Love’s Purgatory is a Thistle Field
Sacred Corn P(Part 3 of 4 of a series on losing love and regaining a life)
Farmer Mark’s eyes shone with a contented smile as he asked me again to replay the corn dance celebration that happened organically as two other farm interns and I reached the end of the weeds that had engulfed the rows of corn. For a week, interns, moving forward on penitent knees, ripped out prickly thistles between the corn. The day of the celebration found three of us similarly tearing weeds out. From above the field, it must have looked like a small herd of javelinas, or other wild bore, were munching through the rows; chomping selectively on delectable weeds and leaving the tall heads of the corn reaching still for the sun above. As we chomped our way between the stalks, I talked on about the end of my partnership and the loneliness that it had left me with. Talking and tearing, anticipation started to grow as we began to see our the other intern coming towards us meaning that the end of our job was in sight. Spying him through the stalks, my heart began to race and I, without cause, or force, was elated. Meeting together, the three of us jumped up and, surrounded by the many stalks of corn, gave each other high fives, jumped up and down, danced side to side, and yelled gleefully. Together, we celebrated liberating the corn and allowing it to grow more freely.
The work in the corn was not just a meaningless task, but a sacred one. This sacred is understood by many. Miguel Angel Asturias describes two types of people in his book, Hombres de Maiz; those who see corn as sacred and those only as industrial products. He begins his book placing the “people of corn” in the community of Ilom. Interestingly, it was in Ilom that my own path revealed to me the sacredness of corn. It was a heart led path he that led me to Ilom, Guatemala, to work with community members who fight for justice, their culture, and the sacred. In Ilom, and other Ixil and Quiche communities in the region, I was taught that corn plants are actually people and are, as such, sacred. For my friends in the Ixil, corn is the lifeblood; the most important member of the community and keeper of culture. Corn is planted, harvested, dried, cooked, and eaten following practices that predate and outlast the original Spanish colonization. Like any member of a community, it is treated with revere and respect in all stages of life, which includes death. I still remember walking through a friend’s field, his milpa, to lay the corn to rest after harvest. We gently bent each plant half way up the stalk as if to leave each one in a humble, grateful bow to the soil that gave it life.
The humility and respect of those who I know in the Ixil, and around other Mayan Indigenous communities in Guatemala, is at great odds with a minority who control most of the country’s resources and who do not understand the sacredness of corn. Most indigenous peoples in Guatemala have little land to grow their corn due to monopolization of land by a new and old colonial elite; domestic and foreign. For hundreds of years, the market value of the people of corn has not not been as high for the industrial elite as bananas, coffee, cardamom and now metals for our electrical devices and other industrial goods. In recent decades, Western elite and the Guatemalan military clear cut the people of corn during 36 years of violence to make way for new product that could be sold in Northern strip malls and later marked down for bargain deals in second hand stores. What a deal! Luckily, while humble, the people of corn are powerful and resilient. They continue more than 500 years of resistance to colonization and death every day beginning with the pat pat pat of life giving corn masa being shaped into tortilla’s against women’s clapping hands.
The Guatemalan dirty war, known as La Violencia by those who survived it, resulting in at least 200,000 people dead, clearly shows a marked difference between those who understand the sacred and those who do not. This difference surrounds us still in Guatemala and in communities throughout the world. The loud singing prayer of a Dine friend as he handcuffed himself to a bull dozer on top of the sacred peaks, Doko’o’osliid, also known as the San Francisco Peaks, penetrated my heart and I carry it still with me today. He was and continues to fight the destruction of the sacred peak for the sake of recreation purposes of the local ski resort. He resists even though he, and elders before him, have been told by the white, settler U.S. government that their sacred mountain is not lucrative and that the government has to “consider the interests of the skiers and snowboarders”. The difference between those who understand the sacred and those who do not happens also on the streets of every city in the United States and around the world when those without money are shooed away from store fronts, so as to not “offend” the delicate senses of those with filled coin purses. I will never forget when I narrowly escaped police intervention during an altercation with an upstanding community member protecting his strip club entrance to the onslaught of a peaceful homeless friend resting on the public bench outside his door. My anger that day did not change the fact that he could not sit on the bench the next day in our community that values profiting off sexualized bodies more than human life. The difference between those who understand the sacred and those who do not also happens subtly in our everyday relationships. In my own life, I have as of late, felt like nothing more than last year’s product that has lost the interest of consumers who have been marketed a “new improved” product. My partner traded me in for version 4.0 even though it appears all of my buttons still work and veneer not all that worn off either. I have, however, been but another object to be bought and sold. I truly pity Him who does not understand the sanctity of life and I stubbornly resist being but an old doll.
While we all come from different cultural backgrounds, there is a sacredness in life that crosses backgrounds. I am, in a sense, one of the people of corn and I take the implications of this seriously. Living in Guatemala taught me that resistance happens in not just bold politicized acts, but in the daily protection of the sacred. One of my first acts to protect the sacred after I left Guatemala occurred while farming at a peach and vegetable farm in Palisade, Colorado. There, I harvested all of the corn long after all other farm interns had tired and moved on. With love, I coaxed the ears off of the stalks, peeled and braided shucks together. Later, I hung all of the corn to dry in the barn to then be milled and shared with loved ones. The stalks; I gently bent them over into their final humble bow. The day I harvested the corn, the farmer came to check in on me worried that I was feeling lonely working the field by myself on my day off. He told me “I came to make sure the bears did not eat you”. He found me with a shiny white tarp filled with a giant growing pile of corn that I pulled behind me as I continued harvesting. He looked on a little perplexed even though I told him my task was worth my day off and that I had no reason to feel lonely. At the time I knew that I was not alone and that my job was a sacred one that tied my life to that of many others. Each stalk of corn was a friend; a human friend tired and ready to rest. I, also tired from years of travel and work, humbly and gratefully rested each corn plant. Now, at Thistle Whistle Farm, I again am reminded I am not alone, my job is sacred, and my life is tied to that of many others. Here, we dance in jubilation after weeding all of the corn and giving each plant the space it needs to grow; rebellion against stinging weeds. I, too, breathe more easily; my chest begins to lighten as I move through the corn rows on humble knees tearing out weeds between the plants. In this small and simple way I regain my own lost humanity and continue to join other people of corn in the resistance to violence and protection of the sacred.