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Hearing Corn Grow

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

"Do you not run through life too fast, Mr. Henderson?" an African native asks the ambitious, restless main character of a Saul Bellows novel. Here's a simple test to discover whether or not you are a Henderson.

Have you ever spent an evening listening to corn grow? If you think I'm pulling your leg, be assured that I'm too responsible ever to do that. I'm in earnest. A field of corn stretching out across the Iowa or Illinois prairie above our river valley bluffs is one of nature's great symphonies.

You need to plan ahead. A corn symphony's season is short—three weeks in July at best—weeks when the corn is well up and just beginning to feel an urge to stretch toward its epiphany of golden ears.

Pick one of those July days so hot the landscape shimmers in the distance. Then, in early afternoon, there must be a drenching shower soaking the fields. On that kind of an evening, shortly after nine o'clock, take a blanket, spread it out at the edge of a field of corn, be silent, and wait. The corn stalks are drinking in the moisture.

The overture is about to begin. Corn is a grass, its stalks a series of sheaths pushing out of each other as the stalks grow rapidly in the wet July heat. Their rubbing against each other as they stretch produces random squeaks, squeals and squawks, pops and snaps, first individual corn stalks answering each other and then a whole field of sound, crickets and frogs and nighthawks joining in with their night music.

Corn is not the only symphony out there; it is merely our Midwest version of what the Medieval world called "nature naturing," a world of movement and sound where every animal, bird, and plant finds its appropriate song in the great dance of engendering, birthing, living and dying.

Too many of us have become Hendersons, controlled by appointments at nine, ten-thirty, three, and five, and content merely to eat the corn, missing the magic of listening to it grow.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.