Having grown up in the midwest and spent a few weeks per year staying with my grandparents in Lima (where I visited my grandmother, Liesl, yesterday en route home from the West) I spent a lot of time in close range to corn fields. In the ’60s I used to ride to there – Tom and I tried to do it in 1 day but never succeeded – it’s almost 150 miles which is a long way for two young kids on heavy Schwinn bikes.
Over many hours in the back seat of my grandparents’ big Oldsmobiles, and on bikes riding country roads with crop rows growing taller than I could see over, I developed my corn field analogy. Imagine a space alien (S.A.) looking down at earth from a hovering UFO – maybe 5 miles up. S.A. would possibly perceive corn fields as groups of individuals. They are populations of similar, but not identical, live beings. They appear alive, and pass through their own stages of life. They live all over the country, in big cities (Iowa and Ohio farms) and small towns (I used to grow a few in our back yard in Cleveland in a six by twelve foot patch of mud in the back yard, sharing that space with grean beans and a pumpkin vine which never yielded anything bigger than a summer squash).
S.A. has it about right – corn likes a community, is alive, and has its life cycle. No two stalks are alike. Some are big and strong and dominant of resources. Most just get by. Some are outliers, on the edges of the field or even germinating far from the field, others are central, surrounded by others. Some grow large ears, some none.
Now imagine I am S.A. and corn is all the people around me. So I am both observer and part of the observed population. As S.A. I find it far fetched that every one of these corn plants has an individual soul, an immortal soul, and will die only apparently to me as its observer, in fact to live forever with its corn neighbors in a heaven inhabited by God, His minions, and corn angels. Presumably no corn blight organisms go to heaven, or if they do, it’s their own heaven, separated from corn heaven. What about Indian Corn – the colored kernels – in fact there are hundreds of strains of corn – are they all in one heaven? Or multiple? Can they visit each other? Sometimes there is Indian Corn mixed in with white or yellow corn, and presumably they interact in life – so how about in death? And the bees that pollinate the corn? They could be admitted, but in heaven corn doesn’t need pollination, so no bees either. Maybe they have their own bee heaven somewhere else – but are bees happy without corn to visit? And what does corn blight do in heaven if it can’t have corn to devour and spoil?
Very soon this line of speculation gets too tangled to manage while pedaling under a hot sun. Shifting perspective a little, how about cats and my beloved dog Scotty, and the poor robin I killed with a BB gun – thinking a) I could never hit it perched on the electric wires that ran above the property line behind our house and b) if I did, nothing would happen to her. Wrong on both counts, we buried Mr. Robin in our back yard. Devastated, I made a tombstone for him with my wood burning set, placed his stiff body in a shoe box, and buried him next to the garage.
Surely Scotty would have a heaven. She died, clinically, she drowned, in my lap in the back seat of my mom’s car as we raced to the vet – she was beyond old and had advanced COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). Ever since then, and the drowning death of my bunk mate during a clandestine moonlit swim in the river near our YMCA summer camp, I’ve had a phobia of drowning. Surely brave Scotty is in a heaven for dogs? Else how can I believe in an afterlife for myself – one devoid of Scotty? But if Scotty is in heaven, then why not robin? And if robin, why not the flies? I went through a long period as a child befriending house flies – which I later believed might have had something to do with dermal warts I suffered with – but who knows, maybe not. In any case, if flies, how about ants, which I also protected and still don’t kill if avoidable, and ditto spiders. And is corn not as smart as an individual ant? Plants are really pretty clever – maybe it takes more brains to survive without the option to run from danger or move on when conditions turn difficult. Corn copes.
My mother tells me that the reason my brother and sister were December babies, but I’m a Virgo is that a previous version of me miscarried and rather than miss a year, my dad and her elected to try again immediately. So how about my unborn sibling – does he or she or it (maybe not yet sexually differentiated) qualify for Human heaven? And when did the doors of human heaven open – I mean, in the evolutionary sense? Did proto-humans, pre-homosapiens – get in? And who decides when the first one got in? What about his parents, who presumably, like the #2 against Michael Phelps, over a few billion years of evolution, was born 15 years before the official start of the homosapien era. That first one of us doesn’t get to see his/her parents in homosapien heaven? And no dogs in our heaven? So what about me and Scotty? I have to believe God can work these things out since I can’t. But then, I couldn’t design a star or even a leaf, but He can, so presumably all these problems are solvable by God.
But for right now, what’s S.A. to make of all this? S.A. doesn’t talk to people, corn, flies, birds, dogs, or spiders. S.A. talks to other aliens from his planet, whom he presumably cares about and believes will live forever in heaven. He is comforted that he’ll join them there at his end.
Where does this lead us? To a nowhere that is pretty much where all this sort of speculation leads. Spending enough time on a bicycle in the midwest, one is forced to become a Ghandian, a Nihilist, or possibly a Jew.
Or a midwestern kid enjoying a day on a bike riding the flat gridwork of Ohio’s country roads. Beaver Cleaver incarnate. Dogs, Cats and kids on bikes do not mind being a stalk of corn in a corn field of their populations. They like it. There’s comfort in knowing that all our inadequacies, blown tests, idiotic things said in the Principal’s office, and inadvertant gaffs are part of our shared humanity. There’s a few billion others who will succeed and the harvest doesn’t depend on me alone. Some of us cover better than others, but whatever our individual styles, at harvest time, the field is plowed under, there’s no infinity in store for any of us, and the deck is shuffled again. Time ends and the universe becomes a singularity of zero entropy – a new perfection. New corn sprouts break the soil and at most enjoys nicely aerated footing to grow in as the legacy of its progenitors lives, struggles and deaths.
Forty years later, I haven’t been able to improve on my cornfield philosophy. It suffices for me to be a good, maybe even better than average, stalk of corn, appreciate all my neighbors whether I’m in the middle, on the edge, or rooted way across the other side of the road – a life altered by another of nature’s random events – maybe a strong wind at just a certain time. If I have a few more or less ears, and my kernels are a little bigger, smaller, yellower or sweeter, it will average out. And when the game is over, I won’t get in the way of the next year’s crop. If anything, my legacy might be to make the way of their roots a little easier. Why waste my moments in the summer sun sacrificing to be yet another fading portrait in a museum? My life, my ride, my support of the crop by being a productive part of it – that’s the value of the life of my hamster on its cedar chip and newspaper floor, my turtle living under her plastic palm tree, my poor departed red robin buried beneath his wood-burned tombstone, and me. Failing even that modest ambition, the next generation will get by, and maybe grow even stronger, if I fail to make things too easy for them. The best I can do, and maybe the only thing I can do, is leave them the room to play out, in their own ways, their own lives.