Hopi, Earth Science, and Corn: an Essay

posted Jun 29, 2015, 9:33 AM by Joyce Alexander   [ updated Jul 3, 2015, 9:02 AM ]
Welcome to the June 2015 edition of the MyCrowCanyon blog. This month, Dr. Steve Wolverton brings us a discussion of humans, environment, corn, and archaeologists as "closet existentialists."


This post relates to ongoing research funded by National Science Foundation archaeology grant 1460122 through the University of North Texas (UNT). UNT archaeologists are collaborating with the Crow Canyon Research Institute to study the influence of soil moisture on crops at local scales to better understand factors that may have contributed to depopulation of the Mesa Verde region just before A.D. 1300. The project began this May with a rebuild of the Check Dam Garden on the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center campus.


The Check Dam Garden, late May 2015: photo by Steve Wolverton.

Archaeologists are fascinated by time scales that extend well beyond the common human experience of minutes, days, and lifetimes. As a result we tend to be closet existentialists; it is an easy leap from thinking about time depth beyond that of a human lifetime to asking “what is the purpose of life?” We tend to keep our existentialism veiled because we also claim to be scientists, and divining the purpose of life is beyond the scope of science. But we feel it even if we do not talk about it much. It is tough to put a finger on what provides archaeology its sense of adventure and discovery, perhaps that it challenges us with existentialism has something to do with it. What’s interesting (at least to me) is that we (I) tend to be hungry for such existential subject matter. Thus, it was striking to join the Hopi during their planting of corn in the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center gardens in late May. All actions they associate with corn appear to be existential. That is, it occurs to me that the Hopi relationship with corn gets right to the existential heart of the matter—what is life’s meaning?  Crow Canyon has maintained several gardens across a variety of micro-environmental conditions to learn about interactions between humans, environment, and corn during the last several years. The Hopi come to plant corn each spring.

In the process of working on what I call “the experimental gardens,” particularly the Check Dam Garden, to get it refurbished for this year’s planting, I learned a great deal, especially after talking with or simply watching Zunis and Hopis. I have several sound bites from them that I have taken out of context and filtered through my own biases, which were challenges to accommodate as an archaeological scientist. Before I discuss those, however, it is important to describe in basic terms what all the archaeological fuss is about with the gardens, which differs from the purpose of the gardens for Pueblo people (on the surface at least, in my opinion).


Briefly, archaeologists’ interest in the gardens has to do with trying to quantify the relationship between soil moisture levels, corn growth, and the potential for wilting of plants. We measure plants, soil conditions, and weather conditions, all to try to build an “analogy” so that we can compare what we observe today to less well-preserved records of plant growth, climate, and soil conditions in the past. We want to know how these factors influenced peoples’ lives, and as archaeologists, research questions and data link us to the past.


Ambling forward with these goals in mind, a student and I, with support from the National Science Foundation and collaboration from Crow Canyon archaeologists and volunteers, have helped rebuild the Check Dam Garden. In so doing, we have installed soil moisture sensors and data loggers in that garden and two others, which collect data every hour or so for about a year. Wow! I think that’s great; this will help us answer our research questions and fuel our enthusiasm for engaging the past, and it will satisfy our closeted, vague need for existential subject matter!


Rewind…the sound bites from Hopi and Zuni friends (I realize they may or may not think of me as a friend, but I definitely think of them as such). In quite respectful manners, I began to hear them say (or receive hearsay about what they did say) things like “corn is not for measuring, it is for eating.”  Or, “one should not talk about ‘crop failure’ when planting corn; it is disrespectful.” My science is stopped in its tracks by existential concerns of respect for life that are anything but closeted, stemming from deep oral traditions about how to live as human beings. Not only how to live, but as one friend from Santa Clara Pueblo has conveyed, “how to try to be better and better human beings during our lives.”


Later in the week, I weasel my way into a trip to Sand Canyon with Mark Varien and the Hopi farmers. It is such a beautiful and tragic place. I see the Hopi pay respect to the place, and I am sure I miss much of what they offer. It’s lunch time at a taqueria in town; I work up the courage to ask Stewart Koyiyumpttewa, “when you come to Crow Canyon, it’s more than just planting corn, isn’t it?”  I’ll paraphrase what I recall about his answer, things like: “We are here to pay respect.” “We are here to bring Hopi to more of the world.” “Corn is life; we are bringing life to this place.” “At Sand Canyon, we are making sure someone cares about the dried up spring and our ancestors.” Being stopped in my tracks is the appropriate response for a closet existentialist.


Mark Varien asks me at a different time during our week at Crow Canyon (paraphrasing), “How can we handle the asymmetric dialogues (terminology he used) that underlie interactions between archaeologists and Pueblo people?” There is no single answer, but here is mine. To address this concern, I must address why I measure corn.


Corn sprouting.
Corn in mid-June: photo by Grant Coffey.

My life is embedded in a world much different than that of the Hopi or Zuni (at least those few who I had the pleasure of meeting during this trip). The products of science are everywhere, and it’s not just science, it is quantification. We quantify profit margins, acreage, stature, net worth, et cetera. The society I belong to is tortured by over-quantification. We use it for nearly all of our decisions, trying to hedge our bets to guarantee outcomes in an uncertain world (sadly, one of our own making). Ironically, quantification may well be an attempt at dealing with “the unknown.” If we can just measure something, perhaps we can come to better understand its uncertain nature. Speaking with a very broad brush here, but I think with a grain of truth, at times we quantify to dominate and dominate to quantify. It is the language that is spoken in the community I am part of. I suspect that my friend and environmental philosopher Robert Figueroa would agree with the statement that such domination has gradually divorced us (those in mainstream American society, for lack of a better characterization) from environmental and cultural heritage. We now often try to engage existential questions through science and economy. I do not think it is a stretch to state that, in stark contrast, the Hopi farmers (and those from other pueblos) have retained or recovered their heritage, often symbolized through corn. However, if we (I) try, might “measuring corn” lead to something more?


I often teach Earth Science at the UNT. To be frank, I hold the impression that well over 90 percent of the students who take the class are not that interested in it. They take it because it counts as a science class in the university core, and it is not chemistry, biology, or physics, which they resist taking. Yet, speaking quite generally, they are part of the same mainstream culture that I am; they too speak through tallies and use implicit bet-hedging strategies to get by in the world. There is much literature (ironically scientific) to support that ecological understanding is increasingly rare in American Society. Anecdotally, this is easy to find examples of in our digital age. Yet we share a scientized language, college students and I. Since these people do not care to become earth scientists, the class has become a long discussion about earth processes and environmental issues. We discuss plate tectonics, the hydrological cycle, atmospheric circulation, solar radiation, and other topics, all measured, all communicated through the language of tallies and science. The students get it; they become more literate and engaged in earth science during the semester.


Here’s what my Hopi friends may not suspect. They have something we are trying to recover through scientific literacy; they have environmental heritage—a deep connection to land and place. I cannot provide this in my Earth Science class, we literally can “only open the book.”  However, my Hopi, Zuni, and Santa Clara friends are with me in the classroom, which matters. It is one thing to teach students about transpiration, the biological mechanism via which water is moved through capillary action from soil to the roots of plants through their structural cells up through the plant to the leaves to escape one water molecule at a time from leaf cells to be released as water vapor. Most students are fascinated by this process because without scientific literacy, it is invisible to them. They are even more fascinated when anthropology fuses with earth science, and I talk about what the Hopi have told me about corn, that stages of growth in corn are the same as those for children. It becomes clear that one should not talk about crop failure when planting corn, not because it should not be studied, but because corn is life!


Why measure corn?  It is a bridge to something that is desperately needed and that the Hopi and many other Pueblo people can and do provide—caring for place. When the Hopi plant corn at Crow Canyon, they are caring for a place. They are also caring for me, and I get to bring that home. The existential purpose I have sought through measuring corn has been gratified, and a small portion of ecological understanding has been gained. To me the Hopi are planting environmental heritage, and I am in a position to share it.


Thank you to Porter Swentzell and Dana Lepofsky for providing feedback on this essay.


Steve Wolverton
Steve Wolverton is an associate professor in the Department of Geography at the University of North Texas, and he is a research associate at the Crow Canyon Research Institute.

Find out more here about the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center's experimental gardens, part of the Center's Pueblo Farming Project.

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