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Sweetcorn Diplomacy

Saturday morning we showed at the Ukiah farm about seven o'clock to start picking sweetcorn. The market starts at nine. No matter how tasty your sweetcorn is, it's always better harvested that morning, as the sugars turn to starch over time.

At first I planned on dropping off the corn and heirloom Mickey Lee watermelons at Phil Cool's table in downtown Ukiah, then driving on to Boonville for the farmer's market, but as I twisted the ears from the stalks and opened the silky tips to inspect, it seemed like one out of five either had poor pollination or was still immature. That slowed the process as I wandered around the field rather than snatching every ear up and down the rows.

"Could have been that week when it was 110," said Phil at the market, as I showed him one of the sketchy specimens, pulling the husks back. "The silks only have a few hours to pollinate, and when it's hot like that they dry up."

While customers lined up for sweetcorn, Phil at the next table had people stopping by for milkweed starts. I had somewhat chuckled when he'd mentioned selling milkweeds. Twenty years ago such a proposition would have been ludicrous, but ever since the entire Mississippi valley was converted to Round-Up Ready GMO corn and soybeans, the relatively benign, perrennial weed has disappeared. Due to organic, also somewhat slacker practices, one of the sand hills at our Indiana farm still hosts a healthy patch, maybe a quarter acre. Nobody ever would have thought milkweeds would be in danger if they tried hoeing it out of a sweetcorn field. The deep-rooted plant shoots another stalk right back at you. A week later it's two feet tall again. But it was no match for Round-Up.

The only attention I'd ever paid to milkweeds besides futilely hoeing them was in elementary school when we always brought one in the classroom, complete with the Monarch butterfly's emerald chrysalis, to watch the miracle transformation. Because herbicides have nearly wiped out the once prolific plant species, the Monarch butterfly is now endangered. People — mostly homesteaders, I gathered, were purchasing entire flats of milkweed starts. Phil was selling out as fast as we were!

About 10:40, as the last few dozen ears were disappearing from our table at the rate of fifty cents each, I got a text from Sara Songbird. The Real Saras were performing at Dig! Music, show starting at 11. Sara Ryan wanted sweetcorn.

Quickly I made my way to the truck that was still loaded with Mickey Lee watermelons, and set aside four or five of the best sweetcorn ears.

"She thinks you and your songs are utterly disgusting," Songbird had confided to me several times, referring to her bandmate.

We'd started out on an awkward note. In November of 2014 my son, then 17, and I took the train from Indiana to San Francisco. From there we rode the bay area buses north to the downtown station in Santa Rosa, where we had a few hours to wait for the Ukiah bus. That was where we ran into a girl we knew, Amber, who was just getting off the southbound.

Amber was 20 at the time. She'd lived at our Indiana farmhouse the previous winter, and gone out west with some musicians who'd hoped for trimming work. By the time my son and I recognized the girl at the Santa Rosa station, she was drifting alone.

We tried to take her out for burgers at a swank place nearby, but she only picked up the fries as if to examine them. She barely responded to our questions, and wouldn't look at us. Considering the scant odds of running into someone we cared about from back home, and her clear disorientation, we suggested she come to Boonville with us. No way we wanted to see her drifting in that condition. For several hours we hung out and drank beer from paper coffee cups at the bus station. I played banjo, warming up after two days on the train. Sara Songbird had scheduled band practice for six o'clock at Goodness Grows Nursery in Anderson Valley. That Saturday night we had a gig booked for Lauren's. I was going to open for the Real Saras, and their band was going to back up some of my tunes, without Sara Ryan, who didn't feel comfortable doing vocals for enduring ditties like "Piss Test" and "Crank Ho in the Basement."

The bus dropped us off in Ukiah at about 4:30. I phoned Songbird to see if she'd give us a ride, but she was busy in Boonville. Sara Ryan was driving down from Willits, she said, and connected with us to meet near the bus stop off Perkins.

With nothing to do but sit for an hour at the Pear Tree Mall, I decided to pick up a six pack of Boont Amber to celebrate being back in Mendo. Several homeless, grungy winos joined our growing party. By the time Sara showed up in a tiny car, pulling in along the curb, you would not have been able to distinguish us from our new friends. My son wore leather redneck boots, dirty blue jeans, and carried an old backpack that had been repaired with conspicuous duct tape. I saw our ride's jaw drop as we stood up with our baggage. It took forever to arrange the banjo, guitar, and all of us into the cramped quarters. No doubt we smelled like the streets, especially in such tight confines, this being sunset in late fall, the windows rolled up, the heat on.

As she made the turn towards Boonville on 253, I jubilantly cracked open the last beer. "Thanks so much for the lift," I said. "Nice to finally meet you."

"You can't have open containers in here!"


As she nervously kept the car on the road around the curves and glanced in the rear view mirror at Amber, my son and I tried to explain that the girl had recently experienced some kind of trauma, was lost, and we had run into her at the bus station. It must have made no sense to Sara. By the time we hit Boonville, dropped my son and Amber off in town, and showed up for band practice, I'd made my first impression.

Amber ended up wandering off from the General Store the next morning after a sleepless night of pacing. She was afraid to sleep, so nobody else could, either. She meandered out into the Hiatt logging equipment yard.

Eventually the girl made her way to rehab, and is now attending college in Tennessee.

After selling out of sweetcorn at the Ukiah Saturday market, we made our way to Dig Music, where the show had already started. The place was packed, and we squeezed past people to the back. As always, the three Saras blew us away with their harmonies and original tunes. After the show I had to wait around while patrons and fans chatted it up with the band, before finally getting a chance to walk up with the sweetcorn ears dangling from my hand, as a peace offering.

"Maybe I was wrong about you," she said. "Thanks. You're not as disgusting as I thought."

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