Hear the Corn Grow – Hidden Language
“Hear the Corn Grow” (S1, E2)
Released September 15, 2021
JAY: When he was a boy, my Uncle Dave spent a lot of time on his grandfather’s farm. One still and warm July evening, Uncle Dave and great-grandfather—both exhausted and sore from a hot day’s work baling hay—sat on the front porch of the old farmhouse in Central Pennsylvania.
MUSIC “Autumn Sunset” begins
The thick summer air delivered far-off sounds: the machine-gunning jakebrake slowing a semitruck descending into the nearby town, the low of cattle in some distant pasture, a lonesome locomotive engine crossing the Juniata River.
His grandfather leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, and cocked his head.
GRANDFATHER: “Do you hear that?”
JAY: My Uncle Dave narrowed his eyes and listened. He heard birds, of course—the swallows and their watery chirps diving and gliding as they gobbled up bugs. But they did that every evening at that time, hardly remarkable. Crickets? No, too early in the evening. Maybe that frog near the springhouse? No, not out either. He looked back to his grandfather and shook his head.
The old man juked his chin toward the cornfield across the gravel drive.
GRANDFATHER: “The corn. Go on out there and listen. Tell me what you hear.”
JAY: Uncle Dave walked down the porch steps, crossed the gravel, and crouched next to the young corn. The weather had worked in their favor throughout the spring and early summer. By Independence Day, the stalks had already grown well beyond the old country adage of “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” Uncle Dave leaned in closer to the corn and listened.
His grandfather, still watching, rose from the chair.
GRANDFATHER: “Do you hear it?”
JAY: When Uncle Dave now tells this part of the story, he acknowledges that what’s coming will be hard to believe. But he promises that it’s true, that when he knelt next to that corn and listened—when he really listened—he heard… something.
MUSIC ends, we hear a faint SQUEAK, followed by another, then another…
JAY: Every ten or so seconds, seemingly throughout the rows of corn, he listened squeak by squeak.
Uncle Dave rose and walked up the porch steps.
UNCLE DAVE: “I heard something, like little squeaks.”
JAY: His grandfather smiled.
GRANDFATHER: “That’s right, that’s right. What you heard was the corn grow. You can sit right here and listen to the corn grow, you just have to teach yourself how to hear it.”
INTRO MUSIC begins
JAY: You’re listening to “Hidden Language,” a podcast about tuning into place, bodies, and time and discovering the unexpected ways their stories can be told. I’m Jay Varner.
SCOTT: And I’m Scott Lunsford. Today, Jay looks back on another summer in his home garden and wonders if it’s actually possible to actually hear corn grow.
MUSIC “Bloom (Instrumental Version)” begins
JAY: A garden is a gift to the senses and, as I assess the harvest of this past growing season, I’m forced to confront a stark reality: my warm, sunny days outside in the dirt are nearly finished for the year. We’ll continue to enjoy our harvest—we’ve canned and frozen so much food—but I will miss the hours outside, the dirt under my nails, and walking up and down the rows, inspecting the crops.
This was my fourth growing season as a home gardener. What started as a small postage stamp garden has grown into 2,400 square-feet that contained sixty-five tomato plants, around twenty pepper plants, 125 onions, 80 or so head of garlic, bush and pole beans, pumpkins, butternut squash, spaghetti squash, cucumbers, zuchinni, summer squash, leaks, eggplant, kale, swiss chard, arugula, spinach, golden and red beets, turnips, radishes, blueberries, and raspberries. Oh, there were potatoes, too, both Yukon Gold and red potatoes.
When the season ends, I always miss my tomatoes the most. It’s a joy to watch them grow taller each spring and summer, to hold the delicate yet determined yellow flower blossoms between my fingers and know that soon they will turn to green fruit that ripens and reddens. And that sweet and spicy, grassy and green scent of tomato plants might rank atop my smells of summer.
And, of course, there’s the taste of homegrown tomatoes. Sliced on a sandwich, puréed in a soup, cooked in a sauce, diced in a salsa. I’d say that I largely agree with legendary songwriter Guy Clark’s philosophy that there are “Only two things that money can’t buy//That’s true love and homegrown tomatoes.”
I’d like to think that the tilling, raking, feeding, and building of the soil means that I’ve grown more than just vegetables, herbs, and calloused hands. Sure, there’s the perseverance and persistence needed for physical work, the patience required while waiting for crops to grow, and the attentive eye necessary to spot pests and fungi. And, I’ve learned that for all a garden gives, it’s never enough for me.
Gardeners seem to be a perpetually searching lot: we always want to learn more. And, for as much as we enjoy the present tense of gardening, we’re almost always planning for the next season, ruminating on what didn’t work this season and wondering what we can fix during next year. There’s an undeniable optimism and hope about looking ahead—however, I sometimes wonder if I’m missing out on the present when I slip into that mindset.
When my Uncle Dave visited my wife and I this past May, he retold that story about hearing the corn grow, and I wondered about approaching the garden from a different direction.
What could I learn in my garden by simply listening?
Jay walks through the yard, opens the gate to the garden.
JAY: At first, I thought that I should record each sound out here in the garden. In early May, as I transplanted tomatoes into the soil, this seemed possible. However, the summer heat arrived right around mid-May and never relented. Tending to what’s essentially a small farm is a difficult task in the best of weather. This summer was hard. The hot sun and relentless humidity brought more pestilence and diseases than I’d seen in years past.
And so, let’s start by noting what I didn’t hear: I rarely heard thunder rumble across the Rockfish Valley. Steady, soaking rains almost never came—in fact, as I write this, we are down six-inches of water for the year. When it did rain, it was hard and intense, dropping 2, 3 inches within a matter of an hour.
Heavy RAIN and WIND lashes the garden.
JAY: Those pummeling rains were really just a drop inside one dry bucket. Little moisture actually penetrated the hard, sun-beaten soil. That, of course, meant I was in charge of watering. So, it was outside to the faucet.
Jay TURNS the outdoor faucet.
JAY: And then, I pushed the hose cart into the yard, and then I dragged the two-hundred feet of garden hose across the lawn and then over the fence…
Jay PUSHES the hose cart, unspools the hose.
JAY: And then it was time to water, plant by plant.
Jay WATERS the plants.
JAY: Weeds are an endless battle for gardeners. I worry less than some other people I know, hoping that the weeds along the boundaries of my garden will at least keep certain bugs entertained. In the actual growing beds, I’m rather meticulous and will pluck them one by one. When there’s a large bed to clear, I use my hoop-hoe. This is what it sounds like, gliding over the surface, severing weeds at the head.
Jay HOES the soil.
JAY: It’s easy to get lost in this process. There’s something satisfying about decapitating purple deadnettles and hogweed. In nature, weeds and plants are self-regulating; plants grow and compete with each other. However, in an effort to keep my plants from getting overrun, I rig the system, determining who lives and who gets added help during their short, productive lives.
Jay PUMPS the sprayer and then sprays in the garden.
JAY: This gallon pump sprayer is filled with cold-pressed neem oil, diluted in water, and then sprayed on the plants to deter moths, beetles, and other detrimental insects. The neem oil will also smother any eggs laid on leaves and will hopefully discourage any pests that want to munch on my plants. And there are many, many pests.
But can you really hear corn grow? On a warm, relatively still country evening the slightest of breezes will cause the leaves of a cornstalk to brush against and hold hands with their neighbors. Logic and deduction tell us that this is likely the squeak that my Uncle Dave heard. Air circulation is crucial for a garden, transfering heat from the surface of leaves and drying out surface-level soil prone to damaging fungal growth. So, in a sense, yes, my Uncle Dave really did hear that corn grow, just maybe not in the way that he likely imagined at the time.
MUSIC “Global Warming” begins…
One of the great joys of this experiment was learning, yet again, of the interconnectedness of our world, how plant and animal come together. And, for the most part, their relationships are often silent. I can’t hear the feet of caterpillars on the soil, though I can hear the wing flaps and calls of a bird that snatched the caterpillar for lunch.
I can barely see, let alone hear the tiny aphids that chew into my eggplant, but sometimes, if I’m close enough, I hear the wing buzz a ladybug searching for an aphid to consume. These silent, unseen melodramas play out every day on the garden stage.
Every sound a byproduct of nature or man, tethered in some way to this tiny ecosystem that I’ve encouraged and nurtured. Like so much else in life, gardening comes down to balance–a balance of moisture and sun, of minerals and supplements, of companion and succession planting. That’s all well and good–though balancing the garden has become increasingly difficult. Right now there’s little balance in our natural world. We’re whirly-gigging into a bleak unknown. Each summer brings new challenges to the garden–and I know that, on the grand scheme of things, the pests and diseases of my little garden won’t compare to those that await our world. Nathaniel Rich, author of Losing Earth: A Recent History, was interviewed in July of 2021 about his current predictions for the future. He said that “Long-term disaster is the best case scenario.”
Our gardens, our lives, are at the mercy of an increasingly volatile Mother Earth. As she suffers through the sixth mass extinction in her history, and as we witness increasingly destructive changes in our climate, I can’t help but wonder about what’s to come. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The future concerns me, of course, but the present brings me sustenance and joy. When I stop to savor the delights of gardening, I also connect with nature and earth. I can think of few things more important at this point in our natural history to do. If you want to experience something similar, perhaps try a garden. Maybe it’s on your land, maybe it’s with your neighborhood, maybe you eat the fruits of your labor, maybe you donate it to those in need. It doesn’t matter.
Just find a way to get your hands in the dirt while you still can.
MUSIC “Hidden Language” OUTRO MUSIC begins
JAY: You have been listening to Hidden Language. Music for today’s episode is provided by Jason Shaw, Josh Woodward, and Kai Engel. Our theme music is by Jay Varner.
Vocal performances were by Patrick O’Brian and “the Old Codger.”
For a list of episodes, transcripts, and show notes, be sure to visit hiddenlanguagepodcast.com. If you enjoy this podcast, please spread the word using whatever language you see best fit. . . .
Nathaniel Rich’s prediction on our climate came from Vanity Fair.
Music was provided by the following artists through Freemusicarchive.org, with the respective Creative Commons licenses.
“Autumn Sunset” by Jason Shaw. CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 US
“Bloom (Instrumental Version)” by Josh Woodward. CC BY 4.0
“Global Warming” by Kai Engel. CC BY 4.0
So well done! Absolutely beautiful!
The podcast was really well done…I enjoyed the idea of listening to the corn growing, as well as the description of the present day garden and how special it is. Great job!
Loved the episode, Jay. So many bells of truth as I listened. Looking forward to more episodes.
In response to ‘In Defense of Christmas Music’: I am delighted deep down to my withered weary soul. Loved every moment of this episode, Jay! You gave me laughter in commiseration! I’ve been obsessing over a playlist this last week–can’t come up with anything you haven’t heard of, but I will share “What Light” by Wilco for something perhaps fresh. Robert Earl Keen’s ‘Merry Christmas From the Family’ has received a lot of attention in the last decade or two–still it’s worth listening to. And anyone who lives in Nelson County, I hope you know about the Rapunzels Christmas Music Show each year in Lovingston. I miss it so much.