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Maize or corn organic planting in cornfield. It is fruit of corn for harvesting by manual labor.

Rocks, Roots, and Corn….Maybe

So, my corn “growing” to which I alluded in my last post. For those of you who have read all my posts, especially over the last two months, you’ve surely noticed the constantly appearing theme of the woods and nature. Ever dear to my heart, we’ve suffered a long separation due to life and work. There were certainly times when I got back into the woods, but it was like wading in the shallow water; I never was able to actually dive in and immerse myself. That time is now. And so I’ve been hiking, been splitting wood, working in the woods in the back, metal detecting in the woods, etc., “woods” being the common factor. 

Before I retired, in fact two years before, I began trying to think through my goals and objectives. Finances were easy to figure: there is a solid history of credits and debits and therefore an easy extrapolation to determine how much I would need in order to retire; worrisome to be sure, but an easy exercise. What was more difficult to understand and plan for, were my internal needs. There is a longstanding tale passed around people approaching retirement about how people retire with no plan, no course of internal fulfillment, and they end up sitting, doing nothing, and slowly become absorbed into the furniture. And I did NOT want that to happen.

I thought about a part-time job but I know myself and I am fairly certain that I would become competitive, aggressive, self-advancing, and hooked. I’d go from two days a week to three and then to four and I would end up working full-time and stressed out all over again. Plus one of the driving forces behind my retirement was Teri. I invested myself into work heavily for well over 40 years, especially the last 20 or so. And during that time she was forced into leaving work early for medical reasons. So she has spent a lot of time home alone while I essentially living at work. Now is the time for us to spend time together; not leave one job and go to another. So working was not high on my list as an option.

As I’ve written previously, working my woodpile was a prime objective. I had counted on it lasting the summer and fall but I am actually almost done now. Hiking was another on the list and that is working although not to the extent I would really like; for example last week we could not get out on a single hike. But we’ll make up for that. I also have my bicycle and have not yet done any of the riding as I had planned on doing, but I will. But among all the plans I made, one of the earliest was the yard. I am pretty much content with the front and sides, but the back is basically wild and untouched. And for me, I need to feel it, understand it, before I attempt to change it. I need to wander through it and learn it before I alter it; it’s just how I do things, especially something as important as my land, my property. So I expect a couple of years of work in the back as I begin the process.

Part of that though, was decided upon a couple of years ago – I wanted a cornfield. Yup. I wanted to grow corn. Understand please dear reader that I am not a gardener. Oh I will dig a hole for Teri. And I’ve planted hemlocks and other trees/shrubs with Teri. But I do not garden. Not that it doesn’t interest me, but time was never my ally in even thinking about trying it. But a few years ago I took the boys on a hike and we ended up in a cornfield. And the seed was planted. I wanted my own cornfield. Now if you’ve been flowing all this drivel, by now it has likely occurred to you that my back is wooded, and surely not a good place to grow corn. And you’d be correct! But……

My lot is a big ole’ triangle: the base is the road frontage and the two legs run to a point of convergence far in the back. So the closer to the house, the more land there is, and as you work your back the sides of course close in. That fact was part of why we rarely even walked to the far back, never mind used it. In fact, I had lived here over 20 years before I actually stood on the absolute back point of the property where the two sides converge. The other reason we never did was because of the briars; thick, heavy, interwoven briar vines. There are all sorts of briars – I’ve encountered most every type viable in this state. But these – these are the horrible, evil type. The ones with thorns more akin to barbed wire than plant growth; long needle-tipped thorns that not only puncture but also rip and tear at clothes and flesh while still standing proud while they do it. They are so vile that even their roots, under a foot of soil, have thorns on them! And our back – the tip of our triangle – was full of them.

A couple of years ago I was looking for a place to hang a swing and as I traveled deeper into the back I found a suitable branch. Unfortunately it was amidst the briars. So I spent weeks clearing the area to support a swing. For a month after my legs looked like they had served as a scratching post for every cat in Rhode Island! But ultimately I cut back enough of the devil’s beard to hang the swing. But while I worked back there, I noticed that this area had a decent opening in the canopy and got some good sun every day. And that, given a lot of effort, might make a nice (small) cornfield. I had already cut back almost enough of the briars, I would just need a little more area cleared, then cultivate the soil and plant the seeds – easy!

Well, not so easy. Yes – I had cut all the top growth down and completed cutting down what I needed in order to support my plan. So I grabbed my shovel and began to dig to turn over all the soil; I should day I began to peck at the surface. It turns out this insidious wretched vine is even more twisted and entwined under the soil that it was above it! And as I mentioned, the roots also have thorns! It was like trying to dig through a mattress – the shovel would almost bounce back at me. That is, when I hit soil and not a rock. During the last glacial epoch, it is my personal belief that the last few retreating glaciers left behind every single rock and boulder that they had collected during their entire stroll across the East Coast and deposited them all in Rhode Island. There are rocks on top of boulders with little rocks wedged in between them!

So I fought the thorns and roots and rocks for many days, trying to just open up / make ready enough of an area in which to plant my corn. Each time I would think I was almost done, I’d hit another root that needed removing. And while digging that out, I would inevitably hit another rock that would turn into a boulder requiring all sorts of effort to remove; and in at least a couple of cases, I couldn’t remove. And so I persisted until I had my area cleared and turned over and at least mostly free of rocks and roots.

And I did what man has done since almost his beginning of time on this earth – I planted. I planted my corn seeds every 10-12” apart in rows 24” apart. Probably around 100 seeds total, which is really not a lot given the size of most cornfields. But nature forced me to stay small and so settled for what I could eek out of the land and planted. Proudly. Like my forefathers did! Burpee stated 1-2 weeks to see seedlings so I waited. And sure enough I started seeing them poke through the soil. And the next day they were gone. All gone.

I researched and found out that rabbits and squirrels love the young seedlings. So I bought a fence and installed it around the garden; a 6’ high deer fence – more netting  actually – with something like ¾” openings. After struggling through that fun install (refer to the commentary on rocks in Rhode Island up above), I then replanted the entire garden. And waited. My wife found a rabbit happily munching inside the now enclosed dining room, and I found a squirrel in there feasting away shortly after. That’s when I found that my dear little fine dining friends can get in under the fence. They kind of slither in under it. I had left extra fabric on the bottom and left t flat on the ground to try to prevent exactly this from happening. So I took some of the 50+ rocks and boulders I had removed from my little rock garden and placed them on top of the fencing on the ground and then overlaid that with logs and branches. And I replanted the whole thing again.

Time will tell if this now third or fourth replanting will have any success. There are certainly a huge number of briars beginning to emerge – turns out the squirrels and rabbits don’t like them! They are prospering. I’ve also sprayed the perimeter with varmint repulsion spray; before this is over I expect I’ll be out there in the moonlight peeing on the perimeter to try to mark it as my own!

My lessons from this? First and foremost, it has reinforced that you can never give up. I’ve never been one to quit or drop out (and no college comments here please – that was a life redirection moment!!!). But I was sure tempted to stop trying to grow corn. Several times. But I haven’t. Of course I haven’t grown corn either, so we’ll see where this all tallies out in the end. But you have to develop your plan, assess its effectiveness, learn from your mistakes, adjust, and try again. And so I shall.

But beyond that, my simple, trivial, menial efforts to grow a miniscule patch of corn has reinforced just how hard our ancestors had to work to grow their crops. And their efforts were to try to ensure their wellbeing – to grow the only food likely available to them – grow it or starve to death. Simple cause and effect there. Indeed, their efforts were at the very root of their survival while mine are merely to scratch an itch – just because I want to. I can’t imagine the sweat and toil they poured into these lands just to grow what they needed for sustenance. And while I used all hand tools – no powered roto-tiller or the like – my tools were made with modern steel and technology – hardened blade on the pick axe and on the pitchfork. They had to endure the same roots and rocks, but with inferior tooling. I can’t imagine their feelings when they found all their seedlings devoured and gone. It has indeed given me another glimpse into the great hardships they faced and reminded once again that there is great balance in nature and that hard work and great effort are not always fully rewarded; sometimes it just isn’t enough. And that is just a fact of life; not everyone is a winner, not everyone gets to be in the parade – there has to be people on the sidewalks to clap and cheer for those in the parade. Life is not fair and everyone does not win a medal or a trophy for participating. It is humbling – something I think all humans need to experience once in a while. Just this old Wolff’s thought on this beautiful summer’s day. Now it is time to head back into the woods and see how my corn is coming along, errrr, my briars that is!!

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