The Art of Farming

Why dance when the corn plants are wilting?

Posted Jun 30, 2015

The corn was not looking good. The top of nearly every one of the 100 starts that Jordan and I had carefully transplanted from the green house into the garden was tipped over sideways, arced away from the strong hot wind. The leaves, once a hearty green, looked pale and yellow, their edges curling in protest. I was worried.

The day before Jordan and I had prepared a large bed in the garden. We had dug holes and filled each hole with water and composted cattle manure. Then we had carefully pulled the young plants from their cozy quarters and lowered each one into an awaiting hole. We pressed firmly around the roots, leaving a small trough around the plant for water to collect. What a beautiful sight! Bright green blasts of earth, shooting for the sky.

Not now.

I ran to fetch the hose, and watered liberally, knowing that hydration is crucial for helping those corn plant roots establish themselves in their new soil location. Once the plants were drenched, I turned off the hose and stood there. There was nothing to do. I could not turn off the wind. I could not build another house over the plants to protect them. It was possible that every plant would die.

What about a corn dance? The thought flared through my consciousness and petered out.

Silly, I replied.

But why? I had been reading about Pueblo communities in the Southwest who regularly dance a Corn Dance. According to anthropologists and Native Americans themselves, they dance this dance not only to celebrate but actually to enable a bountiful corn harvest. Sure, I couldn’t and wouldn’t replicate their dancing. I didn’t know how. But the idea was compelling. It was something I could do, at least. What about making up my own? Would it work?

I admit it. The dance was rather timid. I shuffled in place, picking up one foot and then the other. I moved around the edge of the corn patch, looking intently at each plant. I was happy there was no one around to watch. Just me and the corn.

As I circled around, I wasn’t expecting it, but I was suddenly swamped with love. Whoa, this is interesting, I thought. I danced some more.

I noticed details in the corn plants I had not before: the tiny twists at the end of each leaf; the etched ribs now reaching sideways; the narrow cups formed where leaf meets stalk, still upright enough to catch the rain. I felt love for each one of those bent heads. They had to make it. They just had to.

I went back into the house, senses still keyed to the corn.

The next day, even as I ran from task to task, I was paying attention to the corn. Something had shifted. It was as if the corn plants had slipped into my mental space and were rooting themselves there, growing in me. I didn’t think about them, I thought with them. They accompanied me, like a child in the womb. They called me back up to the garden with the hose to water again.

Around midday, I noticed a shift. The wind was blowing warm and sweet—from the reverse direction. This new wind was pushing those crowns right back up to vertical. Oh hope!

The next morning I ran out to check, and there were the corn, all but one of 100 plus plants, standing sentinel, straight and tall. The corn was looking good, greener. I practically skipped back down to the house, happy and hopeful. Maybe.

I thought about my dance.

Did my dance do anything? Did it make a difference?

Part of me said no, of course not. The plants were plants. They were strong and pliable. They bent one way with one wind, and back with another. Their own inner force had triumphed through a rough transition. It was all merely material.

Then I thought again. Maybe my dance had made a difference. My dance wasn’t particularly interesting or dramatic or lengthy, but it changed me. Dancing for those few moments extended my sensory awareness to include the corn, enabling me to perceive it anew. It stirred a willingness in me to drag that hose up the hill and water again—a willingness to do whatever I could to help it thrive.

Sure, the decision to do the dance in the first place expressed a desire for that corn to grow. But the dance made me want the success of that corn even more. It didn’t just express my desire—it fed it. It opened up new sensory pathways in myself for me to feel and act on that desire. It released more of my own corn-enabling energies.

The corn was corn. I was me. But dancing I knew something else. I had planted that corn, pressed the seeds into the ground, watered them, weeded them, transplanted them, and watered some more. Those corn plants existed, in part, because of my work. And in so far as that work succeeded, I would exist, in part, because their fruits would feed me back.

A few simple movements, and I was better able to conceive and affirm my own participation in forces of nature that otherwise appear to exist outside of me, apart from me, and even indifferent to me. It wasn’t just an affirmation of “relationality” or a mystical experience of “union.”

Rather, I knew: I am an active, essential part of the nature that lives in those plants—and so is whatever thinking, feeling, and acting I can muster in their behalf. My movements matter. All of them. To the world in which I live.

Dancing, I enable that corn to thrive, and that corn got me dancing. More became possible. In me. In nature itself. And there is more to be done.

It's the art of farming.

Kimerer LaMothe, PhD is the author of Why We Dance: A Philosophy of Bodily Becoming