I strolled up the driveway to the mailbox. No mail. I looked over the neighbor’s cornfield across the road.  I decided to explore. Zigzagging between the thigh-high corn plants, I went in a dozen rows. Then I lay down.

I gazed up through the swaying corn leaves where soft clouds dallied eastward on the faintest of breezes. With a good rain the day before and full-on sun today, the corn should be climbing. An old farmer’s adage optimistically declares, “On a quiet night you can hear corn grow!” 

It turns out that with highly sensitive recording equipment you really can hear it. The noise is the tearing and pulling of corn stalk fibers. The process is similar to an athlete building muscle mass. Strengthening the muscle requires a multitude of micro rips of tissue. As they repair themselves the muscle becomes stronger. 

I rolled close to a stout stalk of corn. All around me was eerie silence; no insects, no birds. Staring into the sky, I spotted a high-flying dragonfly hurrying directly overhead. Why should it stop when this sea of sameness harbors no insect sustenance? 

From my prone position I peered far down the orderly row of corn stalks. There was absolutely nothing else growing there. I was lying in a desert made through the intentional poisoning of the ground.

This firmament of sand holds little organic matter. In order to grow corn it is augmented with a swill of herbicides, fertilizer, nitrogen and who knows what else.   

Looking through the genetically altered crop, I recalled a visit to a long-time farmer near Ames, Iowa. He was over 80 years old and was farming the land the same way his father had in the early 20th century, with no pesticides or herbicides. He really didn’t intend to farm “organically,” it was just the way his father taught him.

He spoke of his corn and its yields compared to his neighbor’s fields where they grow genetically modified corn using conventional methods that include applications of pesticides and herbicides.   Even when his fields didn’t produce as many bushels per acre, many years his profit margin was better than farmers who grow corn using chemical inputs. 

I asked if any of his neighbors ever consider growing organically to cut input costs. He looked at me and said, “Well they can’t.  Their ground is addicted to chemicals. All the microscopic life in the soil is dead. My neighbors have to keep the chemicals going if they want to make any money at all.”

He paused and looked out over his summer field. “They’re are in a tough spot. In order to build up the life in the soil they would have to let the field sit idle for a few years. And how are you going to pay the bills then?” 

He turned his head and looked at me, concluding, “It’s sad. I doubt any of them ever really intended to kill their soil.”

Across the dirt road from where I lay is our patch of restored prairie, a wild tangle of stem and deep roots. The explosion of bloom buzzes with thousands of pollinating insects. It hosts pheasant and vesper sparrow nests. The soil beneath teems with microbial life. 

Up to forty years ago this piece of ground grew corn and soybeans. Then I said “No more.” Instead I gathered native prairie seed from nearby wild patches and scattered and poked them into the ground. I let the remnant prairie in the roadside ditch slowly claim the cropland. Over time the ground has begun to wear the face it had prior to my ancestors farming it. 

After a half hour of corn cogitation, I could stand the sterility no more. I got to my feet and retraced my path out of the geometrically perfect rows. 

Returning home through the patch of prairie, I noticed a dragonfly zigzagging over the clumps of big bluestem and between the slalom gates of the blue-flowered spiderwort. 

A nap in the prairie would not be easy with the racket of biological diversity. 

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