Writer in Residence

On Painted Mountain Corn and Writing in Relation to Gardening

Submitted by Angélique Lalonde

Winter is the time for gardeners to rest, and to begin thinking of the next season. Usually, by the time November arrives, I am so very grateful that the garden has lessened its hold on me, resting under ice and snow, giving me more time to write. In November I always plan to do less in the garden next year, because the garden sometimes feels like just one more thing I have to tend to in an already full life. Which saddens me, because I remember a time when gardening felt like a form of connection with a world beyond myself.

          The garden used to be a place, like walking, and like art-making, and like my best writing, in which I felt immanence, in which my being felt like a creative act rather than a doing act. Having children later in life reorients the time writing mothers have for the work they want to do in the world.

          My relationship to gardening also shifted after working as a market gardener for two years, and subsisting primarily off the food grown on the farm where I was working. When I moved off the farm, I was so very grateful to have my own garden again. One not laid out in long rows for ease of cultivation with machinery, and efficiency of harvesting large quantities to take to market. Now my garden is laid out with foot paths that fit the width of my feet, and in odd herringbone rows that run into one another and then shift direction. My favourite plants are the volunteers that come back year to year and surprise me where they show up, around which I have to shift the annuals I love to eat that don’t survive northern winters.

          Following November’s freezes, and the resting time in the darkness of December, I begin to stir when I feel the light returning and the promise of what that might mean. I forget that the garden seemed like too much work and I begin to dream of seeds. Winter is the time to sift through seeds collected from the previous season, and to plan for which new seeds might find a place in next season’s garden. Even though I have so many seeds and limited space in which to grow them, I always find myself perusing seed catalogues and imagining what it might be like to grow Black Futsu squash, Violaceo di Verona cabbage, Marvel of Venice pole bean, or Painted Mountain corn.

          Usually in winter I feel an expansiveness in writing, because it feels like the right kind of alignment between being and world to be inside at my desk, to be present with quietness. The garden is sleeping ,the plants in the forest are sleeping, many critters are sleeping, burrowed beneath earth, or in the crooks of sleeping trees, and others have gone elsewhere to live out the portions of their migratory lives that happen away from here. There is so much less for me to get involved in. So much less life calling my attention this way and that. What a relief winter is! It’s a time when I feel like I have the space to create new works, and the attention to edit the scraps scratched out over the busy months of spring, summer and fall, when growing things need my attention to be tended and then put by.         

          Gitxsan territory in the coastal mountains of northwest BC is not the best place to grow corn, which is why I was thrilled this year to find a variety of corn called Painted Mountain corn, adapted to grow in the Rocky Mountains in Montana where the growing season, although hotter and dryer in the summer, is also shorter in terms of frost-free days. So I decided I would try once again, after giving it up, to grow corn this year. The Painted Mountain corn seduced me with its variegated rainbow of hues splattered onto multicoloured cobs. It convinced me with its beauty that I could grow corn after all.        

          Corn will not survive frost, so like many of the plants I grow that do not like frost, I had to start the corn inside in seed trays and tend the seedlings under light before the world warmed up enough near the end of May to safely transplant them in the garden. I had not expected the multicoloured stalks! The vertical effusions of purple, red, green and yellow sprouting bright green leaves. We had a hot enough summer this year, so the corn did bear seed.        

          I pulled the cobs this week and brought them inside, because frosts are coming, and it is now so wet outside that the cobs had started to mould and slugs had started to find their way inside. My harvest was humble. Some stalks had cobs that had not been properly pollinated because they emerged during wet spells, and some had been spottily pollinated, only smatterings of viable seed on the cobs, yet others were gorgeous, and I peeled back their husks, tying them with twine to hang and dry in the kitchen, promising my children one batch of popcorn to make from the seed, with enough seed to save for next season.         

          The painted corn feels like magic to me, even now as I look at the tall stalks still standing in the garden, interwoven with squash and bright yellow and orange calendula. The hanging cobs draw my eyes toward them, stopping me. How could it be possible, I wonder, for so much edible beauty to be gathered in one place? I am grateful to the ancestors who cultivated the corn’s ancestors, interweaving a desire for beauty and sustenance into the emergence of this plant.        

          The Marvel of Venice pole beans just started flowering about 2 weeks ago, not suited to this climate, they won’t produce any beans this year. And the Black Futsu squash and Violaceo di Verona cabbage will need more attention next year, given two seasons to see if somewhere better in the garden, or different conditions of rain and sun might produce better results than they did this year.        

          The plants are like stories. Some begin and flourish into something bigger, growing over time, to be returned to and tended, words edited and moved around, trying things in one place and then another to see what might come, and yet others vining up and reaching a place where it is clear they can go no further, perhaps a smattering of lovely mauve flowers that will feed some bees to take the pollen elsewhere for some other kind of story to emerge in another place and another time.       

          Sometimes it feels frustrating, like too much work, and it seems difficult to understand why so much effort is needed, and yet other times the stories and plants flow and flourish like some kind of magic and its easy to forget the work that came and will come, or perhaps instead its just that it doesn’t feel so much like work then as creative play, and its hard to imagine wanting to spend time doing anything else.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Angélique Lalonde was the recipient of the 2019 Journey Prize, has been nominated for a National Magazine Award, and was awarded an Emerging Writer’s residency at the Banff Centre. Her work has been published in numerous journals and magazines. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology from the University of Victoria. Lalonde is the second-eldest of four daughters. She dwells on Gitxsan Territory in Northern British Columbia with her partner, two small children, and many non-human beings.