Abenaki Cornfield

It’s not hard to figure out that Keene, New Hampshire once was the territory of Native Americans.  Clues are the Native American names: “Ashuelot” for our river, “Connecticut” for that river that borders our state,  and “Monadnock” for the 3,000 foot shape that overlooks our valley.  Yet who exactly were these people?  What I know now is that the people were the Abenaki (sometimes called Wobenaki).  They fought against the English who began spilling out from Boston around 1700.  The wars were bloody, far bloodier than I had imagined.  The particular people near Keene were the Sokoki.  At least, those were the people around the Connecticut River. The Sokoki lived on both sides, Brattleboro and Chesterfield. Whether the Sokoki were the people who lived in Keene, I don’t quite know.  I understand there was an Abenaki family living in Keene for many years, the Sadoques.  I’d like to know more about them.

A staple of native life was corn.  This was not sweet corn, but dent corn, and it was used to make corn flour.  I decided to do as the Abenaki would have done, and plant a corn field in my front yard.  Every Abenaki home had one, I think.  I ordered Roy’s Callais Dent Corn, which was given by a native of New England to a man in Maine (whether the person was Abenaki or not, I do not konw.  This was the best I could do.).

This is my second year with my Abenaki corn field.  So, certain things have gone wrong.  All the books say is make mounds about 2 to 4 feet in radius, and plant four to six corn seeds surrounded by about 4 pole bean seeds and then about six squash on each hill.  You stagger the plantings, about a week apart, when the corn come up, the beans follow and climb up the stalks, then come the squash. The squash should keep out the shade.  The legumes should add fertilize the soil.  Them mother nature should add water and sun.  The corn must be grown multiple plants in a small space, so I have about sixteen mounds in a square pattern.  The reason is that corn is wind polinated.  Each plants has a flower at the top that sends dust down to pollinate the corn cobs below.  If the silk on the corn cobs does not receive the pollin dust, then no kernel forms from that silk.  Each kernal on a corn cob has one silk.  So, planting the corn in close proximity to other corn plants means dust from many plants can fertilize others.  The Abenaki method of hills means that one can walk between them. The squash also cover the ground and discourage weeds.

But as I have stated, things have gone wrong.  Year 1: Every time a serious rain storm passed, the entire corn field fell down.  And we have a lot of serious rain storms, like 2 inches in five hours.  My response: a friend told me to plant the corn deeper so the roots would settle further in ground, so I planted them three inches deep (maybe they were like 1 or 2 inches deep the first year). I read somewhere when the corn sprouts up, I should add some dirt/compost around the corn in order to help it stand up, so I mound four cups of dirt around each of my 40 or so stalks.  For my part, I thought my real error had been to plant bush beans (do not climb up corn stalks) when I should have planted pole beans (climb up the stalks and help hold them).  So this year, I made very sure that I planted pole beans.

Year 2: The corn does not tip over so much in the terrible rains.  Some does tip, but like five our of 40, and I can put them back.  But then, the corn starts tipping over EVEN WHEN THERE IS NO RAIN.  Now, it’s not just falling from the roots (though it is doing that), but there are also stalks where the top half just collapses, bending over and touching the ground.  I search the internet: “Corn tipping over” does not seem to be a useful search term, but finally I stumble across the term “lodging.” “My corn is lodging” = “My corn is tipping over.” Armed with the correct search term, what is the answer?

Theory 1: We had a cool, wet year.  Corn likes rain, but “Warm, dry conditions during corn’s vegetative period result in deep root penetration while cool, wet conditions result in shallow root systems,” more prone to lodging when there is wind. (Nichols Ag out in Iowa).

Theory 2: Corn root worms may have planted larvae in the soil last year, which are now hatched. These weaken the roots from their homes in the soil, and as they grow, they eat the ears at the base and also in the silks. This comes from the NH agricultural extension, which knows its business.  They say to use genetically modified corn or insecticide. Well, I know the Abenaki didn’t do that! But apprarently they did not have these beetles to contend with either, first appearing in 1967.  I think this is my likely culprit, and the worst thing is that the only other thing to do is to rotate my corn field to a new spot every year! My garden is not so big.  I could do this, but I will kill my lawn.  On the other hand, the beetles I am picking up do not look like the ones in their picture.  https://extension.unh.edu/resources/files/Resource005342_Rep7497.pdf

What to do for this year? Well, one friend suggests I go out with tweezers and pick the beetles off, and kill them.  Somehow, this makes me feel better, a chance to protect my field.  I took off 20 yesterday, 12 more today.

Recommendation: rotate your crops. I don’t think the Abenaki rotated their corn fields every year, but maybe I do need to.  The Northern corn rootworm did not appear in New Hampshire until 1967. But I bet the Abenaki faced pests, too.

You know what I am trying to do?  Resuscitate knowledge that the people who lived here for 3000 years had.  And I don’t have.  It does not exist in the heads of my fellow Americans.  It existed inside the oral histories of the Abenaki, they passed that knowledge down for many years, and I bet they were very good corn farmers.  When you lose a people, you lose so much knowledge, history, stories.  And you can’t get it back.  But I’m not giving up.



Lessons from Intro Macro

My students teach me a lot; when I tell them this, they are non-plussed: why did they pay $3,000 for intro to macro if the PROFESSOR learns from THEM?  Well, true learning is a two-way street. And thank you, it’s a privilege to have learned so much from so many.

In 2014, another asked, “Why has my father been out of work for two years?” I sent them home to discuss the graph of cyclical unemployment with their parents, and told the story of the Great Recession.  The next questions were tougher.

US Unemployment 1988 to 2017
US Unemployment 1988 to 2017, www.bls.gov

In 2015, a student asked, “If my father moves to another state to get a job, will my family fall apart?” In 2016, my student asked, “Why did my father have to take a job as a school bus driver that paid half what he used to earn as a truck driver?” In 2017, a student asked, “How is it that my father worked up from $25,000 to $250,000, only to see it fall to $150,000, and then to zero?”  I realized how hard it is to make families work when the breadwinner can’t predict his or her salary a year from now.  And how much economic mobility (moving to other states) upends our human connections with one another.

This year three students mentioned (independently) that as children they got home from school between 3 pm and 5 pm, while both parents were off working, to find that the electricity was turned off.  That made me realize how many people are hit by these economic waves, if even my students (who do come up with $30,000 per year for their education) have gone through this. Then one day my kids called me at the office around 4 to tell me that the electricity had been turned off.

Sigh. I shelled out $250 dollars, hoping we could get the juice back on before dinner since the stove runs on electricity and so does the refrigerator.  Then the lady on the phone at the electric company asked, “Do you agree to the $70 charge to have this turned back on today?” Yes, I said, agreeing in the way that Aristotle’s ship captain would “choose” to toss the cargo overseas during the storm to save his life.  My textbook says that all exchange is voluntary, but the textbook authors maybe never experienced this charge. Conditional will and the ethics of the just price seem to be concepts that come back into importance when we face firms with excessive market power.

One of the things students teach me is that intro to macroeconomics needs a content update.  We are not as interested in how the rate of unemployment changes as we are in the changes in the rate of pay and in the gyrations of price.  How about that textbook cost, up from $80 in 2001 to $279 in 2017? OK, I get it, we will move to open access and my handouts.   We want to know why certain companies can extract additional cash from us at a whim, even though other companies continue to feel like lifesavers (Jack’s True Value makes life so much better).  We want to know how to make families work when the house goes into foreclosure, and if students can have families at all when they have $40,000 of debt before they are 21.  My text by Baumol & Blinder–it was a great text when it was written decades ago.  Now it is 2017.  Uncharted waters for the macro teacher and an urgent sense that we need a new way to understand what this economy is.  Now.