I was listening to the radio the other day, when I heard a commercial for a festival in one of the towns near my community. "We'll be celebrating corn," the announcer said, "the root of our society." I have heard people say other things to this effect about the centrality of corn in Nicaraguan culture. I have also witnessed it first hand. Every day the men in my community go out ot work in the corn fields, while at home the women process the mature plant into tortillas, breads, crackers, corn-on-the-cob, and any number of other things. People here have a daily, intimate relationship with corn. It is their livelihood and their nourishment. People here love corn. They identify with corn.
Since hearing that radio announcement, I've been trying to come up with an analog in American culture. What is at the root of our society? Wheat? Most of use probably eat flour every day. Corn syrup? Honestly, we probably produce more corn than Nicaragua does. Petroleum? Americans do depend heavily on oil. Apples? Apples are quintessentially American - Johnny Appleseed, "American as apple pie". All of these things certainly pertain to American culture, but none of them really has the resonance that corn has in Nicaragua. With none of these do we have the kind of hands-on, dependent, loving relationship that Nicaraguans have with corn.
After several days of deliberation, my best hypothesis as to the root of American culture is the automobile. I'm not being glib. Think about it - most Americans have a daily relationship with their cars. They depend on the car for their livelihood;without it they wouldn't be able to get to work. We use cars to meet our basic needs for food and clothing. We mark life transitions with the car - from the carseat to the backseat to the front seat, and 16 to the driver's seat.Buying one's first car is an important step on the path to adulthood. We drive to weddings and celebrations in limousines. We ride to our final resting place in a hearse. There are plenty of songs about cars - Greased Lightning, Born to Run, etc. We build our cities and suburbs around automobile transportations. We go on family outings and take road trips in our cars. Some people make a kind of mobile nest out of their cars, keeping toiletries, changes of clothing, food, and all kinds of other things in their cars. People listen to music, have important conversations, and do some of their best thinking in cars. People name their cars. They cry when their cars die. Yep, I'm convinced that cars are to our culture as corn is to theirs.
I'd be very interested ot hear any alternative hypotheses as to the basis of American culture. And stay tuned for my next post, on plastic.
Garden update: garlic is growing great; spinach, kale and carrots have sprouted; lettuce seeds were carted off by an ant colony. Can't win 'em all.