Navajo Corn Pollen & the Sustainable Farm
An excerpt from Holy Cow, a homesteading novel.
by Rebekah Anast of Gallup, NM
Dad, Jake and Daniel left early the next morning. They were loaded down with packs full of food and gear. Daniel had his new boots on and I hoped they were comfortable. Breaking in new boots on a long hike is usually a very bad idea. My oldest brother, Will, drove them part of the way so their hike into Red Canyon wouldn’t be as long as it would be coming out. They had a good five mile hike in front of them anyway.
After they were gone, I felt depressed and bored out of my mind. It always seems like the most boring moments in life happen directly after the most exciting moments. Like the day after Christmas. Or the day after my birthday. They’re always a let down. But I knew it would pass, it always does. I wandered out the back door and toward the corn field. The sun was warm on the part in my hair but the day was early and I had left my hat in the house. I stepped under the shade of a big oak tree and looked out over the field. With the coming of the rain, the corn had grown quickly and was now beginning to put on pollen tassels. I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of the morning breeze blowing through the leaves. It sounded like applause; like thousands of tiny people clapping their hands. I smiled and bowed to the right and then the left. Then I opened my eyes. The field was busy with many types of insects enjoying the sweet corn pollen. I walked to the edge of the field and gently shook some of the pollen off into my hand and tasted it. Pollen has a sweet, buttery flavor. Tah-ah-didi-een, is how it is called in Navajo.
One time, Grandpa told me that when the Creator made the Navajo, he gave them corn for food and pollen for prayer. For this reason, many of the Navajo collect the corn pollen and keep it with them in a small deerskin bag. When they pray, they also sprinkle the pollen. I looked closely at a corn stalk near me, already I could see the ear of corn forming on the stalk. The corn was young but it was already preparing to bear fruit. Our corn seed came from Grandpa, who got it from his grandmother and so on. It is generations old. Dad says this is the way it is supposed to be. I heard my Grandpa talking to a Navajo cousin of ours and she said that she had seen corn that has no tassel on it. No tassel means no pollen. This could mean the end of a sacred way for the Navajos. They don’t know that the corn seed they purchase is genetically engineered and may not continue to reproduce. They don’t know that in time their sheep will cease to birth lambs in the spring if they feed them the grains that are sold in town. No more mutton for dinner, no more wool for weaving blankets. I sighed.
The sun began to warm the top of my head again and I felt sweat trickling down the side of my face. I stepped back into the shadow of the oak tree. Not far from me lay an old pile of branches and a few boards that had been last year’s main entertainment for Jake and I. Was it just last year that we had built that fort? We called all of our hide-outs forts but we tacked on other names to differentiate one from another. That one was called Fort 51 after Area 51. We had pretended Jake was an alien from another planet and I was trying to extract information from him. I laughed at the memory. Was it only last year? It had seemed so fun and exciting. We had run down there every time we had a spare moment, trying to make Fort 51 more camouflaged and defensible. I walked over to it and squatted down to peer inside. An old T-shirt of mine covered a makeshift table. I held it up. It looked small. I had been thirteen years old last year, had I grown so much?
The last day we had played at Fort 51, we pretended that Jake succeeded in controlling my mind and I had joined him in destroying Fort 51 so no other aliens could be captured and held there. We snuck up on the Fort through last year’s corn field and threw rocks and dirt clods at the fort while making bombing noises until the fort partially collapsed. I turned over a large rock with the toe of my boot. Jake wanted me to play fort with him a few days before our cousin Daniel arrived. I was busy sewing a dress. I didn’t want to play anymore. He and Susanna had built another fort behind the water tank in a bunch of young scrub oaks. I walked back to the house and stopped by the chicken coop on the way.
I peeked in at a broody hen that had been sitting on eggs for about three weeks. The chicks had to hatch soon— maybe today. The broody hen’s feathers fluffed up around her when she saw me peeking in and she shifted to one side to keep a better eye on me. A tiny little face peeked out from underneath her. A chick! Or a chickie as Anna says. He was so tiny and yellow. His fuzzy baby feathers had dried already so he looked like a little yellow cotton ball with black eyes and twig legs sticking out underneath. His tiny head tilted to one side as he looked up at me curiously. Half of an egg shell lay near him. He pecked at some white membrane still clinging to the inside of the shell.
“You’ll never fit in that again,” I told him. “Believe me, I know.” The hen squawked at me again so I lowered the door to her box gently and walked away.
My older brother Will was in the shop, working on a table he was building for a customer in town. He smiled at me but didn’t say anything. The table was upside down and he was sanding the carved legs.
“Can I help?” I asked.
“Sure. That’d be great. Get some sandpaper and work on one of the other legs.”
“What were you thinking about before I came in?” I asked, knowing he would have something interesting on his mind. I watched his sanding technique a moment before starting on one of the other legs.
“I was thinking about how I would set up a farm myself, so that it could be entirely self-sustaining. It’s more difficult than I’d have expected.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well,” he said, pausing and straightening his back. “In the old days, like in England, there were serfdoms.”
“Serfdoms. One rich and powerful guy would have a castle and a small-town area with a wall around it—like a fort kind of place.”
“That’s funny, I was just down at Fort 51.”
“Yeah,” he said, chuckling. “Not exactly. In a serfdom, all these other people—families—were under the lord’s protection and sort of belonged to that mini-kingdom. They farmed his lands and lived in little houses around the area. To pay their way, they had to bring a portion of what they grew to him. He also had guys that fought to protect the lands from theft or invasion. And he probably had a wide variety of skills among the people. Like a blacksmith, a doctor, and a weaver…”
“Like in the Robin Hood days,” I said, nodding.
“Yeah, exactly. And when there was famine or war, or too many taxes, the independent serfdoms were a real problem for the kings. They had everything they needed to survive without him. He needed them, not the other way around. So, the King had to corrupt the lords with promises of more lands and wealth. The corrupt lords stole from less-powerful landholders and taxed the little people to death… and it all pretty much failed. It wasn’t an ideal way of life anyway, unless the lord was powerful and generous.”
“So what does that have to do with a self-sustaining farm?” I asked, turning my folded sandpaper over.
“Well, today we have a totally different situation. There are no rural serfdoms. There are corporations. There are a lot of little people that work for big companies, none of which are self-sustaining. Even the biggest companies that own lots of little companies which support their industry, cannot meet the basic needs of their employees.”
“Yeah—but they pay them money to buy whatever they need.” I interrupted his train of thought. Will stopped sanding and came around the table.
“But,” he said, “not one of those corporations live off the land, so none of them have an independent food supply or self-sustaining eco system. So, if like in the old days war happens or disease, or catastrophe… all the people working for those corporations will have no self-sustaining eco system to fall back on. They live in a house of cards.”
“But we don’t really have a serfdom either, do we?” I asked, moving to another leg of the table.
“No,” Will admitted, “that’s what I was thinking about. We don’t have a wide base of skill sets. So we also depend on the corporations for a lot of things.”
“Like our clothes?” I asked.
“Yeah, but what I was thinking is that it’s skilled people we lack, not stuff.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, I can’t do everything. I’m good with wood. I’m okay with gardening and okay with animals. But, I don’t know anything about blacksmithing. I don’t know anything about delivering babies or sewing up wounds.” He stopped and wiped the sweat off of his brow with a handkerchief from his back pocket. His blue-gray eyes glanced around the inside of the shop.
“I can’t make tools. When these are gone, they’re gone. To set up a self-sustaining farm, I either need more people—skilled people—or, I need to buy a lot of extra stuff from those corporations. And, I’ll need to make money so that I can buy the things I can’t make. It’s not ideal. It’s a handicapped sort of self-sustaining.”
I was quiet, thinking about what Will had said. Maybe I could learn to do the doctor work. Maybe Jake could learn how to make tools and do mechanic work. Susanna could learn how to weave and make clothing… Will was right. It was a lot to bear. How could we do it all by ourselves?
“We have to start somewhere,” I said, at last. Will nodded.
“And we are. And it’s good. Maybe in time, we’ll meet other people that we can trade with or learn from. Until then, I guess it will be harder work than it should be.”
“So, what are you going to do?” I asked.
“I’m going to do my best.” Will turned the table back on its feet and stepped back to look at it.
“I’m going to try to build a totally organic, non-GMO homestead. I’m going to take what Dad has given me and try to make it self-sustaining enough to allow me to spend my life working it and learning from nature.”
Will sat on the edge of his new table and looked at me. “Dad says I can have the forty acres north of us. I’m going to start building there. What do you think?” he asked.
I was amazed. Will was only three years older than me but he was a man. He knew who he was and what he was going to do with his life.
“I want to help you,” I said. “It’s a good idea. And it’s worth whatever it takes.”
Will stood up and smiled. “Thanks, Ramona. We’ll have to go look over the land and make a plan.” He ran his hand over the beautiful surface of the oak table he’d just finished sanding. “The table is finished. Now for the chairs.”
Holy Cow is a homesteading novel about the adventures of a Navajo farm girl and her family in the mountains of New Mexico, written by Rebekah Anast.