Sunday, August 19, 2012


With a belly full of brunch on a wonderfully perfect Sunday morning, I'm drawn towards introspection.

Recently I've been missing California. The cooler weather and even cooler breezes lack the scent of an ocean, yet feel the same. The ocean is so far away now - and that, of all things, bothers me the most. I don't really care about beaches all that much, but I never realized how the simple sight of that body of water meant so much to me. And now, I cannot drive to see it. I have to fly.

My favorite place to see the ocean, Patrick's Point SP
I still really love Iowa, and no matter how much I miss California every now and again, I don't plan on going back. I've been thinking of my idea of 'Undaunted Conviction' when it comes to living here. I've grown accustomed to things, I feel I don't stick out as much, and the adventure part of it is not as 'exciting' and 'fresh'. And while I do go on adventures and seek fun things to do, it all lacks the shiny-newness this blog was first founded on. I live life in which all things are an adventure, and plan to continue this blog on that idea. But fewer things require an adventure to face, and what does life become when the adventure here is a more settled venture?

What I've come to find an 'Undaunted Conviction' has begun to mean is this hold on life I've slowly grown into because of coming to Iowa. I moved my whole life here, to a place I had no understanding of and where I knew no one. And on the other side, I found I have survived and I have thrived through something I never thought I could do. But moving to Iowa was just a capstone and manifestation of a whole year getting through shitty things and life changing realizations. And I truly mean life changing realizations and shitty things, the sort of things where I can look back and see the person I was before is no where near the person I am now. In the middle of something like that, you can't feel the ground and you can't see the sky, and you're torn between crying and running away and desperately wishing for everything to settle and go away. And then an opportunity in Iowa delivered me to a new start, where I could take the things I had learned and become the person I was always trying to be.

Weekly Game Night, full of things that save my soul.
Not to say that moving to Iowa answered my problems. In fact, your problems follow you no matter where you try to run. But here, I have been able to grow into myself, to live my life with the things I have learned, and to see things differently. I have a supportive group of people that can help me through things, who encourage me to grow, and push me forward to face my life and inner demons with the Undaunted Conviction that brought me here. Because let me tell you, dear friends, the inner workings of my mind are not a place for the weak and the hopeful. I fear facing my inner self so much so that any time spent alone I anxiously try to avoid the darkness full of anger and sadness that resides within my soul. This sounds dramatic, I realize, but it's true - I feel a soul-sucking loneliness at just the thought of being alone because of these inner emotions. Years of bottled up anger, sadness that cannot be solved, self-hatred in every form, and insecurities line the walls of my psyche. The insecurities are the worst lately - they eat away at everything good in my life. They make me question friendships in dark moments, reiterate the fear that I'm unlovable on too great of a frequency, and try their hardest to take away all that I've become now in Iowa.

And so I've come to realize that the Undaunted Conviction that brought me here is becoming a different thing. After spending so much time in the dark - not feeling, emoting, or understanding my life - I was forced to uncover that veneer. And now I'm left to face those exposed demons instead of pretending they don't exist. I have to acknowledge the reality of my past instead of the painted, pretty pictures I used to remember it as. I have to accept myself, and things, as they are. And I need to use that Undaunted Conviction to face my demons, my inner workings and insecurities, to continue to grow and to not fear the loneliness in such a detrimental way. I need the Undaunted Conviction to learn to be okay with myself and to truly love myself in all my manifestations.

Last night, I went to a Yawping. The idea came from a Walt Whitman poem, 'Song of Myself,' with this specific line:
"I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world."

The yawping was created to barbarically sound the ridding of past shitty things and to start life with a new, undaunted conviction. And so I yawped, with the following piece in mind:

I yawp to rid myself of insecurities.
I yawp to learn to love myself - all parts of myself, dark and sad, happy and cheerful, creative and free.
I yawp to accept my past, to no longer yearn for things that cannot be and to not let it define my future.
I yawp to let go of expectations and preconceived notions, to allow things to be as they are, and work from there.
I yawp in celebration of how far I've come, who I've left behind, and what I've grown to become and understand.
I yawp for a fearless future, of a stronger me, undaunted by the unknown, unchained by the past, open for what it may be and ready to be me.

Life isn't always easy. And I've come to find it never will be settled. I'll always have challenges and shitty things, but I know that if I face it with the same Undaunted Conviction that got me here, if I see what I've already come through, then I'll be okay. I'll come out okay in the end. And so I see myself moving forward, knowing what I can accomplish, hesitantly embracing the loneliness, and looking for the sunshine on the other side of this very long and dark road.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Artificial Corn Insemination. Or, Corn Hand-Pollination.

I need to explain something to you. Rather, I need you to understand what summer means for Christy.

Me teaching Corn HP with a co-worker at the latest SSE Conference. Picture taken by SSE photographer, Tim Johnson.
Let's talk corn - specifically, heirloom corn. And growing it in Iowa, a state full of corn. Corn is wind pollinated, which is a problem when corn grows everywhere. Wind pollination means corn pollen will try to get all up in any available corn silks, resulting in the dreaded cross-pollination. So, what does that mean when you need to save seed from heirloom corn? You hand-pollinate it. And since not only is corn wind pollinated, but extremely susceptible to inbreeding depression - you must grow at least 200 individual corn plants per variety. And now we come upon Upper Field North West, where 20 varieties of corn are growing for me to pollinate (and if you've tried out that math, make sure to note we've grown about 300 plants per variety just to be safe, so that's about 6,000 plants).

The first challenge to Corn Hand Pollination is pure survival against deer, raccoons, drought, heat, and thunderstorms. Deer love to eat random parts and tassels, raccoons will tear that shit up regardless of the effort invested on my part, the drought will dry the anthers and stunt the plants, the heat and humidity will challenge anyone attempting to pollinate the corn, and the thunderstorms will blow all that corn over (and even if you attempt to trellis the weak-ass corn, the twine just serves as a handy way to decapitate it!) I haven't even begun to think about crows, fungus, or insects - but I'm told that will come too.

A quick Corn Anatomy lession, thanks to the Plant and Soil Sciences eLibrary. 
If the corns survive (and yes, I say corns - which apparently makes me stand out as a non-midwesterner, but now I'm going with it), then we can begin the actual mating process. First, the emerging silks must be protected from random and prolific in-the-air-and-everywhere corn pollen. Here we use a little wax-lined bag to cover the silks, what I like to call a corn condom (technically, it's called a shoot bag). And if this sounds easy enough, let me clarify the process here. First, one must find emerging shoots before they silk, which in itself is a task. Leaves must be torn off, and one must make sure that the shoot isn't too small, but also not too far gone. Then, the top of the shoot must be trimmed to 'release' those tightly wound silks. The corn condoms must cover this shoot, but one must make sure to slit the leaf a little to ensure the bag stays put and your efforts are not in vain. One must attempt to find two shoots per plant. When silks start showing up, carefully protected in the little corn condoms, then one can begin the next step.

Now pollen must be collected. This involves stapling bigger bags around the tassels of the corn. But not just any tassel will do - oh no. You need an actual shedding tassel, one that's not too spent but one that's not too early. If you find any of these, then you have to staple the bags on in such a way that the wind won't blow them off and the pollen won't fall through. And this must be done as late as possible in the afternoon to ensure the freshest of pollen for morning pollination. If you're preparing to pollinate a variety, you have to go through and double check the shoots and shoot bags, trimming any silks that have gotten too long and releasing silks that may be trapped in shoot leaves. At this point, it helps to mark any bags that are ready.

Come morning time, one must wait for the dew to dry up and for pollen to begin shedding, meaning actual pollination doesn't start until 10am. At this point, tassel bags are carefully collected, all the pollen is consolidated into one bag, and anthers/ants/aphids/etc are filtered out. Hopefully at the end of this, you'll have a bag full of pollen. Now comes the actual pollination part, in which a shoot bag is lifted, pollen is dumped onto it, spread a round a little, and then a used tassel bag is stapled around the shoot and stalk in a specific way that will make sure it doesn't blow off. You have to make sure the silks won't get any other pollen. We also mark each shoot with flagging tape so that if the bags fly off at the end of the season, we'll still know which corn we pollinated.

This all sounds understandable and not that difficult - tedious, but otherwise easy right? Well, there are a few more things to learn. First, corn wants to outbreed - meaning, it really doesn't want to mate with itself. This means it's likely to shed pollen when the shoots aren't ready, or visa versa. And while this may be smart of the plant, you come upon situations in which only 30 of the 300 plants have shoots, but the tassels are at the peak of pollen shedding. So, we have to pollinate just those 30 shoots, and repeat this process until we get as close to 200 as possible. This means we may go through a particular variety 2, 3, or 4 times depending on how asynchronous the pollen-silking is. Which is fun.

What makes it even more fun is that because we're working with heirloom corn, this shit is crazy. Some varieties are only a foot tall, others are incredibly bushy, some have tassel-ears, some need to be cut three inches to release the silks, others will push silks up before you can even see the shoot, and some will just fall over if you look at them wrong. Genetic diversity, at its finest. And with a drought, we have the additional challenge of stunted, short plants ... where several of our varieties are no more than three feet tall. Try pollinating that all day. It's fun. The scarier part of the drought, actually, is the fact that it shortens the window you can pollinate (6-8 days to 2-3), it dries up the silks and pollen quicker, and it forces plants to chose between ears or tassels. Essentially, despite all this hard work, our yield is going to suck.

So, welcome to my summer in Iowa. I do corn all day, and that isn't even enough time. It takes three people 2.5 hours to pollinate just two varieties ... and I have 20 to pollinate. Several times. And just one extra person to help me, maybe two in a week.

We tell a lot of dirty Corn HP jokes.

In the end, Corn Hand Pollination forces me to accept situations as they are, to be at mercy of things outside of my control on an everyday basis, and to work outside during the heat and humidity of Iowa all day. It's building Midwestern character I never thought I'd need. That's a silver lining, isn't it?