Out Divine Corners Way
by Jonathan Shimkin
For the first time in several summers we didn’t plant corn in the garden, so a few days after the autumn equinox I went to a local farmstand and bought a sheaf of cornstalks. These were bigger and heavier than our home-grown crop – professional cornstalks. It took a bit of grappling with stalks and twine, and the better part of a morning, to get them tied to our porch posts. I placed an uncarved pumpkin at the base of each post to complete the tableau.
This is an autumn rite I relish, yet this year it was mixed with an uncommon sense of urgency, an impulse to turn from the bleakness of the contemporary scene and connect to a rhythm deeper and steadier than the disquieting fibrillations of our nation’s public life. I wanted to touch the pulse of the perennial, and found it in this old custom.
Corn, pumpkin, squash, melon, apples: fruits of the season, emblems of harvest, representatives of a natural round as old as agriculture, a cycle that surpasses and subdues our twitchy 24/7 news cycle. The celebration of harvest emerges out of ancient themes – fertility, death, regeneration – that humanity shares, at root, with the plants and the crops. Traditional folklore and balladry knew this well and sang of it in songs like “John Barleycorn” (the life of a stalk of cereal grain figured as a human life) and “Barbara Allen” (the fate of star-crossed lovers figured as plant life, with rose and briar growing from the lovers’ graves).
“Folk music is just based on myth,” Bob Dylan once said, “it comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death and all kinds of things like that which are nothing but mystery and you can see it in all the songs: roses growing out of people’s brains, and lovers who are really geese, and swans that turn into angels, and seven years of this and eight years of that and it’s all really something that nobody can really touch.”
It was precisely that “something that nobody can really touch” that I was looking to touch by means of the ritual with the cornstalks – something contained in, and conveyed through, custom. When, during the course of the day, I pause to look at the symbolic fronds and gourds adorning the entrance to our cottage, I feel an intimation of traditional wisdom that harkens back to mythic, and not historical, time, a wisdom that serves as a necessary balance to the wild gyrations of our current national moment, in which things fall apart and the center does not hold and the very flaring of the autumn colors takes on an ironic cast, so wide is the gap between the perennial and the contemporary.
Perhaps it’s in those forms of custom and art, based on myth and mystery, that the gap is bridged. “In custom and in ceremony /Are innocence and beauty born…” – when Yeats wrote his prayer for his daughter, he wished for her a life rooted in custom. I understand now a bit better what he meant. Custom is a conduit for a timeless wisdom, and all the more precious these days, when one feels a wisdom deficit of staggering proportions, when detachment is not enough to maintain steadiness and one needs some shoring up, just as the cornstalks need twine to stay upright. So I turn to my yearly rite as a source of consolation and continuity, with its links to cycles of time beyond our measure, and I turn towards home, at the end of the day: the cornstalks wave in the wind as daylight fades, and the pumpkins glow in the dusk as if lit from within.