Bienvenidos! Welcome!

Thanks for visiting Daughter of Corn. I hope you enjoy the essays and thoughts about the journeys of a writer in San Miguel....who ends up in Iowa City!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Corn Girl: Young Women Coming of Age and Power

The Tepuhanes, an indigenous tribe located in the Mexican state of Durango, tell the mythical story of the generous Corn Girl.   The tale begins with a young man in search of food for his starving family. HIs suspicious, dominating mother chides and humiliates him on his journey but Corn Girl helps the young man make intelligent decisions about securing food for the household.  She is his growing intuition, the confident feminine voice that produces corn, i.e. sustenance, for the hungry family.

            At the age of thirteen I was uniquely initiated into womanhood.  Working in the fields—bean or corn—was a coming of age ritual for virtually all teenagers living in southeastern Iowa.  In my case the research station at the tiny airport on the outskirts of town primarily hired women to carry out their corn experiments.  Occasionally a local male teacher or rare college jock in need of summer employment came on board.  In a somewhat reversal of traditional thought, executives at the top of Northrop King Seed Company had determined that pollinating corn was basically women’s work. 
            During the height of pollinating season, we often stayed in the fields from dawn to dusk, racing to get the corn tassels’ precious pollen onto the corn silk before the wind scattered the powdery substance into foreign fields.  All of the challenges I experienced while working in the cornfields proved to be a
mighty initiation into discovering who I was.  Not only did I exercise ‘male’ analytical powers by interpreting coded instructions typed in a cardboard manual that I kept tucked in a canvas apron, but I also honed my intuitive, feminine powers by determining when to initiate multiple corn pollinations.  For nine summers I committed myself to hard work and student wages.  Working in the cornfields was the enabling factor for attaining a college education for almost all the young people living in Washington, Iowa during the late Sixties.  A high school classmate recently informed me that after her mother’s unexpected death, she had to work doubly hard to provide funds for her education.  Often she left the cornfields at six in the evening and headed toward the bean fields for another five hours of work. Furthermore, she was grateful for the opportunity to earn more money.  My friend Kathy Wells rode her bike five miles from her country home to begin her ten-hour day in the fields.
During those steamy, humid Iowa summers we teenage girls learned to trust and respect ourselves as we took on the powerful role of “fertilization bees”. We learned qualities like perseverance and tenacity in the face of unbearable heat and humidity. The imaginative humor we maintained saved us from sinking into self-pity during those long days of strenuous physical labor.  When boredom set in, we played pranks.  In one instance, a group of kids literally lifted up the supervisor’s Volkswagon Beetle while he snoozed in City Park, and carried it a block away.  When Floyd Woods awoke, the crew was granted a much longer break as they joyfully watched Floyd frantically search for his vehicle that had disappeared with such uncanny aplomb.
Recently I attended a class reunion where Kathy told me an amazing cornfield story of intrigue and sexual harassment.  Because she was the first female chosen to head a crew—something unheard of in the late Sixties-a boy from the male crew was leaving obscene notes on the windshield of her work vehicle.  With the approval of Northrup King field supervisor Mr. Anderson, Marsha Kron spied behind tall corn stalks to witness who was putting the offensive notes on the truck.  I was surprised to learn that the culprit was my brother’s best friend, and that he was confronted and then fired.  On a lighter note, Kathy’s crew also had great fun, as on the day when an uncanny, high and reedy noise resounded throughout the fields.  Pat Reisner, who played the bagpipes for the University of Iowa’s Scottish Highlanders, was running down the aisles, serenading the corn with her wheezing bagpipes.  In short, we had fun while we worked our lithe bodies to the bone.  Our camaraderie extended into the weekends, with picnics at Lake Darling or parties to celebrate birthdays or engagements.  At the end of the season, we held parties at local clubs and awarded prizes (Phantom of the Cornfields, Corn Queen of the Day, Weed Woman, Fastest “Hoer”.)  We had discovered the sustaining nature of Corn Girl  by nurturing ourselves, even as we labored tenaciously in the fields.  A keen sense of accomplishment formed the blueprint for confidence and personal power.
            During my years as a junior high Spanish instructor, I witnessed a disheartening disintegration of young women’s self worth.  Early adolescence is a pivotal time, for teens struggle with intense peer pressure just as their bodies rattle their self images with unnerving hormonal changes.   I observed how the majority of teenage women dislike and frequently hate their physical self, feelings propelled by obsessively comparing themselves to impossible consumer-driven images. Has the dominating media world finally convinced our culture that we are doomed to be forever incomplete, and so must buy, buy, buy?  Or could it be that we have lost our Corn Girl legends, those rites of passage which urge young females to be confident women of action, to listen to their intuition and place cultivating inner qualities as primary to their well-being? Then again, are we too tragically stuck in the Barbie Doll mentality to even consider alternate ways of raising girls to become strong Corn Women? 
            Back in my cornfield days, all the young women wore tank tops and short shorts with pride as well as out of necessity.  As I recall, none of us commented on the shape or size of our bodies with competitive sneers.  In my memory, we were all golden girls, shimmering in the late afternoon light with the rich dust of pollen, tired from our determined efforts to prove our womanhood, which was our legacy, our blessing from the tall, verdant corn.
Lake Darling
I hear Lake Darling
  is so full of runoff

you’d be crazy to step inside
  those murky, man-made waters,

but once in the late Sixties
  ten bronzed girls with

yellow pollen clinging to their chests,
  dark patches of sweat lining

their bright-colored halters,
  piled into the old jalopies

they drove daily to the cornfields.
  Windows down, arms dangling

they headed toward the setting sun
  where the wildness of their sun-burnt hearts

sent them down a stony beach
  to be baptized in the dusk of Lake Darling.

collage title:  The Miracle Is to Walk on the Earth / "El milagro es caminar en la Tierra"

            Copyright 2010
Corinne J. Stanley

No comments:

Post a Comment