Long before European settlers plowed the Plains, corn was an important part of the diet of Native American tribes like the Omaha, Ponca and Cherokee. Today, members of some tribes are hoping to revive their food and farming traditions by planting the kinds of indigenous crops their ancestors once grew.
Taylor Keen is hoping to lead that comeback in Nebraska. On a warm, bright September afternoon, Keen is singing to the corn. Walking through a maze of corn rows and a carpet of pumpkin vines behind his home in Omaha, Neb., he wears a cowboy hat, Wranglers and a traditional bead necklace.
“Well, this is what was formerly known as my backyard and is now home to the ‘four sisters,’ ” Keen says. “We have corn, bean, squash and the sunflower.”
He calls them the four sisters because of how they work together. The beans fertilize the corn as they climb the stalks. Sunflowers hold them up against the wind. Squash keep the raccoons at bay. There are also tomatoes, okra, gourds, sage and sweet grass.
In the small town of Sunderland, Mass., is a 300-year-old, family-run plot of land that fuses fine art and farming.
Mike Wissemann’s 8-acre cornfield maze is a feat of ingenuity, with carefully planned and executed stalk-formed replicas of notables such as the Mona Lisa, Albert Einstein and Salvador Dalí.
But how do those pictures come to life? Maybe you remember Skill-o-Gram puzzles, in which the clues are squares that have labels like A-4 or F-5, each one holding part of the design. When those parts are copied into a blank grid, they create a whole picture.
Corn is also planted on a grid. By breaking the field into squares on paper or computer, each one holding a piece of the picture, and scaling up, you’ve got a blueprint. But in a cornfield, the picture is pixelated, so it’s kind of like creating a giant halftone photo, using the density of the corn to make the image darker or lighter.
At Treinen farm in Lodi, Wis., the maze’s theme and method are much different. Designer Angie Treinen was inspired this year by all of the cute things she found on the Internet: ninja kittens, cupcakes with faces, unicorns, narwhals and rainbows. Her style is based on the Japanese art style known as “Kawaii,” which means “cute.”
Treinen’s is a century-old, family-run farm. About 15 of the farm’s 200 acres are devoted to the corn maze. Here, maze cutting is still designed and executed the old-fashioned way, by using a lot of graph paper and elbow grease.