Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Mixed feelings about maize

Someone's planted maize on our field when we weren't looking. Potentially a problem, we'd asked them not to do that.

" We'll have to speak to them about it."

As the French-speaking, non-deaf, out-in-the world, porte-paroles in the relationship, 'we' means me. One of those times when I have to be Tom's mouth and ears as well as my own, and he chafes at his powerlessness and we could both be in danger of resenting it.

"Too late to do anything about it now, they won't dig it up again."

I would probably let the matter of the maize go, on the basis of not liking to confront and also that beggars, or more precisely, those who are doing quite nicely out of a situation, can't be choosers. We receive a corde of wood for the field, more than it's worth in money terms, but it keeps it off the books for the farming family. I drove this bargain in the early days with Pierre, the paterfamilias, rather with my heart in my mouth, and my stubbornness and readiness to go and look things up in dictionaries ( how much is a corde, and what exactly is the métairie system?), gained me an amused respect ( or at least that's what I assume it is...), and the bargain has been stuck to. Pierre isn't really in charge any more, the boys and their spouses have the business all drawn up between them, but somehow, though his son lives next door to us, it's usually Pierre we negotiate with. He and Marie, their mother, do all the non-cash, non-systematised bits which probably still do more to lubricate the wheels of agri-business than is generally acknowledged; he cuts and hauls and stores the firewood, pinches odd corners of fields to grow potatoes ( we usually get a bag along with our corde), they tidy up the furrows of even quite large fields by hand with hoes, and clean the docks from pasture with hand-scythes, and occasionally he collects the good-sized stones turned up in the fields and build beautifully pieced low-walls around the properties, for he loves stonework, a maçon manqué, I have teased him. Then of course there is that staple activity of retirees, looking after the grandchildren.

Time taken to chat, about neighbours and markets, dancing and schooldays, affection (genuine) shown towards his grandchildren - our next-door neighbours - and admiration for Tom's practical skill and initiative have all brought in a good yield of friendship, and Pierre's blue eyes are more sky than steel now. Since the Dutchman came and leased a chunk of it for his bulbs which reduced the area for their crops, we also receive some cash from him, not a fortune, but again more than the land is strictly worth.

A year or two later we asked not to have maize grown on it. Pierre agreed cheerfully, and we didn't labour our reasons; indeed, he concurred, it's not nice, it walls you in, spoils the view, the foxes lurk in it and may take your chickens. And Pierre is of an age to be more sympathetic to our cockeyed, foreign-townie romanticism than are his harder-headed, agricultural college-trained offspring; we both hanker for a gentler, wiser age which may never have been but which for our several reasons, we both want and need to believe in.

However, now the maize is springing green in the field. Our chickens are no more, and the Dutchman's bulbs make a buffer between our garden and the crop, so presumably those reasons are now discounted and the arrangement has been set aside or simply forgotten.

At the moment, to my eyes, the plant is at one of its more attractive stages of growth, the shoots against the earth etching chocolate-lime patterns in the fields, the inadvertant graphics of the seed-drill's path over the contours of the land.

It begins to look pretty again in late summer, when its bronze and wavy tassels have a jaunty gaiety, and the green of the leaves, though darker, is still fresh. At this time, with the barley and wheat just harvested, the stubbled fields are still the shade of gold I have always loved in an arable landscape, and the great round bales of straw, dotted or clustered, look like jewellers' work studded amongst the cloisonné formed by the lopped trees and brambled hedgerows.

Later, as the year turns about the equinox, the crop grows oppressively tall and dark, creaking and rustling, and walking through the fields or even around the edges of them is no longer possible, and taking the narrow roads between them one feels claustrophobic between the high green walls. Unable to see around the bends, and with the movement of the plants masking other sounds, oncoming cars can take us by surprise, and walks become more fraught and less enjoyable. In the few weeks overlap between the start of the hunting season and the harvest, the brave Nimrods with their guns and dogs cannot resist the maize fields, pursuing foxes and rabbits up and down the vegetal alleyways and adding another hazardous and perturbing element to a walk in the country.

The harvest itself, which takes place in mid- to late October, has a rather dark and troubling Samhain energy about it. It is the last burst of gathering before the winter, the chestnuts are dropping and the first fires are being lit, the cold and dark are coming and there is a palpable stir of urgency and excitement; childen are wakeful, dogs alert, the wild things, one feels, tremble in anticipation, of fear or feasting.

The harvesting machines which block the roads and roar in the fields are monstrous, murderous behemoths, which cut and chop and pulp and disgorge anything, (or anyone, unthinkable, but yes, it has happened...) that stand in their path. Because of their size and expense, they are a shared resource, numbers of farmers band together to participate in one another's harvest. The tractors and trailers come and go in relays and the work goes on through the October nights, illuminated by the great searching beams of the machines' headlights, which all adds to the liminal, light-and-dark, between-worlds feel of the event. The resulting chaffy, dry silage matter is stored in huge clamps and fed directly to the cattle; the overspill collecting in greenish, gold-specked silvery drifts along the sides of the road.

I enjoy walking through the winter ruin of a maizefield; the dead, cut stalks have a melancholy, skeletal aspect,

the exposed roots clench the ground like claws

and crack and pop satisfyingly underfoot. The dropped and spared cobs provide unexpected splashes of colour on the wintering soil; they should be taken home and made into autumnal still-lifes with pumpkins and chrysanthemums. Other creatures, foxes, badgers and smaller foragers, take advantage of them too.

Finally they degrade and are left as papery husks, which with the reedy, dead leaves, can have their own peculiar, monochrome elegance.

It feels a little like a kind of high-and-dry, upland beachcombing, picking over the flotsam and jetsam from the great tidal wave of the harvest.

However. My laissez-faire, Pollyannaesque, pragmatic tendency to find an aesthetic wherever I can will not do. The maize is an evil, not an isolated one, it's true, but an evil nevertheless, and one at which the prophets of sustainability howl in despair. It is a woefully unsuitable crop for these regions; the first attempts to grow it here were a disaster, and only intensive hybridisation and the input of large amounts of fertiliser, both chemical and fermented slurry, and pesticides make it viable at all. The nitrates then leach into the water table and turn the beautiful bay of St Brieuc and the noble Gouessant river into a green algal soup every summer. Some farmers resort to sowing it under clear plastic mulch,

which breaks up into shreds and further pollutes the ground, though even this can provide a degree of visual interest: threads and squares of lamé and lurex in the patchwork of the fields, in a landscape sometimes short of the dynamic of water to enliven it and create reflection.

As fodder, it is very high energy, which boosts the (over-)production of milk ( which also creates health problems for the cows), but it is insufficient in protein for this, so must be supplemented by imported soya, the cultivation of which is eating away at the Brazilian rainforest savannah at a mile a minute. And that's all just for starters.

On the other hand, modern food production, which is what our neighbours do, is riven with such problems. In turning our field over to them in exchange for something we need, we are throwing our lot in with it, as indeed we are when we go to the supermarket in our car, etc, etc. Sustainable agriculture, we are told, will not feed the world, at least not until that magic point at which population growth starts to reverse because everyone's well-fed and prosperous enough not to need to do it any more (which seems to hang on a lot of other things which might or might not happen...).

And frankly, our pocket handkerchief of a field isn't worth a hill of soya beans in the scheme of things; it seems pompous to try to make a point of principle out of it. Though, of course, as Tom says, if everyone took that line about everything... And I don't want to jeopardise our entente cordiale with our kind and generous neighbours.

So, an unresolved dilemma, but an excuse to show some maizy pictures!

Postscript: After writing, I met Pierre doing the rounds, and we leaned and chatted, and I brought up the subject of the maize. He was conciliatory, but said it was necessary to plant it for the health of the soil occasionally, and would I like some more potatoes. In other words, it is part of their system and rotation, and they can't make an exception of our patch. I felt glad I had mentioned it, Tom accepted it pragmatically, and their was a sack of potatoes waiting by the door when I came home today.


Anonymous said...

very nice series of photos...and what a dilemma.

Personally, i do not buy the idea that the population growth must reverse in order for sustainable farming to feed the world. That's just what big AGRI-BUSINESS and their buddies like Monsanto wants us to swallow.

But i did enjoy reading your essay...just as I am grateful to pay an extra dollar per gallon of milk because it goes directly to the farmer, not the "middle men" in our state...and yes...their's that whole thing about too many cows, etc.

Without question there are problems...but i don't believe it's because there are too many mouths to's because greed still governs, and has such an iron grip.

Lee said...

Tempted to say it is an amaizing story but of course I wont. A very satisfying read, lovely pictures and an ending that left me nodding, saying 'yeah, ok, I understand that.' Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes, as Zephyr said already! A lovely read and gorgoeus photos do make up for the disappointment. Hope the potatoes are good.

meggie said...

I enjoyed your post. It brought back memories of running through the maize crops on our neighbour's farm. The harvesting, of course was different, in a small New Zealand rural area.
Wonderful pics, as usual.

Anonymous said...

Those are some great photos!

They grow a lot of field corn around here (sorry, I know "corn" means wheat to you, but it's what we call maize) and you're right about it being a hazard. Accidents frequently happen at crossroads between fields planted right up to the corners.

Corn is a heavy feeder, but that doesn't mean it can't be grown in a rotation system. The Indians used to grow it in mixed fields (or gardens) along with polebeans to climb the corn stalks and squash to cover the ground between the corn/bean hills: mythologically, corn, beans and squash were the Three Sisters.

Jean said...

Your posts, like this one, are like a quiet voice that asks me to slow down and calm down and really listen and think things through - a welcome and always interesting space in my day. It really means a lot.

Granny J said...

Be glad to have the maize every three or four years -- you could have, instead, a look alike new development with over-sized McMansions as is happening in our area.

Lucy said...

GranyJ, you bring me to myself and make me count my blessings!

Indeed, it is better to think positive; we looked about us yesterday at how much leafier we and the other villagers had made the place with garden plantings and agreed it was better to actively do the things we positively could than to rail against the system fairly uselessly.
But thanks each for reading and for taking our concerns seriously.

Zephyr - your passion about such matters is refreshing, and I'm sure you are largely right. Whatever the logistics, I don't believe those people's professed altruism is their motive either.

Lee - someone had to say it! But thanks for reading and considering.

ML - Thanks, the taters are fine!

Dave - yes, I remember field corn in Pennsylvania. But the climate and soil there are better suited to it, as in Meggie's New Zealand, and it is also the sheer scale of the farming and harvesting techniques now, and of the machinery, that has required the erasing of hedgerows and pathways, which is unsympathetic and destructive. We grow sweetcorn, some years with more success than others, depending on the weather, and I really wanted to grow it in those 'Inca squares' in the way you describe, with beans and squash, but it was difficult to work it into our rotation.

Meggie - those alleyways could be fun for a smaller person - sometimes here they programme the palnting machines to plant it in a maize maze, and invite children and tourists to explore it. It's a bit of creativity and a variety and makes the stuff rather friendlier!

Jean - thank you, it means a lot that you should say so.

GJ - point taken!

Marly Youmans said...

Changeable, moody piece...

Made me think of a French carol, set with English words--fit for you, settled in France.

Now the green blade riseth from the buried grain,

corn that in the dark earth many days hath lain.

Love lives again that with the dead hath been:

love is come again like corn that springeth green.

Avus said...

I just love your mediaeval system of barter and quid pro quo!

Lucy said...

Marly - I really love that carol. It's one of those, like 'Jesus Christ the Apple Tree' and 'Tomorrow will be my dancing day' and 'I saw three ships' that have something deep and elliptical and mysterious about them beneath the Christian overlay. I did think of it when I was writing, but I didn't know it was translated from the French. Thanks for making that connection, I shall go and look it up.
Avus - like I said, keeps it all off the books!

Sheila said...

Lucy, I'm so glad you visited my blog, and yes, what a little zig-zaggy path brought you there!

I feel as if my life has been enlarged, reading just this post on your blog, and learning that you are there.

It has been years since I stepped on dried out corn stalks (we call it corn over here, of course)....What memories this brings back of my father's garden.

Your photos are lovely.

Lucy said...

Sheila - thanks for dropping by, glad you enjoyed it!

herhimnbryn said...

Great images L. And your words ( as usual) inform and broaden my perceptions. Good too, that you can talk with your neighbour.

Dave said...

A great post Lucy. A lovely series of pictures too. The arguments relating to rotation, soil degredation, feeding populations and so on are so complex and chaotic (in a mathematical sense) I don't know what is right.
Thanks Lucy