually do the math on how many ears that amounted to per year, per years of work. But "million" is certainly what it felt like, even if that is not numerically accurate.) And I picked it in the wet Wisconsin summer heat, when every part of your body sweats, and when you're going among corn stalks to pick corn, all of the itchy tassels and pollen drop on you and stick to every available surface, and its knife-sharp leaf edges slice up your arms and your face, so by the time you are done you are a sweaty, sticky, sometimes bleeding mess. And I picked that corn mostly with my father, who, even at the age of fifty-seven, could physically work me under a table, and who never, ever slowed down. He also had some heart problems and I often watched the sweat roll off his nose, wondering if I should be worried if we were both going to make it out of that field alive.
But also: it was satisfying to pick. It was a systematic task that began at the start of the row and was done at the end of the row, and those are my favorite types of tasks. It required some subject expertise in that I developed a way of feeling for which ears were ripe, which was to grasp an ear lightly at the tip and to feel, very carefully, for the ever-so-slight juicy bursting "pop," under my fingertips. It was not enough pressure to actually crush a kernel of corn through the husk, but it was more that I could feel, through husk and silks, and in a split second and over the course of hundreds of ears in a picking, that slight promise of juicy ripeness.
When I buy sweet corn now I still use that technique to find good ears, and I pity all the poor clueless city dopes who have to rip open each ear, without nuance, to see if it's ripe.
But I digress. The corn was a lot of work, and it made us a lot of money (by farm marketer standards, mind you). But the true glory of any kind of corn is to look at a field of it in the glowing autumnal sun. Depending on which angle you view the field from, it can look just like dying plants, their lush summer green being replaced by light tan and brown stalks. It can look absolutely dry and colorless and dead. But if the sun is shining through it at just the right angle, the tan is gold and all those purple tassels are still covered with dried pollen that has gone fuzzy and lends the entire field an almost angelic halo. Then the wind comes along and the entire field moves and undulates, although it's a dry and somewhat stiff undulation, but it's still unified moment that is hypnotizing to the eye. And the sound. The autumn wind in a drying cornfield is unlike any other sound on earth. You know what the wind sounds like in the trees? It's like that, but simultaneously bigger and softer. It is countless dry leaves rustling against one another rather than crackling; it feels both warm and full of life but still, all the time, dying. There's the immediate noise of the leaves rubbing together, but there's also an underlying constant swish of all the sound waves from the entire field converging together at the same time. I could listen to it forever.
I hope you are having a good autumn. I hope you can find a cornfield somewhere and enjoy just listening to it for a while. I hope, wherever you are, you are not sick for home, in tears, amid alien corn.