I’m at Camp Grandma with the boys this week, out here in what those on the coasts like to call “flyover country.” Should you find yourself flying over these middle parts, before you get to the rumpled mountains further to the west, and if you look down (wondering perhaps how much longer you can stand sitting in coach with the seat in front of you reclined practically to your lap and the circulation slowly vanishing from your extremities), the earth is measured off in tidy squares of greenish brown and brownish green, like some monochromatic chessboard.
Down here, though, in the flown-over states, those checkboards are green green green, with soybeans and corn, corn and soybeans. There’s the occasional cow or horse roaming around, just often enough to make city boys sitting in the back of grandma’s car yell out “A HORSE!” “A COW!” with the same excitement I imagine Edison felt when that damn lightbulb finally went on.
Camp Grandma is surrounded by corn. Everywhere is corn, corn, corn, baby, and while the sweet corn I’ve been getting at the Union Square Farmer’s Market is good, it’s not as good as this stuff. Sweet and crunchy and creamy, all in one bite. Hot off the grill, sprinkled with a little salt and pepper, a smear of butter dripping down the side…heaven.
When I say corn is everywhere, I mean everywhere: it’s even in the air. There are two corn processing plants here and when they cook the corn, the scent wafts over the entire city: an acrid smell, a bit like, well, burned corn, and a bit like burned sugar. It’s not an entirely unpleasant smell, but it’s pervasive, just hanging there in the air above the corn fields, which are all marked with red and green and yellow signs indicating which Monsanto seeds are being used in that particular row. The corn processing plants cook the corn so that it can become high fructose corn syrup, corn sugars…the list is endless.
In the midst of all this corn is… a water park, which we went to yesterday. Liam was thrilled because he is now finally 48″ tall, which is the baseline for all the big slides and water chutes. Every year we come to Camp Grandma and every year until yesterday, he’s not been tall enough for the “big kid” part of the park, which infuriates him. So he disappeared into the scrum of kids waiting to fling themselves into a dark watery tunnel, while Grandma, Caleb, and I settled for the gentler pleasure of bumping along a “river” in big inner tubes.
Over the entire park hung the delicate scent of corn being processed, and as we floated past the snack bar, I realized we were inside a kind of closed circuit of corn. At the snack bar, people waited in line for their burger-fries-soda combos; teenagers stretched out in the sun, clutching their cans of diet soda; more kids than I could count wandered around swigging gallon tubs of soda or “fruit drink.” That’s the circuit: from corn in the fields, to the corn scent in the air, to the high fructose corn syrup in those gallon cups…and as we move through the circuit, we pick up diabetes, obsesity, heart disease, and environmental damage (did you know that it takes about a half-gallon of fossil fuel to produce one bushel of corn?)
I’m feeling a little apocalyptic these days, not because I’m in the flown-over lands, but because I just finished The Passage–a thriller set in some not too distant (but dreadful) future, sort of like The Stand but with really nasty vampires instead of Randall Flagg. In The Passage, the author imagines the entire Gulf of Mexico as a petrochemical swamp and New Orleans as a toxic dump. It’s not an image that’s central to the novel (which is really a pretty good beach read; you should probably click on the amazon link over there to the right and buy it for yourself, or download it or whatever), but it’s stuck with me as I think about (and smell) all this corn.
At what point does our desire for a habitable planet trump our desire for a Diet Coke?