Author and poet Katherine B. Hauth gave me permission to share the following comments along with her poem.
“After enjoying the voice-and-illustration pairing of The Corn Whisperer stories, I returned to the professor’s introductory account of the science behind listening to corn. As a writer of nature and children’s poetry, I was intrigued and inspired to write the following poem. I also have a desire to hear corn for myself some day.”
Where the corn grows
on humid nights,
quiet and still,
between howls of distant coyotes
as water and minerals rise
from moist soil.
popping and cracking
as cells expand
from roots through stalks
Corn is talking.
Katherine Hauth is the author of What’s for Dinner? Quirky, Squirmy Poems from the Animal World and Night Life of the Yucca: The Story of a Flower and a Moth.
Corn is a grain, a member of the grass family―along with wheat, rye, oats, barley, and rice. Also known as maize, corn is one of the oldest grains found on Earth. Scientists have discovered tiny ears of corn, which they claim to be over 5,000 years old, in a cave in southern Mexico. Other scientists claim to have found evidence that corn is even older.
Corn’s ancestor has been traced to a plant named teosinte that still grows wild in Mexico. Indigenous people nurtured these native, scrawny teosinte plants, which produced stems with tiny grains. From each crop, they planted the best grains and―generations later―the plants began to resemble cornstalks with tassels and silks. The plants continued to evolve and, eventually, fertilized themselves. The pollen from each cornstalks’ tassel fell onto its own corn silks and traveled down each thread of silk to the cob to produce kernels of corn.
Ancient Native Americans in Central and South America found that these kernels could be stored for long periods of time and that eating these healthy kernels physically sustained them. Maize became their main food source.
Meanwhile, sometime prior to 2100 BC, maize made its way northward into the Southwest. The earliest evidence of corn being grown in this country was found in New Mexico and Arizona. Corn became a staple for the Anasazi, early inhabitants of the region. Growing corn may be the very reason some Indians settled down and formed pueblos―so they could grow corn.
But years of drought dried up the cornfields in the Southwest. And when the corn was gone, people moved. Now, unfortunately, less and less corn is being grown by descendants of its earliest native farmers.
In 2010, Robert Mirabel and Nelson Zink established Tiwa Farms at Taos Pueblo to revitalize pueblo agriculture and farm corn. According to Mirabel, the people have an important relationship with corn. Although corn fertilizes itself, it cannot re-seed itself. Corn depends on people to prepare the ground, plant the kernels, pull the weeds, and water the plants.
In turn, corn provides people with nutritious food and food products. Corn provides feed for livestock. And left in the field, corn serves as mulch for the soil. Cornstalks support the vines of beans and squash. Cornhusks are used in weaving and making dolls. Ornamental corn is used for decoration.
Mirabel says, “Grow some corn―it’ll change your life.”
While writing The Corn Whisperer, I learned that some Native American legends are told only during certain seasons. For example, “Coyote Scatters the Stars” is a winter story―told during the time when the earth, animals, and plants are asleep, waiting for the return of the sun.
I learned that Native Americans consider oral stories to be more reliable than written stories. This came as a surprise because I think of verbal stories changing from one person to the next, like the children’s game of Gossip. But this does explain why there are different versions of the same legend. And, more importantly, each version is valued and preserved.
Storytellers are respected elders, such as grandfathers and grandmothers. Children gather around a fire after the evening meal, and the storyteller instructs them to sit straight and listen. The storyteller speaks slowly with a rhythm―giving the words time and space and repeating certain words. Storytellers measure out their stories over the years, reserving some stories for telling near the end of the storyteller’s life.
For Native Americans, storytelling is an important form of communicating wisdom. Told in the context of the storyteller’s culture and location, the story explains the listeners’ place in the universe, how they came to be, or teaches a lesson. Stories are told in an entertaining way―sometimes with a bit of teasing by the storyteller―so the audience will remember the stories and pass them on to the next generation.
The idea for The Corn Whisperer came about after I learned that the old saying “It is so quiet, you can hear the corn grow” is actually true.
I grew up on a farm where we raised corn, and I confess that I never heard the sound of corn growing. But on a visit to Acoma―one of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos―I noticed a cornfield at the bottom of the hill. This tranquil setting seemed the perfect place to hear corn grow, and kernels of The Corn Whisperer began to take root.
Dr. Fred Below, a professor of plant physiology at the University of Illinois at Urbana, provided me with an explanation for the sound of corn growing. According to Dr. Below, on still nights when the crop is in the late vegetative state, the area of the stalk between adjacent leaves expands and grows. As the cells of the stalk expand, you can actually hear a popping or cracking sound. The sound comes from the cells that make up the specialized, water-conducting plant tissue that moves water from the root, up through the stalk, and to the leaves. During this stage, the cornstalk can grow up to three inches a day.
My new book, The Corn Whisperer, is here!
The Corn Whisperer is a trio of stories about young Charlie’s visits to his Grandfather Joe, a storyteller who lives at a pueblo.
The small pickup whined to a stop in front of a mud-plastered house. Charlie looked around at the sun-baked pueblo. Everything was the color dirt. A shadow of worry crossed over his face. He clutched his Space Ranger and sighed. Tonight, his mom had to work at the hospital. And although they had visited grandfather here at the pueblo, Charlie had never stayed by himself.
Juanita picked up Charlie’s bag. “Maybe your grandfather will tell you a story. When I was your age, he would say, ‘Give me a listen, and I’ll give you a lesson.’”
The Corn Whisperer is about the power of storytelling when handed down from one generation to the next. Primarily written for grades 1-6, it is also a book for all ages. Now available on Amazon.com, The Corn Whisperer is published by Irie Books with original artwork by Ramon Shiloh.