Corn Grows at Night: Reflections on Flood, Drought, and Climate Change

Corn in the field.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota—all experienced drought conditions this summer. Even in urban and suburban enclaves we can see it—low creeks, twisted leaves, stressed trees turning leaves brown too early, the fall colors muted.

This year, the spring wheat harvest was down as much as forty-percent in some cases. Hay crops were damaged at crucial times. The corn and soybeans and sunflowers withered. Farmers are selling off cattle, reducing herds that took years to build.

As a farmer myself, I know that drought and flood are part of life. Still, it’s tough to watch 

Floods can be dramatic. I remember standing on the front porch of our house as a kid, watching a wooden highway bridge turned on its end floating through the field. In severe floods, the entire character of the country can change, with wolves, foxes, rabbits, snakes and what we call whoopee cats—bob cats—driven out of their usual habitat, suddenly wandering out into the muddy open fields—all of those being living things that can’t or don’t climb trees. 

Floods are dramatic. Droughts are slow, painful deaths. 

Driving down the highways of the midwest, it’s easy to think of those endless green fields as mass entities. But each stalk of clover, each stalk of corn, is a living, breathing entity. 

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “Corn grows at night.” He was being metaphorical, talking about how revolutions begin and grow. But corn does grow at night. And you can hear it grow if there’s not a lot of noise in the neighborhood. 

On my farm at night, you can hear the cars on the nearest highway, about five miles away. And there aren’t too many cars on that highway. It’s quiet, in other words, and if you sit down and listen in late June and early July, you can hear the corn growing. It’s a quiet, crunching sound, because the stalks are actually smashing apart in order to expand. 

Each stalk of corn is a living, breathing entity. 

Another oddity about corn is that it has now been hybridized so that the stalks are very short nowadays. The stalks are no longer of much value in industrialized farming, so science has been at work making corn short. When I was a kid, corn stalks were six feet high and more. 

But here’s the thing: science has made corn shorter, but the roots don’t know that. Corn roots still grow down six feet and more. In a year with normal rain patterns, that’s not all that important. But with drought, those deep roots begin to develop, in search of moisture. The plant uses resources that would normally go to develop seed, converting that energy into searching for water. Consequently—in sustained drought—the seed is under-developed. 

That means low crop yields. The corn harvest is down up to 40% in some areas of the upper-Midwest this year. 

Why do I know a lot about something like corn? Because for midwestern farmers, corn is at the base of the pyramid of everything: horses eat corn; hogs eat corn; chickens eat corn; people eat corn.

It’s a helpless feeling, watching a crop die. 

When I was young, the chances of drought were one in seven—one year in seven it was likely that drought would damage the crop yield. Now, with global climate change, that average is one in three years. Every year is a roll of the probability dice. Back in the one-in-seven days, having two years of drought together was low. Now, with the probability one-in-three, the chances of sustained drought are much higher. 

Cultivated soil loses moisture quickly. (Nowadays, that’s mitigated by no-till methods.) I remember tilled soil turning to white dust, ankle deep dust, and it feels as if you’re walking on the moon.

One of the many damaging things that factory farming has done is to turn living things—from clover to corn to chickens to cows—into commodities. Mass things for manipulation and speculation and export. 

That’s a very sad way to see reality. 

Every stalk of corn is a life. Every chicken killed is a life taken. When we think of these things as some sort of abstract, mass entity, we are doing both them and ourselves a huge disservice. We become a bit more brutal. 

The brutality of existence has never been a mystery to me. Any more than that meat is a product of killing or that corn displaces trees and flowers and grazing land. 

It’s only that I grew up believing that killing and nurturing are two sides of the same coin that we call staying alive.

Farming made me see the minutiae. The Jewish dietary laws work like that. The laws teach people that God cares about how you kill a chicken. God cares if your food has scales or if there’s a grain of yeast in the kitchen. That’s an amazing sort of world to live in. And it doesn’t take belief in a god to live that way. It only takes noticing. 

I think that’s why I’ve always practiced the art of poetry: poetry is a way of seeing the smallest things and honoring them. So is painting and photography and music . . . 

Verses that I grew up knowing by heart from Christian scripture go like this (Jesus speaking): 

Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore . . .  (Luke 12:6-7 KJV).

 

Forget crop insurance and cost per bushel and tariffs and exports. It’s hard to stand in the dust and watch a living thing die. I grew up knowing that everything was on the line all the time: drought can take the farm away. Flood can take the farm away. Our lives are inextricably tied to the lives and struggles of so many living things, including the planet itself. 

Water is life. Water is death. Water is joy. Water is suffering. Life is in the little things . . .

. . . even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore . . .

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