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Friday, October 22, 2010

Wrestling with Mondamin…

The Valley mid-October

Let us gather in the harvest,

Let us wrestle with Mondamin,

Strip him of his plumes and tassels,

Of his garments green and yellow.

The Song of Hiawatha/W.W. Longfellow

Four years ago we drove cross country to visit my sister and family in Omaha. We were driving down U.S. 29  along the Iowa-Nebraska border, heading south through vast cornfields. I saw a road sign signifying the exit to the town of Mondamin, Iowa. “Mondamin,” I thought… “Why of course-- Iowa, land of corn and soybeans.” And I remembered an experience from my youth: reading Longfellow’s poem “The Song of Hiawatha,” (and what a “Long” ditty it is, too). In those days I was hungry for literature and would pore through the books on the family bookshelves looking for excitement. I was fascinated in those days by all things Indian (those were unenlightened times before  “Native Americans.'’ Things Indian or Viking—I even insisted on my classmates calling me “Eric”after Eric the Red—fueled my imagination.)

One book I always returned to: Favorite Poems of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (Doubleday and Company, 1947), beautifully illustrated by Edward A. Wilson. I could retreat to Indian lore in Longfellow’s Hiawatha story. What appealed to me was the Indian vocabulary Wordsworth wove into his poem. The poet’s phonetic renderings of the Algonquin-Ojibway dialects transported me to aborigine days; I set myself the task of “becoming Indian” by learning the language, even though the Indians of the Great Lakes region were a half continent away from the Colville Indians I knew, attended school and grew up with. The truth of the matter was I was ignorant of linguistics, didn’t know a language needed more than nouns to parse together a simple sentence. But knowing that Shuh-shuh-gah was a heron, Opechee, a robin, the squirrel Adjidaumo…well, I might just as well have been living in a wigwam and feasting on pemmican myself--or standing before a roaring cataract beside the beautiful Indian princess Minnehaha in the picture on page 205.

Mondamin was one such noun I encountered in the chapter Hiawatha’s Fasting. An important rite of passage for a young brave was a period of fasting during which the Indian youth, in a food deprived state, would experience visions or delusions. In his weakened condition, these dreams often held a sign that would guide his warrior life and yield him the lifelong adult name that would bring the young brave renown on future fields of battle.

In the twilight state between sanity and dreams Hiawatha has a vision in which he saw: 

“…a youth approaching,

dressed in garments green and yellow…

Plumes of green bent o’er his forehead,

And his hair was soft and golden.”

This verdant youth bids the young brave to wrestle with him. Hiawatha, weak from hunger, accepts the challenge and a match ensues. As he struggles with this opponent, Hiawatha feels his strength return. The bout ends in a draw but the youth promises to return the next day and the day after to resume the bout.

True to his word, the blonde boy returns on schedule for Round two. This match, as the first, ends in a draw. This time, however, before he withdraws, the youth shares with his opponent the outcome of the third day contest. Hiawatha will defeat him, the youth declares, and then gives the young brave instructions on what to do with his body, once he’s fallen, how Hiawatha was to strip the garments from him, lay him in a grave where the rain may fall upon him, the sun may come to warm him. “And protect me,” the young oracle says, “let no hand disturb me, keep the weeds and worms at bay, and let not Kahgahgee, the raven, molest me.”

At the the time I was not sophisticated enough a reader to connect Hiawatha’s vision and conflict with the Indian corn myth—Mondamin—Indian lingo for maize. The green garments: tassels, silk, the stalks and shocks themselves; the wrestling: harvest. And the burial and perpetual care? The planting cycle, of course: Mondamin, the Great Spirit’s gift of food to his people. 


The corn myth, depicted in corn itself, was one of the impressive murals in the Corn Palace, Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace boasts the largest collection of “corny” art in the entire world, we learned, when we sidetracked from I-90 on our Omaha trip. In fact the entire facade of the Palace, enhanced by borders of millet and milo, is corn, thousands of ears, that are replacedMitchell Corn Palace annually. 







corn murals

The Tualco Valley has its own monument to corn, a cement edifice located at the Werkhoven Dairy. No taking down Mondamin for the fall with a slick wrestling move. The Werkhovens do their corn wrestling with big, diesel gulping machines.tons in minutes Yes, it’s corn harvest time in the Valley. Remember the corn that was knee high last July? It’s coming down, being chewed  up and chopped into silage.

Last Saturday afternoon I caught up with Jim Werkhoven via cell phone. He was en route, as usual, from one field to the next, zipping from one job to another. Before he took the time to answer my many questions, Jim assured me that “We’re not anti-social folks—just doggone busy.” Especially busy this time Chew it; spit it outof year, overseeing the transfer of corn from the fields to silage bunker.  And just how much corn silage does it take to keep all those cow stomachs from rumbling and grumbling over a year? Jim knows. Seven hundred acres, he tells me, from fields in the Valley plus another west of Frylands (the old Diamond M Ranch). And that huge cement bunker? It holds 18,000 tons of silage (folks, that is thirty-six million pounds of corn: chop chop chop). Removing the season’s corn crop from the Valley is quite an operation. Two cutters do the chopping. Werkhovens have passed along a bit of work to Matt Frohning who has his own cutter and does contract work. Matt’s is an older model, just perfect for chopping corn from less mature fields. A second cutter, I learn, not only cuts and chops the stalks but rolls and crushes the cobs as well. This monster machine circles the fields gobbling up six rows per circuit at the rate of five acres per hour.

I learn other interesting facts from Jim. Werkhoven farms has the contract on the Fish and Game Department’s 100 acre cornfield south of the slough. Two-thirds of the field is cut; the remainder left as cover for  the game birds F & G plant for hunters. Eight trucks haul the chopped corn from the fields. Werkhovens own one, hire the other seven. These eight trucks make 1500 to 17oo trips from the field to the farm where they deposit their loads. 1 load at a timeFour to five minutes is all it takes for those giant cutters to spew ten tons of silage into a truck. The loaded rig pulls away and is quickly replaced by a trailing empty one. Holding pattern






As the trucks dump their loads in the bunker, big field tractors push the piles of fodder onto the growing mountain of chopped corn. pushin' pilesThis mound of silage is compacted by three or four tractors whose weight and big dual rear wheels make countless trips back and forth, side to side. This compacting is essential to the fermenting process, Jim says. The constant squeezing forces the oxygen from the pile. Without such compression, the silage will not cure properly.Compact job When the harvest is over and the mountain of silage is pressed free of oxygen, the mound will be covered with thick gauge plastic and weighted with tires. Cooking the silage

Jim says that they can begin feeding the new silage crop a month after the process is finished, but he likes to wait a while longer—just in case. Nothing worse than hundreds of dairy cows with indigestion. Indigestion? All those stomachs? In the meantime Werkhovens have prudently saved enough of last year’s silage mound to tide the herd over until the new crop is ready to feed. last year's reserve

Jim hopes to have the entire operation complete in less than a week. I don’t think that will happen this year. Gladys and I swung by yesterday, a week later, and the hauling and compacting were still in progress. That must have Jim on edge a bit. He told me he once figured out the cost of keeping those trucks rolling: twelve to thirteen bucks a minute! He followed up those stats with the comment: “That’s information I really didn’t need to know.”Squeezing the pileI asked Jim what the work days were like during this hectic harvest. He laughed and said, “We knock off around midnight these days. We’re older now!” I drove down to watch the night work. It was an eerie sight: like exhaust belching dragons, the machines roared on through the night, their eyes piercing the darkness, inexorably crushing the air from the green mountain of corn, ever tracing, retracing their paths up and down that humongous mound of green.night packingThanks, Jim, for sharing this fascinating dimension of our Valley’s dairy industry. I enjoyed our talk. It was doggone “sociable” of you.

The Great Lakes Indians not only wrestled with Mondamin. They had their women perform a sacred rite to bless the cornfields. After the spring planting was complete, on the first dark or overcast night the women of the tribe would perform a ritual to bless the season’s crop. Barefoot and unclad they would make a circuit of the fields to enhance the fertility of the land, to insure its fecundity and a bountiful season’s crop.

Sing the mysteries of Mondamin,

Sing the Blessing of the cornfields.

Ah, yes, just one more thing to look forward to come spring.         

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