Second Mesa is the longest continually-inhabited place in North America; Eric and Jane Polingyouma are two of the relatively few Hopi who keep most of the old ways. They are also modestly famous, because they see it as part of their duty as elders to help us outside Americans (and, we learn, Germans, South Africans, Dutch, and others enough to fill two guest books) understand Hopi culture. We are there in what I believe is a unique capacity: our school and our professor have an ongoing relationship with them, wherein they teach us about their farm, their traditions, and their world, and we take the nominal place of traditional work parties. Today, our Soil Science class has come up to the rez to study their soil and their agriculture, and to help them harvest corn. We dig big pits and study horizons, startle ourselves into prayer when we realize that most of this soil is barely soil at all, just pulverized rock laid down by the wind.
The great miracle of Hopi corn is this: it grows on rainfall, and rainfall in northern Arizona equals about eight inches a year, four of which fall as snow in the winter and four with the summer monsoons. Eight inches. No irrigation.
Kansas doesn't irrigate either, but they get eight inches in May and June alone, up to 40 altogether.
So we spend one day studying soil, collecting samples to take back to the lab. There, we'll test for acidity, organic matter, presence of carbonates, ratios of silt, sand and clay. We fill in our holes, drive to the cultural center, where dinner presents the vegetarian majority of our class a whole lot of nothing to eat. We make do, make camp, fall asleep to the endless barking of rez dogs and the occasional jake brake howl.
Next morning, early back to the farm. We sit in the livingroom of their double-wide and they tell us their history: the Hopi matriarchy that makes the farm Jane's and not Eric's, as much as Hopi land belongs to anyone, which it doesn't; the story of their courtship, marraige, their children, their religion (at which point Eric points to two pencil scratches on the walls, one of which marks where the sun falls at dawn on the winter solstice, and the other the same for summer). They keep talking until the frost has melted off the corn plants, then we gather our hats and head out.
Hopi corn is planted a foot deep, ten seeds to a hole, each hole three paces in each direction from another. Eric has modified the system somewhat to allow for the passage of a tractor; the work parties have dispersed to Phoenix and parts unknown, and our classes come only rarely. Every three paces or so, there is a clump of maize some two feet high, containing three or four plants. At the base of these plants, just where the stem pushes out of the soil, there is an ear of corn. Some plants have two or more, some have none, but we guess an average of three ears per corn clump. Full-sized ears, sometimes taller than the plants themselves: miracles of cellulose, sugar and prayer. They've mostly dried, and our booted feet snap the stalks as we push the plants to the soil, then bend and find the perfect twist-pull wrist-and-arm movement to pull each ear out and away from its stem. We toss the corn into bushel baskets, laundry baskets, milk crates and eventually the back of Eric's pickup. We move down the rows slowly at first, then gaining speed and direction as we learn to spot the ears, learn the feel of fungus or aborted development, as our hands gain knowledge and our minds empty.
We fill Eric's pickup three times, white corn, yellow corn, red corn, blue corn, ears ranging from the size of my thumb to the length of my forearm, soils ranging from silty loam to sand to clay. The sun burns off the last of the night's cold, and we litter the field with discarded layers, until we are all in our shirtsleeves. We take a break after the second load, perch on our baskets turned upside-down, eating slices of the melons we occasionally found amongst the corn. It is some kind of Hopi melon, like cucumber but sweet, all water and juice. Jane is mother to us all, offering more, offering napkins, offering hope that all is not lost.
After the melon is finished, we rise to return to the field. Jane stops me, asks if I want to help her inside, and I do. We go to the kitchen, wiping our feet to rid them of goat-heads and other prickly mean things. I make a salad, set the table, stir the iced tea while she tells me that the lettuce and iced-tea mix are both cheaper at Wal-mart than at Safeway. The rest of the meal is homemade bread and ceremonial stew: beans and corn from the field. She shows me how to place the lettuce in the bowl, four pieces first, one at a time to the east, west, north and south. Each new ingredient must be added this way before the rest can be thrown in.
When we sit down to eat, she gathers a little piece of everything at the table, neglecting not even the salsa and iced tea, and takes it outside, chanting in Hopi. When she returns, we help ourselves as Eric tells us about kinship laws and his standing as the last of his clan. We all sign the guestbook before we leave, and they lead us down to the pile of corn we have created, asking that we each choose an ear to bring back with us. Mine is blue. Blue, and dark blue, and pale blue, and white, all mottled together. I know this is because each grain is individually fertilized, each strand of cornsilk leading to a single ovum where a single grain of pollen can fall. Jane shows me how to braid the husk after I peel it carefully back from the ear. She shakes our hands solemnly and blesses our journey home. We are awkward and I find myself wanting to bow. Eventually, the van pulls out in cloud of dust, the dogs a barking parade behind.