The Passing of the Corn

The Arikara corn

The ancestral corn

When Paul came into my life, he brought love, companionship, a MacGyver-like ability to fix things, and a handful of corn. He’d gotten the corn when he worked in the community garden in his hometown of New Town, North Dakota. This corn was descended from seed that had been found buried in a cache on the Fort Berthold Reservation. Goodness knows how long the corn had been there–decades, maybe–but this is one tenacious old variety.

For over ten years, I’ve been planting this corn. It’s clearly an heirloom strain, low and grassy, with small cobs sporting rounded kernels growing low on the stalks. I never eat it; I just plant it for the seed because I don’t know how many other people are still growing it. I want to make sure its legacy survives; a lineage that’s been through as much as this corn has deserves to live on.

Spending untold years buried in a pit was just the beginning for the corn that lives with me. It’s fought its way up through weeds. (Despite my best intentions, my garden quickly becomes a Darwinian struggle for survival). It’s soldiered on through drought. It’s carried on gamely even though the chickens found it one year and thoroughly enjoyed its convenient proximity to the ground; they denuded almost every cob before I caught them in the act. And this winter, mice got at the bundle Paul had tied so elegantly to dry. (It had been hanging over my potting table and looked lovely. It wasn’t until I happened to move the bundle that I realized the mice had climbed up and devoured the back sides of the cobs.)

So Paul and Sage set to work salvaging the remaining kernels. Together, they twisted cobs so i could put the fallen seed into (mouse-proof) jars.

The salvage operation

The salvage operation

Sage twisting kernels off a cob

Sage twisting kernels off a cob

Sage especially enjoyed feeling the kernels flowing through his hands, so he and Paul spent awhile pouring the corn through each other’s fingers. As far as Sage was concerned, it was a purely tactile experience, nothing more. Even so, I can’t help seeing a profound symbol of paternal love in the way Paul passed the seeds into his son’s hands.

The passing of the corn

The passing of the corn

Now the seeds they salvaged several months ago are soaking, getting ready to go into the ground and become the next generation. Not all legacies can be devoured by mice.

Sage with the corn bundle (good side forward) before the salvage operation began

Sage with the corn bundle (good side forward) before the salvage operation began



  1. An elegant way to speak of generations: human and vegetable. Great anecdotes on corn, and I enjoyed reading about the heirloom corn strains. In fact, I am inspired to do a post on corn.

    Years ago I visited the Corn Palace in Mitchell, S. D. where birds (not mice) have plucked grains of corn from the design.

  2. Jane Walsh · · Reply

    Rebecca, as usual, I loved your story, this one about passing the corn. What a great tradition. Thanks again! Jane

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. What a lovely tradition and a fantastic way to keep history alive.

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