A day's drive from urban Los Angeles, a Hopi woman stood on the edge of a cliff winnowing beans. Her basket moved in a rolling motion, sending the beans into the air in a wave, catching and tossing them in the stillness. I observed as she coaxed the wind out of the dry heat of the day, talking to it and encouraging it as she would an old friend, until a light breeze grew strong enough to blow away the chaff.
On that particular morning I was to pick up a friend-an old farmer-at his daughter's house. When I arrived, bacon and eggs sizzled on the stove, a television blurted the news, and a group of kids waited for the bus that would take them to school. I had come to drive my friend to his cornfield, and he stood up, eager to go, when I came in.
Our outing was not for work-his body was no longer able-but just to look and talk. We drove to the top of a rock outcropping that rose from his land. From that vantage point, we could see the whole of his field and beyond, into millions of acres of open desert. Nothing in his life was more important than his field of corn. I could see that the moment we arrived from the way he touched his plants and looked down and beyond the rows.
Later in the day, he sat in the hot Arizona sun, silently examining the few ears of corn we had harvested. He picked them up one by one, turning them over and over in his hand. They were white, blue, red, and yellow, representing, he told me, the four human races and the four directions.
At the evening meal, I placed a bag of blue corn chips at the center of the table next to a plate of traditional Piki bread made from the same type of blue corn. The chips were well preserved by a cellophane package complete with computer-price bar code, ingredients list, and traditional Hopi symbol. Everyone laughed at my contribution to the meal, but in the laughter I detected a sadness at the packaging of their culture and the commercialization of their sacred corn.
Many times, while out walking on the dry desert mesas far from faucets and pipes, I would be surprised to find fields of corn thriving in the dry earth without irrigation. This went beyond my technical understanding of growing crops and reflected a sophisticated knowledge of the desert and how to farm in it.
At planting time, I watched groups of men move rhythmically down the rows, using digging sticks to create deep holes for the seed. Several seeds were dropped into each hole. They told me that this increases the odds for survival and provides the protection against drying and predators afforded by clusters of plants. Deep planting insured access to moisture held deep in the desert earth and encouraged roots to reach down and anchor themselves solidly.
I remember how I playfully explained to my Hopi friend that when I needed water to irrigate my crops, I just open a valve. He laughed and told me that "We always pray for rain, smoke for rain."
"Then the rain comes?" I asked.
"Sometimes. For a long time, when we prayed for rain, we got rain, but now only wind."
I waited for more explanation, but he said little more. I was left to figure things out for myself, to reconsider my preconceptions about what really makes things grow. My friend left me with this simple wisdom: "Sometimes I would come to my field in the evening and stay all night because the porcupines were eating my corn. I'd sing all the way up and down the rows. My dad said that this corn is like children: You have to sing to it, and then it will be happy."
And each day, as I observe my life and the world around me, racing about in its blind quest for more, I think of my 87-year-old Hopi friend, of a life lived with respect, and of harmony in action. And when I close my eyes, I can see him as he slowly makes his way down the rows of corn, singing his ancient songs, his every footstep like food for the soil, his voice echoing in the canyon.
And then I remember: This is who we once were. And I ask myself, where are we going?
Author and photographer Michael Ableman founded and directs Fairview Farms, Goleta, California.
Article published on June 23, 2008.