Somewhere in the Great Plains, you have drifted off in the back seat. As your head lolls toward the window, you see a field of corn, tall and heavy with starchy juices, waving hello. It waves because it sees itself in you, as it does in all things. Your life and death is its life and death.

The cornstalks are deep green, that dark shade particular to plants that grow alarmingly fast. They are taller than you. Three months ago they did not exist, and another month from now they will all be gone. Today, these one thousand heads, nestled snug in their leafy sheathes, are plumping themselves with sugar. They are almost ready to pluck and shuck. One might end up between your teeth, flossing you with its silky hair.

This is the corn you can see. Usually it arrives unnoticed, an invisible and universal ingredient. All of America is suffused with corn. Order a Frappucino, and you’ll get a corn syrup-sweetened smoothie, packaged in corn-derived plastic, with a straw made from corn starch to sip it through. Not only is corn present in over 4,000 different items at the average grocery store, it has also infiltrated our hardware. There is corn in our batteries, our cleaning supplies, our jeans, our fireworks, our paints, our surgical dressings. 

As the Iowa Corn Growers Association neatly puts it, “Corn: It’s Everything.”

Including us.

There are specific isotopes of carbon and nitrogen unique to corn, isotopes that move upward through the food chain, collecting in the tissues of corn eaters with every meal. Americans have eaten so much corn, directly through the meat of corn-fed animals, that we are now made of corn ourselves. Corn-bred isotopes fill the hair on our scalp and the blood in our veins. 

There is a Mayan creation myth, recorded in the Popol Vuh, which describes the creation of humankind from maize. Whether or not it was originally true, it is true now.

In modern America, food—and, by extension, life—is a competition. Corn won. It yields more energy per acre than any other crop. What it lacks in nutrition, it makes up for in cost and volume. Add up the weight of every meal you eat in a year, double it, and double it again. That is how much corn is being grown just for you, right now: over 1 ton per year for every living person. We contort our animals and our machines to run on these cheap calories. We fatten our bloodshot cows as much as our pigs and chickens. And in our gas tanks, sloshing around with the remains of fossilized flora, corn-distilled ethanol is waiting to explode. 

As hungry as we are for corn, corn also hungers. Heavily tilled corn fields strip the earth of its nutrients, devouring rich topsoil. In times of drought, that stripped topsoil blows away, black drifts that slough downhill and darken the street, revealing compacted dry clay underneath. Dead land. That clay flakes away, eroding into powder that storm winds seize and whirl into choking clouds of dust. This is the cycle that ravaged the prairies of the midwest in the 1930s, displacing 2.5 million people. You may have seen the famous photo, “Migrant Mother,” her face lined with worry for her starving children. The title is inaccurate. She wasn’t a migrant, she was Cherokee. 

This was our first Dust Bowl. The second has not happened yet. The fields are dry, and the maize god—who goes by many names—has not received a blood offering in a long time.

But today your backyard isn’t all that dusty, and it is a great time for a snack. Find yourself a cob, wet-husked, tassels dangling. Shuck it.

Inside find the bare ear. It’s all white and yellow, white for our bones and yellow for our muscle. We’ve bred out the black and the red, leaving it blind and bloodless. Make a fist to tear the tassels out. You will miss a few. The ear is a tapered spike as thick as your wrist and longer than a dollar bill. It is packed with swollen kernels, plump with milk. The kernels have no give. They are little balloons of sugar water, ready to burst. 

Bite into the kernels. They explode, filling your mouth with their sweet juice. The fibrous hulls are easily slashed but hard to grind down, plasticky sheathes that slip around your molars until swallowed. Some evade your probing tongue, wedging into your toothgaps, making your teeth feel skewed and crowded. You’ll need to pick them out later. Those husks do not just hold juice. There is also a little white germ, narrow and firm. Sometimes it stays with the cob, sometimes it makes it into your mouth. That is the corn’s sterile seed, unable to propagate, a bundle of genetic material containing protein and oil. It is the only part with any real nutritional value.

Dig it out with your teeth and eat it.

What did you hear as your teeth sliced and splashed through tight rows of kernels? Did you hear a name? When it comes to corn gods, most names are forgotten, crushed under the mill of history. But we still know some stories.

The Penobscot people, a first nation of the Northeast Woodlands, have their own story. A long time ago, the First Mother watched over her children. Her children learned to hunt, but hunted too much. When the game thinned out, they began to starve. The First Mother wept and worried for them. She told her husband the only way to stop her crying was to kill her and do as she said. On the advice of his uncle, he did as she said, following her instructions to the letter. She asked for her sons to take her corpse by the hair, drag her all over the land until all her flesh had been torn away, and then to bury her bones and wait.

Seven moons later, the earth was covered with tall, green plants. Their tassels were long and silky like her hair. Their flesh, the flesh of the First Mother, was sweet beyond all description.

The Penobscot lived with her blessing for 11,000 years. 

Then, not so long ago, colonizers came. They brought disease with them, and they disrupted the hunting grounds and water supply of the Penobscot people, telling them their deaths were due to their lack of Christian faith. In a short time, the Penobscot tribe shrunk from over 10,000 to less than 500.

The First Mother, long dead, is no longer here to mourn her children. The last speakers of the Penobscot language, as well as those of 65 other native languages, have died. But just as colonists took the land, filled it, and changed it, corn has also colonized us back. It is we that power its mills, that carry its substance in our bodies, that weave it into everything we see, touch, and breathe. 

Place a hand on your shoulder. You may not recognize it now that it has been spun through steel machines. 

Yum K’aax of the Maya. Selu of the Cherokee. Iyatiku of the Keresan. Chicomecoatl of the Aztecs. Fas-ta-chee of the Seminole. Iouskeha of the Hurons. Too many others to name. They all know what you now know.

The hair of the First Mother is the shirt on your back.


Poorly Labeled Luxury Chocolate