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Borderlines: Sketches from the Empty Quarter: Once Upon a Cornfield

By GK Harkness

May 3, 2023

Stewards of the land often cast long shadows, sometimes reaching centuries beyond their own lives.

Several years ago, in the course of doing a mid-summer field check on corn crop, a small rock in the bottom of a freshly created small wash caught my eye. A recent hard rain had cut a few deep channels along the outer edge of this family ground, and I was annoyed about that as I hate to see unnecessary erosion anywhere on the farm. Still, scattered rocks are not uncommon in this locale and I continued on my way with a mental note to remind myself to proceed with caution at that newly formed sharp drop-off during fall harvest. More focused at that moment on growing conditions and weed pressure than what appeared to be just another limestone nodule, stray rocks weren’t really on my mind.

I’m neither a superstitious person nor an irrational one, but as I slowly drove away, I could swear I heard my subconscious murmur, “Go back. Take another look at that rock.” So, back I went, peered at the nondescript stone from the truck window and finally got out and walked over to it. Barely peaking above the surface of the freshly eroded channel, it did appear somewhat unusual. Flat, not rounded or knobby. Reaching down to pick it up for further examination I discovered it was firmly embedded in the subsoil. Intrigued now, I produced a pocketknife and scraped away a bit of the surrounding dirt. Realizing that tool was inadequate, I rummaged through the pickup bed, found a utility shovel, and started to dig more seriously. Soon it became apparent that this was not just any rock. Instead, I had uncovered a nearly intact metate, or prehistoric grinding stone, positioned vertically in the ground. (think of it as a mortar) It was broken, but two large pieces soon emerged from my excavation. I carefully brushed it off, fitted it together and thought how gratifying, but unlikely, it would be if I could find the rest. Again, that same small voice said, “Keep searching.” Sure enough, I soon found the remainder of the metate, resting wholly on the surface, fifty feet further away down the wash.

So, feeling somewhat like the ancient artifact had called me to it, I took it home and added it to the small collection of arrowheads, flint tools, pottery pieces, forged iron harness rigging/tack and hand-cast bullets that have accumulated over the years.

Two years passed, and at planting time another crop rotation brought me back again to the same field and the still faintly visible small channel. Stepping off the tractor that little nagging voice came back to me once more, “Look carefully.” Again, a brief search produced a mano, broken and battered by plows, but instantly recognizable. (think of it as a pestle)

To those who came before us, both items, metate and mano, were once essential to reduce whole corn into cornmeal.

What had been separated by time, weather and circumstance was now back together again. Paired companions of an era long before mine. But why were they here, in this lonely spot on the high plains?

I have a supposition, unsupported by verifiable facts, but plausible in my own mind.

This site is at the edge of an intermittent playa lake, near the base of a steeply inclined hillside. It periodically accumulates water during the growing season, the runoff coming in equal parts from the slopes above and uplands further west. In the distant past it would have been deeper and held the always scarce moisture for longer periods. The topsoil is plentiful and a rich dark silt loam, a combination rare on these plains. Excellent for growing dryland corn in the present and assuredly so in the distant past.

Farmers, no matter the culture or century, don’t like wasting seed and energy. It’s no coincidence they pick the places most likely for a particular crop to succeed.

Historical records and archaeological evidence tell us that the original inhabitants of these prairies planted small fields of corn, beans, and squash in scattered locations early in the year and then moved on, returning in the fall, and hoping that at least some of their efforts had proved fruitful. Spreading the risks with this type of subsistence agriculture was akin to the adage of not putting all your eggs in one basket. Who could predict where and when it would rain or what paths buffalo herds would travel? Best to scatter the precious seeds in many places and depend upon providence for success. And while you’re at it, why tote a heavy metate and mano around with you? Better to leave a pair hidden at each field. After the hoped-for harvest, grind the cornmeal, place it in a pannier on a travois or horse and only take with you what is easily portable. Alternatively, camp at each wild prairie garden and eat what nature has provided before moving on to the next one.

I think the original owners carefully cached the metate and mano in a convenient badger hole and capped it with a marker, to be retrieved and used repeatedly.

I’ll never really know. The High Plains were and are a perilous place for travelers caught unawares by circumstance. What I am certain of is the kinship that stretches across the ages between those persons and myself. We were both high-stakes gamblers. We both used the best available technology, theirs was a deer scapula tied to a juniper stick with rawhide, while mine is steel, GMO seed and diesel fuel. We both hoped and prayed that our efforts would be successful and that our families would be nourished by our labors. We were mutually grateful for the bounty of nature.

At the end of the day, our long and lasting shadows are forever joined in the same good earth that sustains us all, then and now.

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