Friday, January 25, 2008

Corn, Its Wizard, Omnivore's Dilemma, and Beanworld!

Francis Childs, a third-generation farmer who studied, schemed and tramped his fields with a spade to become the most productive corn grower ever, died on Jan. 9 in Marshall County, Iowa. He was 68.

I suspect that it's not much of a secret that I spend a lot of time pondering Zea mays in addition to legumes. Corn critters played a role in my first published comic book, Tales of the Beanworld #1.

The character of the Mossy Mirthful Mammoth and his beloved Little Clone Son and the legion of popping corn critters had more to do with my fascination for the Jolly Green Giant and my admiration for my advertising hero, Leo Burnett. (I'm not sure, have I ever written about the origin of those characters before? If not, tell me, and I shall.)

Everyone has almost universally agreed that the corn oriented characters in #1 seemed very un-Beanworld like and the most throw-away concepts ever introduced into the Beanworld story line.

No one agreed with that assessment more than me.
Until 2006.
I picked up a copy of Michael Pollan's book "The Omnivore's Dilemma" in the Phoenix airport to read on the long flight to the east coast for business. I cracked the covers and proceeded to read. You can read the introduction and first chapter of the book here.

The book is funny, wry, ironic, and informative.

Sentences like: "Ecology also teaches that all life on earth can be viewed as a competition
among species for the solar energy captured by green plants and stored in the form of complex carbon molecules"
resonated deeply within the part of me where Beanworld stories take root and grow.

But when I read :"Corn is the hero of its own story, and though we humans played a crucial supporting role in its rise to world domination, it would be wrong to suggest we have been calling the shots, or acting always in our own best interests. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that corn has succeeded in domesticating us."

Pollan also observed: "By evolving certain traits we happen to regard as useful, these species got themselves noticed by the one mammal in a position not only to spread their genes around the world, but to remake vast swathes of that world in the image of the plants’ preferred habitat."

"(T)he plant’s dependence on the Americans had become total. Had maize failed to find favor among the conquerors it risked extinction, because without humans to plant it every spring, corn would disappear from the earth in a matter of a few years. The novel cob-and-husk arrangement that makes corn such a convenient grain for us renders the plant utterly dependent for its survival on an animal in possession of the opposable thumb needed to remove the husk, separate the seeds, and plant them."

Corn domesticated mankind?
Humans have reinvented the landscape to make it more comfortable for corn?
Corn has passed the point-of-no-return as a plant that could sustain its own reproduction?

My interest was truly piqued. I had never really considered the fact that in modern times corn can no longer reproduce itself. It is 100% dependent on man's attentions. And man is increasingly dependent on corn.

"For to prosper in the industrial food chain to the extent it has corn had to acquire several improbable new tricks. It had to adapt itself not just to humans but to their machines, which it did by learning to grow as upright, stiff-stalked, and uniform as soldiers. It had to multiply its yield by an order of magnitude, which it did by learning to grow shoulder to shoulder with other corn plants, as many as thirty thousand to the acre. It had to develop an appetite for fossil fuel (in the form of petrochemical fertilizer) and a tolerance for various synthetic chemicals. But even before it could master these tricks and make a place for itself in the bright sunshine of capitalism, corn first had to turn itself into something never before seen in the plant world: a form of intellectual property."

That was it for me.
I knew that my next story, after the current graphic novel I'm working on, will be about corn.

I started to think about all the potential plot threads I left in hanging in TOTB #1. The back story for something corn related start to tumble of my pencil tip. I started assembling notes and sketches. I've even hinted at it a little from time to time. And I will confess to you that this week's teaser is also from that future story.

All of this sorta hit home again this week when I read the obituary for Mr. Childs, aka The Iowa Corn King and/or Wizard. I looked around the internet and found that he had quite an odd career.

The most interesting piece I found was a reprinting of an article from 2000 entitled "King of Corn Wins Yield Prizes, But His Methods Are Criticized."

Keeping in mind the thoughts I've been digesting since learning them in "Ominvore's Dilemma"
I found myself thinking about the notion of corn's domestication of man when I read things like:
"What Mr. Childs has done is raise people's notions of just how much corn can be coaxed from an acre of ground. The average farmer in Iowa grows around 150 bushels an acre, and although many do a little better, many scientists have long felt that the theoretical maximum, under ideal conditions, would be 400 bushels."

"No farmer ever came close to that until last October, when a small crowd gathered here to watch Mr. Childs harvest an acre that was so thick with vegetation that his combine had to move at a crawl. Then came the weigh-in at the grain elevator, and the posting of the number: 394 bushels, smashing a 14-year-old record. "It was exciting, like watching Mach I almost being broken," says an Agriculture Department official who was present. "

By the time he passed away, Mr. Childs had pushed the record to an astounding 442 bushels per acre.

The final irony of all this was revealed inthe reporter's observations that:
"Instead of any financial incentive, though, what seems to drive Mr. Childs is the challenge. 'I like corn," he says. "I like to push it.' "

But really who was pushing who?

Was Mr. Childs pushing the corn?
Or was the corn pushing Mr. Childs?

And don't forget.
When land gets over farmed--legumes put the nitrogen back in the soil!

Hoo-Hoo-HA & a Hoka-Hoka HEY!


Tim said...

Have you read Pollan's previous book, The Botany of Desire?

Anonymous said...

Botany was brilliant. I didn't know he had a new book out. I'm gonna have to pay my library late fees and check it out now...

Anonymous said...

I haven't read TOTB 1 in years, but this reminded me of just how gross and sad that "poor ol' dead hoi-polloi" was.

I don't remember ever reading about the origins of those characters. I would love to.