About Me

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I'm an author, historian (Ph.D., WVU), musician, professor, and mountaineer. I have published two books, To Live Again, a classical myth set in contemporary Appalachia, and Defending the Homeland, a collection of essays on radicalism and national security. Welcome to my blog.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Corn Day

Today was Corn Day. For those of you who happen to wander across this blog, I'm sure “Corn Day” has no meaning for you. Some of you may have never even treaded through a cornfield. For the majority of my life, however, Corn Day has been a day to dread. Every year on the first week of August my family either purchases or harvests corn and stores it so that it may be consumed over the course of the next nine months or so. The day entails shucking, picking the silk off the ears, carrying numerous trash bins full of husks and corn cobs into the woods and dumping them (the forest animals will eat well tonight), boiling the ears, cutting the corn off the ears, putting the corn into plastic bags, and freezing them. Today my family stored 45 dozen ears of corn in this fashion. The process took a little over twelve hours.

This was my first Corn Day in nearly a decade. For the last seven years I have lived in Morgantown, West Virginia, teaching at West Virginia University and getting a Ph.D. in history. Recently, I moved back to southern West Virginia, near where I was raised, to teach at a new college and therefore, for the first time in a long time, am able to enjoy the bountiful fruits of Corn Day. I am many things, dear reader; a farmer is not one of them. You can guess, therefore, that I began the day less than enthusiastic.

It all started around ten in the morning, when I accompanied my mother down some country road. I’m not talking about the kind of country road that took John Denver home to the place where he belonged (I’ve always hated that song, by the way. It’s not even about West Virginia, but western Virginia). I’m talking about a real country road. It starts out as a two lane, winds around the hills alongside a creek until it becomes a one lane, twists and bends some more until it becomes a gravel road, then your car bumps and trudges a bit until the road is just dirt. There are trailers beside the creek with old folks sitting on their porches giving you suspicious looks as you pass by. There is trash on the creek bank and you wonder where it all comes from. To put it mildly, the pizza delivery boy has never made his way out this far. For me, it’s stunning. I have lived in a college town for a while now and I haven’t been around rural poverty for some time. Even though I grew up around it, I failed to notice it much. I was simply used to it. When you are away from it for years and return to it, the poverty hits you like a slap in the face. Sure, there is poverty everywhere, but to see it all around the community of my youth is depressing.

We eventually make our way to a small farm (I posted a pic of it above) where we purchase the corn for $3.25 a dozen. Not too bad. The farm is run by an elderly couple and a few of their relatives. They are all over sixty. In fact, as we are loading the corn, I look around at the other folks buying corn and I am the youngest person there by at least twenty five years. The matriarch of the farm smiles at me and tells me that she doesn’t see many “youngsters like me around.” The sad truth then dawns on me. I am witnessing a dying scene in Appalachia. The couple’s children have all left the farm and even the state for different careers. There is no one to take over the crops when the couple dies, and both of them are nearly seventy. In a couple of decades you will not be able to buy corn or beans or strawberries from small farmers around here. There won’t be any. At least not in West Virginia. My children, should I ever have any, may only be able to get their corn at Wal-Mart. Now that’s another depressing thought. I don't remember Corn Day being this sad.

The rest of the day was tough and long. I’m tired even as I write this. But I wanted to jot down a few thoughts on the matter. You see, as our society becomes increasingly more industrial, it is not merely the independent farmers that are the endangered species, but communal events like Corn Day will also soon be gone. My entire family is always involved in this event - from my brothers-in-law to my parents, sisters, nieces, and nephews. Sometimes my uncles and aunts are there. As a kid I resented Corn Day because of all the work. I would guess that a lot of kids resent working in or around farms, which is why many of them leave. But living a fair distance away from family for many years has given me a deeper appreciation for the day. It is about more than having home grown, golden sweet corn at your disposal year round. Although that is really nice…… so nice that to this day I refuse to eat corn from a can or in a restaurant. It’s just not good enough. But on a deeper level, time working together is time spent together. Families who live in urban America have nothing comparable with which to spend their time. It's amazing how many people there are in this country who live under the same roof and yet they hardly know the person in the next room. But this example, I think, drives the point home. Earlier tonight as we all prepared to leave my parents’ home (where the work is always done), my nieces each gave me a hug and kiss and one of them, Mattie Ann, told me how glad she was that I was here this year for Corn Day. That made me happy. In a culture where families scatter and most nieces only know their uncle as the guy who shows up for a few days every Christmas, I’m glad my nieces will know me for something more. And I’m glad to still be a part of a dying tradition in a changing society somewhere in the mountains of Appalachia. Maybe I'm being a bit sentimental, or dare I say it, corny ... but there it is.

1 comment:

  1. Like you, I've always LOATHED Corn Day. I would always plan something to do other than shuck or silk corn with everybody once that dreadful weekend rolled around but this year, I really threw myself into it. I, once again like you, finally realize the sentiment and value of this long and tiring day no matter the work. Some of the best times are spent in the kitchen waiting for the corn to boil and just gabbing over news and events going on in each other's lives. And hopefully this annual tradition won't die anytime soon. I'm sure there will be somebody somewhere out there, who like us, understands the importance of garden-fresh corn in late Decemeber rather than those nasty mounds of canned corn. I am now one of those people, I admit.
    I also must say that I feel sorry for those families who's relatives and such are scattered throughtout multiple states and cities. We come from a culture where family is the most important thing and you always hold onto it and protect it no matter the price or the difficulty. Unfortunately, those select Americans that do not have that relationship with their families are missing something terribly important, in my opinion. And they have to eat that gross and disgusting canned corn.