Resurrecting the Corn Mothers to Make Food Systems Sustainable

Sustainable Food Systems Drive Sustainable Economies

Blue Corn. A wood carving by Farlan Ghahate, Gamerco, NM

In the industrialized world, corporate owned food systems have created low priced, readily available, empty calories with long shelf lives.  This biologically inactive foodstuff (emphasis on stuff) has come at the expense of family farms, rural communities, environmental health, basic human nutrition, and civil liberties.  As a result, the cost of health care associated with chronic disease, disease that could be prevented with quality nutrition, is crippling our economy.        

As the global community debates strategies for restoring prosperity in this era of expanding population, declining environmental quality, unstable markets,  and rampant chronic disease, it always surprises me how little attention is devoted to sustainable agricultural development.   After all, even with modern industrial addictions to oil and gas, food is, and always has been the single commodity we purchase most often.  Food systems drive economic systems.

In recent years, there has been a small resurgence of interest in agricultural and environmental education. School farms and community gardens are increasing in numbers, slowly awakening the public to the benefits of wholesome, locally grown, organic food.  Yet like so many trends in education, this movement is a drop in the ocean, as likely to be overshadowed by the next wave as it is to grow.

Progress towards these efforts is slow in part because we have spent far too many generations promoting values that drive people away from the land, and away from agriculture.  Our culture is far too comfortable entrusting strangers, so called experts, to produce our food. As individuals, the majority of us are too far removed from the land and the experiences we need to successfully produce our own food.  Transforming such deeply established patterns will require massive campaigns that inspire us to celebrate the both value of food production, and the value of those who produce food.

These campaigns must help people recognize that local, biologically active, organic soils restore soil, water, and air quality, and they improve crop nutrition.  They boost crop resilience in the face of drought, pests, and disease. They improve the flavor and quality of produce, reducing the need for those artificial flavors and colors that negatively influence our health.  Local foods feed families, and divert income away from remote corporate entities, placing it into  private households and local communities.  They boost the kind of economies that help families prosper.  In essence, local, organic farms and gardens bring life from the land.

This concept of bringing life from the land was once a celebrated component of American culture.  Represented throughout the Americas in many aspects of mythology, its implications for agriculture were perhaps best embodied in the legends of the Corn Mothers-special deities who brought life from the land and taught people to grow food.

Corn Mother Mythology: A Poorly Understood American Treasure.

     Spanish Europeans first came to what is now the United States more than 500 years ago seeking gold, silver, and cheap labor for enterprises.  In the process of reaping their harvest, they buried or erased cultural and ideological treasures that arguably have much more value than the metals they extracted.   One such treasure is the reverence for life and the empowerment of women that was embodied in Corn Mother mythology.

This reverence for the Corn Mothers, which took varied forms among the hundreds of tribes that thrived in North America when Columbus arrived, was shared among¬†tribal and¬†Pueblo communities who espoused¬†egalitarian¬†values, practiced stewardship of the environment, lived in rural communities, and often conferred land ownership to women. ¬†Readers, please note that I am not using these arguments to suggest that American cultures were by any means Utopian before European arrival, nor am I suggesting that women in America always had it great before the Spanish arrived. I’m only suggesting that we could benefit today from considering¬†those aspects of American culture that fostered sustainability, health, equality, and prosperity.

This pattern of freedom and land ownership by women conflicted so strongly with the lifestyles, religious beliefs, and legal precedents that dominated the culture of the Spanish inquisition, that many Spaniards came to view American women as downright diabolical. Yet contemporary experts in sustainable development frequently discuss empowerment of women as key to success. We cannot know how food secure all American peoples were when Columbus arrived.  We only know that Columbus himself was said to have noted the good health and the absence of an impoverished class among Americans when he arrived.  One might imagine that his reports of healthy natives helped spark the legends of a Fountain of Youth that brought Ponce de Leon to Florida.  Was the freedom enjoyed by American women prior to the arrival of Columbus instrumental in combating poverty?

In Spanish colonial times, Corn Mother mythology was so deeply embedded in American culture, that when Spanish brought disease, poverty, and oppression, widespread relief was provided by the reports of a woman who appeared dressed in clothing covered with symbols that spoke simultaneously to Christian beliefs surrounding the Virgin of the Apocalypse (a woman clothed in the sun), and native beliefs, widespread throughout the Americas, of Corn Mothers sent by the Creator to bring life from the land and feed the people.

Because she was reported to have appeared in Mexico, this woman has sometimes been described as the Aztec deity, Tonantzin.  While the name appears to have multiple meanings, in many accounts, Tonantzin translates as Corn Mother.

Since the 16th Century, Corn Mothers Have Been Represented in Many Accounts by Our Lady of Guadalupe

With reports of her¬†apparition, a new mythology arose. ¬†This mythology, which centers around Our¬†Lady of Guadalupe, ¬†is widespread among Hispanic Christians today. ¬†Recognized by the Catholic Church as the Patroness of all the Americas, the beliefs surrounding the reported apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe fostered a melding of Spanish and Native American cultures that promoted a degree of peace. Yet oral histories shared among families, represented in artwork, and discussed among friends continue to affirm that Our Lady of Guadalupe and the Corn Mother are one in the same. ¬†Whether she is recognized as real or mythological, as a¬†Corn Mother, or as Our Lady of Guadalupe, it cannot be denied that this woman’s¬†image helped inspire the Spanish to be more respectful of indigenous people, men to be more respectful of women, and Christians to be more cognizant of the unity between heaven and earth that is essential to life itself. ¬†Can her image also inspire the sustainable living that is conducive to peace and prosperity?

Although the messages of peace and unity communicated by¬†the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe are as critical today as in the 1600’s, the need to address agriculture in a manner that captures the hearts and minds of the people is currently more pronounced. ¬†In today’s world, where food systems are failing due to corporate monopolies and limited local production, the message that needs to be communicated surrounds our¬†need for food systems as¬†diverse as the lands and the soils on which they are grown. This message may best be communicated by images of many Corn Mothers, unique in their appearance, and united in their ability to communicate the¬†¬†sanctity of the¬†earth and the food it provides.

Food Insecurity, Conflict, and Disease are Increasing Worldwide.

Many experts today agree that the plague of the 21st century centers around a rapidly growing global population.  This unprecedented population is sadly dependent on a rapidly declining natural resource base.  The extrapolated outcome of current trends involves widespread famine and disease.

Urbanization, desertification, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, unequal distribution of civil liberties, and rapidly changing climate patterns are among factors contributing to a declining ability to feed ourselves.  While some argue that biotechnology will effectively stave famine, history has effectively demonstrated that technological solutions are rarely effective in reducing poverty. Technology cannot eliminate injustice and ignorance.  As the global community explores the best ways to sustainably reduce the threat of widespread famine, there is growing consensus that empowerment of women and development of rural communities are key to sustainable development. This consensus is so strong that the United Nations has declared October 15th as the International Day of Rural Women.

Corn Mother Mythology Offers Imagery that Inspires Sustainable Living

In 2012, I began¬†collaborating on a concept paper in which we described potential to launch a revolution in sustainable agriculture by simply restoring microbial biodiversity to agroecosystems.¬† As I spoke with my co-authors, consolidated our ideas, responded to reviewer’s comments, and edited original drafts, my own understanding of the problem changed.¬†¬†With each new submission, I¬†was more convinced that the most important factors driving food insecurity today involve the overarching policies made by governments, and the widespread ignorance regarding interdependence between our environment, our food,¬†our freedom, our health, our economy.

As I considered the various tools that might be used to ignite both the spirit of liberty needed to free us from crippling policies and regulations, and the sense of stewardship needed to change the way we interact with our environment, I found myself increasingly drawn to the mythology of the Corn Mothers.  These early American (ie:  of the Americas) images that bring respect for women who bring life from the land have profound potential to once again capture the hearts and minds of the world.  It is important to note that

Pueblo legends speak of the Corn Mothers leaving when people fail to show them proper respect, and returning when people get hungry and¬†repent. ¬†I wonder, in a society where half of our adult population suffers from diseases associated with nutrition, have we reached sufficient¬†discomfort¬†to receive the Corn Mother’s with an open mind and open hearts? ¬†Could understanding of the Corn Mothers and the gifts they bestowed provide the inspiration¬†needed to move us towards¬†sustainable living in a way that policies and protests cannot? ¬†Is it time to resurrect the Corn Mothers and bring their teachings to life?


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