PALIMPSEST OF THE PLAINS
by Phoebe Myers
My mother calls to tell me she’s turned the old quern that’d been idly sitting on our front porch since my grandfather died a few years ago into a birdbath, as her mother had used it for decades. The hollow grindstone is a huge oval of impossible weight, a shallow hollow carved out of its thick base and walls of stone. She tells me in the dry October weather the birds have practically come in flocks, she’d even seen flickers with their spotted breasts and flaming red tails. Until Ohio begins to freeze, they can drink from it, an oasis for the beginning migrations south.
The quern is in all likelihood an ancient artifact, likely used by an indigenous woman, perhaps of the Osage or Wichita tribe native to what is now Kansas where my uncle Flint found it as a teenager. The nuclear family had since moved to Maryland, but they were on a visit back to Kansas to see my grandmother Dorothy’s family. I’m not sure where they were exactly when Dorothy’s sister, Rosalie, asked Flint “Hey, do you wanna go get a quern?” They drove to some overgrown field and there were the stones, scattered, some partially covered with quiet dirt.
Rightful owner seemingly long gone, the quern moved from Kansas to Maryland and to Ohio. The labor of some invisible hand tediously grinding corn brought back to life in a kind of stone palimpsest, revealing the hollow grooves of repeated strokes past. In my imagination the field of quern stones is a kind of graveyard, a vast memorial of the labor that had inscribed itself into the muscles of the women who had used the querns. As if the world somehow would honor dirt, stones, the rhythmic kneading of a woman’s arm, creating flour, food, fuel. Do the birds know what it is in which they swim, frigid drops of water rolling off long feathers, cooling the inside throats of warblers, finches, robins? Does anyone?
Kansas is a Great Plains state, a part of those endless prairies romanticized and feared by the white settlers who encountered them. As far as I know from what my mother tells me, my grandmother Dorothy’s ancestors had been there, near Osage City, for several generations. Her grandmother’s maiden name was MacLeod, of the Highland Scottish MacLeod clan in the Isle of Skye. I’m not sure which of the two branches she was a member of, if she would be called Sìol Tormoid of Sìol Torcaill, which are Gaelic qualifiers translating to “seed of Tormod” or “seed of Torcall.” Perhaps she was too far removed from her clan to be considered a seed at all. The Isle of Skye is a vast sweep of low-lying grasses, punctuated by the occasional mountain peak or lake. Much of the terrain is purple-tinged heather moors, the type of landscape haunting Wuthering Heights and The Hound of the Baskervilles. At some point Dorothy’s family traded one expansive sky for another.
Quern-stones of varying sorts were used in feudal Scotland as well, as they have been found from Babylon to China to the Mayan civilization since the Neolithic age. The necessity of grinding cereals appears to be nearly ubiquitous, to make flours, medicines, even cosmetics. In feudal Scotland, querns were self-reliance embodied. Though time-consuming to make, anyone could fashion one out of naturally occurring stone, grow their own wheat, and produce food for themselves for years. However, thirlage law mandated that tenants pay a fee to use the baron’s mill to grind their wheat. Individuals were “thirled” to their baron’s mill, chained to the power structure that simultaneously excluded them. The law reserved the right of feudal superiors to break any quern-stone they found. As a result, most of the quern stones uncovered in Scotland are found in pieces, nearly demolished entirely.
Corn shaped the American frontier, land that later became Kansas and Nebraska and Oklahoma filled to the brim with it. Originating in what is now Mexico around 7,000 years ago, it soon spread throughout North and South America. Skilled plant geneticists, it’s likely that they cross-bred wild grasses to provide the optimal yield of kernels. The Plains tribes, such as the Omaha and the Wichita among many others, grew and traded corn largely as a part of a sharing economy. Maroon, white, ochre and jade kernels ground by quern-stones into flour, other vegetables traded for buffalo furs and meat. Famously corn was one of the items “given” to starving settlers during Thanksgiving, perhaps sparking a co-opting of mammoth proportion.
Oscar H. Will, born in 1855, made it into the North Dakota Agricultural Hall of Fame for his work cataloguing seed varieties given to him by indigenous farmers. Apparently the main horticulturalist of the Plains, he not only stored seeds but information from indigenous farmers about how to plant, when to harvest, and the cosmologies surrounding agriculture. Will experimented with these varieties of corn, squash, and beans and sold the seeds for his new crops in his catalogue for the Oscar H. Will Seed Company he began in 1884. Many modern sweet corn and field corn varieties contain DNA from the initial strains Will came to possess, and Great Northern Beans were directly adapted from a bag of beans given to him by a Hidasta man named Son of a Star.
Around this same time, white settlers were still unsure if the Northern Plains would be hospitable to agriculture, but Oscar Will’s experiments and seed catalogues made a convincing argument for further encroachment into the West. The indigenous groups of the Plains were already decimated by small pox and confined to reservations. Regardless, white settlers pressured the U.S. government to open up new land in the West. As a result, the Dawes Act, or General Allotment Act of 1887 was passed, effectively ending the reservation period while simultaneously ensuring the future of the West would belong in the hands of white farmers.
My grandparents met in high school. Grandpa Roscoe told me once that one of the first times he saw Dorothy, he noticed she had come to school barefoot. She couldn’t have had an easy life. One of eight children, she grew up on a farm in the midst of the Great Depression. While western Kansas was the most afflicted by climatic changes of that time, the effects of cloistering dust clouds and endless, cracking droughts spread into the greener pastures of East Kansas as well. Dorothy’s father died due to tuberculosis when she was ten, and after that the details become less clear. Eventually, my mother knows, they left the farm, and two of Dorothy’s brothers Frederick and Robert Lee began working in coal mines.
On one of my mother’s family trips back to Kansas, Dorothy said to Frederick, “Flint’s fascinated with the abandoned coal mines. Do you want to tell him about working in them?
Instantly furious, Frederick replied, “FAScinating, huh? How’d you like to be down there, breathing in that shit?”
My mother says she’s woefully ignorant of her parents’ lives, and her siblings say, well, they were woefully negligent in telling us about it. Dorothy’s youngest sister, Rosalie, is still alive, though I’ve never met her. My mother suggests I give her a call to ask about Dorothy, about life on the farm.
I don’t call her. I’m slightly afraid, afraid that I would repeat the mistake Flint had made all those years ago, that calling this woman simply to ask her about her hardships would make a similar food out of me. I know physical labor isn’t expected of me, and I don’t want to view it as a mere curiosity. Breaking ground for a farm, mining coal, I’ve never come close to these tasks. The only experience I have pales in comparison, washing my clothes by hand during a month-long trip in India. I filled a small bucket with water, squatting low to scrub and wring out each piece, body afire from this simple chore. Laundry hangs outside windows and balconies the world over, coloring the cityscape, but in my house, it dries by mechanical wind and sun. When I fold it, it’s warm, yet I know the warmth wasn’t earned. I’m afraid all I have, all I know, was never earned.
I grew up surrounded by corn but had no idea what it meant to be a farmer. Future Farmers of America (FFA) was the biggest club at our high school, a group my friends and I mercilessly made fun of amongst ourselves. Republicans, homophobes, they probably had confederate flags hidden in their lockers we thought. Many in my friend group were professors’ kids from the local university, thinking ourselves to be everything the country kids weren’t. Of course, both groups were almost entirely white, and we were all offended to hear rumors that the college kids held “townie” costume parties where they dressed like “us.” They dressed not quite like “us” as we were currently but rather as the “us” we might become (and many of us would), the groundskeepers and dining hall servers of the university, the delivery drivers. It didn’t matter that we were still only teenagers, many of our parents or even aunts and uncles already played these roles. Only townies could make fun of townies.
Later attending that University myself, I had many people unknowingly tell me about whatever bar or house party they went to that was “sketchy” or “weird” which usually meant “redneck” or “townie” was about to come out of their mouth next. A friend of a friend was a bouncer at a popular bar and according to him, the staff were trained to not let in anyone wearing camo, work boots, or coveralls. Even writing for the school newspaper, when I suggested we try to cover more stories outside the scope of the university a fellow staff writer sincerely told me, “You’re right. I totally forget that people actually live here.”
“Most of the farmers I know are millionaires!” Taylor Keen tells me over the phone. I’ve called him after his organization Sacred Seed popped up while I was researching the role of corn in indigenous groups of the Plains.
“They vacation in Europe, wear huge rings. Small farms don’t exist anymore,” he continues.
Taylor, a member of the Omaha Tribe and Cherokee Nation, is based in Nebraska where he operates his nonprofit Sacred Seed. Sacred Seed works to recover and grow indigenous varieties of corn and other crops. Sacred Seed is part of a growing movement among indigenous groups to revive ancient crops and to uncover the traditions, stories, and songs that go along with them.
Sacred Seed mainly operates out of Taylor’s backyard, a micro-size farm in comparison with the massive industrial farms and cattle ranches sweeping the modern Plains. Taylor must always be vigilant against cross-pollination from neighboring industrial farms, often using Monsanto-branded crops. If his crops are found to contain any trace of Monsanto-branded corn, the company can claim ownership of the yield. The reach of Monsanto extends beyond the crop itself and into the seeds, the patent duplicating itself over again through the natural reproduction of the plant. However, even Monsanto farmers are not allowed to gather the fallen seeds to use in the next year’s planting, as has been the tradition of farming since time immemorial. Rather, they must continually purchase new seeds from Monsanto catalogues, thus keeping a fixed cycle of reliance on Monsanto, as well as preventing any farmer from conducting investigations as to the chemical makeup of the seeds or attempts to hybridize plants of their own variety. Battles now rage in genetic sequences rather than out on horseback among the grasses. Capitalism has no issue burrowing into corn’s waxy-green outer layers, through the silk and into the core.
Much of the land these millionaire farmers now use was sold or leased by indigenous people not too long ago, though the beginnings of the modern Plains stem back to the days of Oscar Will. The Dawes Act of 1887 ended the communal-style land ownership on indigenous reservations by offering each “head of household” an allotment of land for them to own and operate privately, apart from their tribe. Any surplus reservation land not used in the allotments would be sold to white settlers.
Many indigenous people took the allotments, but the devil lay in the details. True to the paternalistic nature at the time, the U.S. government would not give the land title to the indigenous owners right away, but rather held the land “in trust” for a number of years or until the indigenous person was deemed “competent” enough to manage his own farm. Initially, the sources I referenced said that all indigenous people received the same amount of land, but Keen informed me that this was actually one of the primary examples of institutional use of blood-quantum laws. Indigenous people thought to be “full blooded” by the government were given smaller plots of land with trust patents giving the government complete control for a minimum of twenty-five years. Those thought of as “mixed-blood” were given larger and more fertile plots of land with patents in ‘fee simple,’ giving them complete control, though they were forced to accept U.S. citizenship and give up their tribal status. Hearing this I picture again the graveyard of quern stones, broken into pieces, the lonesome whistle of wind blowing between the empty cracks of what was once solid, once whole.
Two white, upside-down handprints dust the low arch of my mother’s back, ghost fans on a black turtleneck sprinkled with flour. I feel most like her when my hair is up in a bun and frenetic strands of hair fall loose, when my eyes water from cutting onions and there’s too many people in the kitchen and she hands me a delicate pile of flour on wax paper, a pyramid of down, which I slide into her mother’s rusted-metal hand sifter. I crank the lever and down the flour rains, a thimbleful at a time until my bicep and forearm ache. My mother usual takes over after a while.
It’s Christmas at my grandfather’s retirement cottage, we open the window even though it’s fifteen degrees outside because that’s how hot the tiny kitchen is. Low bubbles of the coffee machine murmur behind us after my Uncle Flint starts a pot, my grandfather, sister, and father out in the living room eating clementines and the buttery Chex mix we had made yesterday. They talk about politics and serial killers, outside the world of Maryland is gray and the stone birdbath in the backyard layered with a thin glass of ice.
My mother and I make the dough for sugar cookies my late grandmother Dorothy always made, though I don’t really know her or how she made her cookies as she died when I was six. The recipe is scrawled onto a red card adorned with a Christmas tree, ink faded to a kind of yellow splotch that I can barely read, but my mother can. Years later she’ll email me a scanned image of the card, that I might want it now I’m out on my own, and I realize I don’t have a flour sifter or any mouths to feed, but I look for a long time at the writing, evidence of a hand I can scarcely remember.
Taylor told me the Omaha origin story of corn, of Mother Corn’s arrival in this world. The story was given to the Omaha by the Arikara tribe. One day, a young hunter was roaming the plains, looking to prove his ability to provide. He silently approached a bluff, and below him was a lone bison standing between two rivers. Not wanting to scare the bison, the hunter watched from above and noticed, curiously, that the bison didn’t move a muscle. It stood with purpose for several hours, facing one direction, not swaying or stepping away. Eventually the hunter went back and slept at his camp, but he returned early the next morning.
That morning, the bison was in the same location, but facing another direction, the second of the four cardinal directions. The hunter returned on the third and fourth mornings to see the same phenomenon, but on the fifth day, the bison had disappeared. The hunter went down the side of the hill to the site and saw nothing amiss among the grasses. No indentations, no jostled stems, there were no tracks indicating that a bison had come or had left. In the very center of the four directions, he discovered a single hoof print. The bison, the story goes, was sacred and ascended to heaven that fifth morning, leaving behind nothing but a trace. Out of that hoof print, out of disappearance, grew Mother Corn, the first woman on Earth.
My mother and I would routinely walk through the woods near our house. Her favorite season was early spring, when she would get anxious if she didn’t go out for a week that she would miss the white trilliums, which she generally managed to catch a glimpse of, nestled on the crest of a creek bank, dark leaves unfurling out of the dead foliage shed earlier in the fall. Our walks were slow at that time of year when compared to her usual fast clip, we stopped every few steps as she would quiz me on wildflower names I knew she had told me before but that I rarely could remember.
“Right, is this Squirrel’s Corn or Dutchman’s Breeches?” she would ask, crouching, lightly touching a small land with delicate white flowers shaped like a heart.
The curved edges gave it away as Squirrel’s Corn, Dutchman’s Breeches was nearly identical however the crests weren’t curved like the top of a heart but rather pointed into two peaks, meant to resemble pantaloons hanging on a drying line. I guessed correctly.
She loved nature even as a child, fondly recounting stories of spending hours up in a tree observing a fox with her young kits, and once squirming under a storm drain chasing after a raccoon who had slipped into that world under the pavement. These stories always strike me as bittersweet. She did not have a happy childhood. The youngest child by a eight years, her siblings were mostly out of the house by the time she was in middle school. Her eldest sibling, Bebe, was a full eighteen years older, and had passed from cancer when my mother was still a small child. My mother had a lot of time to herself, especially due to the fact that Dorothy suffered from depression and had at one point been diagnosed at bipolar, and she spent much of my mother’s childhood in and out of being institutionalized in mental hospitals.
Nature was her escape, as was reading. Her favorite childhood book series was Little House on the Prairie which she subsequently read out loud to me when I was a child. She told me one of her favorite games after reading the books was to pretend that she was a young Native American girl. She even asked for a pair of moccasins and, once she had them, would run through the ghostly sycamores and thick oaks of the Maryland countryside fully believing she lived at some other time, was some other person. Now, she walks, and pauses, and it seems less as if she is pretending to be someone and more as if each flower we see reminds her of who she already is.
The government attempted to “teach” the indigenous farmers how to farm through demonstrations given by white farmers, a largely unsuccessful endeavor as many were given land inhospitable to agriculture, and additionally, the U.S. government focused on teaching the men how to farm. Generally, in the Plains tribes, planting and harvesting was considered women’s work, part of the sacred feminine extending from Mother Corn as Keen tells me. Regardless of these challenges, the Burke Act was passed in 1906 which allowed the Secretary of the Interior to determine if an allotted farmer was “competent” to manage their farm before the end of the trust period. This gave a government agent strange, immense control in the lives and affairs of individual people and families, as this provision also made the Secretary the sole determiner of legal heirs to the allotments. If he didn’t believe there was a legal heir, the allotment would be sold, generally to a white settler.
After the boom of industrial farming following the end of World War II, the small-scale farms that still remained under indigenous control became even more difficult to operate. By and large, white corporations were the only ones with enough capital to invest in the machinery, pesticides, employees and other aspects critical to compete in the new American agricultural economy. Many remaining allotments were sold or leased. As of 2012, indigenous people made up only 1.8% of American principal farm operators despite many still living in rural agricultural areas.
I ask Taylor, “What’s the reception of your work by people near you?”
“I would say most of the traditional farmers just kind of ignore us,” he replies with a sarcastic chuckle. “It just doesn’t compute into their minds. Your average person, when shown Indian corn says, ‘You can’t eat that, right?’ That was a marketing campaign by somebody, maybe it was Oscar Will.”
Surrounded by industrial corn, it’s hard to remember that only a tiny fraction of what is commercially grown is edible, used to sustain human life in America. Around 40% of commercial corn is used for ethanol, about 36% as animal feed. Much of the edible corn is exported. Of the small fraction used for American consumption, ears of corn represent an even smaller part, the majority is used to create corn syrup. Memory in the Plains appears to be selective.
Taylor describes the sacred feminine as a concept central to the Omaha tribe as well as other indigenous groups. Farming has long been associated with this sacred feminine, stemming from the Mother Corn origin myth. This connection anointed the practice of growing corn as sacred, as ritual, perhaps more so than labor. Women of child-bearing age planted the fields, harvested, braided corn, threshed it, dried it, ground it into flour. Planting would occur on the new moon as all things moon were associated with the sacred feminine. A ceremony of rhythm, planting was accompanied by the voices of women singing traditional songs. Though only women of child-bearing age planted, their mothers, great-great grandmothers, aunts, living and dead were with them through the traditional planting songs passed down from generation to generation.
Although he is a man, Taylor sings to the corn in his backyard. It’s his hope that women in his tribe become more deeply involved in this movement of revival. “The sacred feminine,” he tells me, “is what fed us all.”
Dorothy was also a potter, largely by hobby though she occasionally sold individual pieces. We still have one of her vases that she gave to my mother. The vase is mud and knows it is mud, and for this it is beautiful. Glazed clay coats the top of the vase, which then gives way to a gritty lower half. This half is deep brown, nutmeg soil on a damp morning, soil where if you look at it for more than a moment you’ll begin to see its life: pulsing with burrowing worms, microscopic spiders, hard-shelled roll-polys barreling ahead on whatever business they have down in the dirt.
I can see why she was attracted to the quern, as she also used her hands to coax such beauty out of nature. Though Flint uncovered the quern, Dorothy seemed to care the most for it and first laid it out as a bird bath. Did she feel a woman’s hand in the weight of the stone, did her low back pinch, her forearm tremble with some memory of that land-body labor of farming? Built, not thrown, on the top of the vase she layered thick slabs of clay, gently folded layers in which she etched various designs: swirls here, hollowed dots there. I run my fingers over the rifts, searching for a voice, a muscle, a knuckle to hold onto, fumbling for women who came before me.
The feminine and the moon. At first, I’m afraid this designation confines women to darkness, the collective silence of night, mass erasure from the world. Yet the moon also gives light. Mother Corn was birthed from absence, from disappearance. Ancient forms of corn – kernels of jade, ivory, onyx, amethyst – thought to be forgotten sprout in Taylor Keen’s backyard. Quern stones dust soil from their shoulders. I crank the lever of Dorothy’s flour sifter, her yellowed writing provides dough again and again and again. Once chilled, I roll the dough out into thin layers, cut it with serrated cookie cutters her family used; Christmas trees, soldiers, West Highland Terriers and doves softly rise in the oven.
My best friend from childhood lived next to a farm, the crops would rotate yearly between corn and soybeans. One night we decided to venture into the field, crunching over bent, thick stems of corn leftover from the harvest, above us the stars were out. I can’t remember what we talked about, or why we wanted to be out in that cold blackness, but I remember a coyote yipped and then let loose a cry from somewhere in the nearby trees, close enough that we could hear it. Instead of running back inside her house, laughingly opening the screen door, I wish that we had thrown back our heads and howled along. I wish that we would have listened longer, remembered how that moon-world sings.
About the Author:
Phoebe Myers is a nonfiction writer and poet currently pursuing her M.F.A at Florida State University. Her creative work has been published by Aquifer: The Florida Review Online, the blog of Tricycle, the national Buddhist magazine, and the journals Inklings and East End Elements. When she isn’t writing, she can likely be found simmering a vegetable stew or working on her home yoga practice.