The Planting Stick
“Consider the corn plant being like a human life. The plant emerges from the silent seed, rising toward the light on a spiraling journey. The thrusting stalk reaches levels of experience; its growth tells the story. The corn maturing on the stalk is full with rich seeds, rich stories to be told again and again; giving nourishment. The drying tassel rattling in the breeze tells the story of completing this journey and the continuing movement reconnecting one living mystery with another."
- Larry Littlebird, Pueblo Elder/Storyteller
The first year we planted corn at our off-grid farm in the high desert of New Mexico I learned significant planting precepts that were very different from the one’s I grew up with in the Midwest. It was May 2010 and we were holding a four-day retreat at our nonprofit’s 320-acre wild land sanctuary located south of Santa Fe on ancestral Puebloan lands. My husband Larry Littlebird and I lived, farmed and held contemplative spiritual retreats there for 15 years, and also taught regenerative living systems and traditional farming methods based on indigenous land wisdom.
This particular program was called “The Planting Stick” and offered an experiential retreat for deepening one’s actions for living simply and sustainably on the land. The invitation was to discover how your walking stick becomes your listening stick which then becomes your planting stick. It just so happened the second day of the retreat fell on May 15th which is San Isidro Feast Day. Saint Isidro is the revered patron saint of farmers, peasants and agricultural workers. We hadn’t planned the retreat to be on this day it just so happened the date landed on that weekend. Serendipitous happenings tended to flow like that at our retreat-farm-sanctuary. Woven into and through – blessings appeared.
In New Mexico, the Hispanic communities commemorate San Isidro Day by gathering to bless their fields and the ancient acequia irrigation systems. The Pueblo Indians have similar farming traditions related to the sacred acequia and spring communal “ditch cleaning” time.
Isidore the Farmer was born in Madrid, Spain in 1070, a long time ago and a far wide distance from the Great Southwest. He was a deeply religious and hardworking farmer who put God at the center of his life. He was known for his piety toward the poor and animals and many miracles were attributed to his intercession.
European cultures have written documentations of these historical people and events. I have witnessed similar attributes with holy men and women I have encountered at the Pueblos. Yet their stories of miracles are not recorded in written form rather passed down through an unwritten oral tradition. Rarely, do you hear these stories unless you are blessed to show up and be there at just the right telling time.
On that day with the vast azure blue sky that New Mexico is known for, five women from various backgrounds arrived to attend our four-day retreat. After pitching their tents and getting settled into our traditional style Native camp, we all gathered in the Council Lodge tipi for an opening ceremony. My husband Larry was leading this retreat and I was blessed to be a participant taking a welcome break from co-facilitating.
Larry gave each of us a crudely whittled tall stick made from Juniper branches. He then told us we would take the first step in planting corn. Oddly, his instructions were for us to go on a hike with our walking sticks – and then take time to sit alone in the remote landscape and listen to the voice in the land. He encouraged us to offer up good thoughts and prayers in our own personal way and to sing songs. He told us a story about how the Pueblo men would go to the mountains to be close to the clouds where the rain lived. Here they would offer their prayers and songs to Creator for a good planting season and a bountiful harvest.
As the day unfolded, to our astonishment we began to see billowing white clouds form from the cloudless blue morning sky. By the end of the first day a large swath of clouds hung over the designated planting field. We were reverently quiet in that time giving thanks as the sun went down. I was in awe watching those clouds form and remembered the story I had just heard earlier that morning. Now I was seeing the story come alive in real time and place.
The next day, May 15, we arrived at the unplowed field of raw earth which had never been farmed. We all carried the walking sticks we had been given the day before. Larry showed us how our walking stick and listening stick would now become our planting stick. We watched intently as he walked down the length of the field dragging his stick behind him making a crude wavy line in the dirt. The dirt was chunky and hard with imbedded stones and clods of dry soil. Peering down the field, we could see a clearly defined line Larry’s planting stick had etched into the rough brown earth.
“There, now you can plant four corn seeds every 2 feet”, he said matter of fact.
I was carrying a pouch of corn seeds we had seed saved from another corn patch when we lived in Santa Fe. They were dazzling dark blue seeds called Blue Aztec Corn –an heirloom corn known for grinding into a nutrient dense rich blue cornmeal.
The women fell into an orderly fashion and quiet rhythm as we began to plant with our newly transformed planting sticks. Three women planted while the other three of us handed them the corn seeds from our seed pouches. Then we all switched so each one of us could experience planting the seeds.
Larry told us to simply cover the seeded lines over by gently moving the dirt with the toe of our shoes to create a small mound of earth over each four seed grouping. Now it was time to water the seeds. Being completely off grid and in the early days of our retreat sanctuary, we didn’t have water running down to the garden site. So, we had to walk a ways up to the top of the hill where our solar well was located and haul water in 5-gallon water jugs down to the garden.
We made several treks up and down carrying water to the newly planted cornfield. Again, Larry gave us simple instructions. “Just water each small four-seeded mound with 5 cups of water each. This, Larry explained was how they used to grow corn in the village. An age-old dryland farming method!
At the end of the weekend, we gathered in the Lodge for a closing circle. Satiated from the weekend of blessings and filled to the brim with gratitude, we all went around the circle and shared our walking-listening-planting stick stories with one another. Then Larry sang a beautiful corn grinding song for us and demonstrated how to grind corn on a very old grinding stone that was sitting in the middle of the tipi space.
“The women typically sing this song," he said somewhat apologetic. He told us how it was the Pueblo women who grind the corn, sharing pertinent details that respectfully honored his culture and traditions. Continuing he said, “But we are a little group and a newly formed community of farmers, so today we will adapt and do our best. And we will sing from our pure hearts to our Creator to bless our cornfield and this time of planting.”
It was a reverential time. Seeds planted with good hearts and songs, watered with prayers and thanksgiving on ancestral Puebloan lands.
After the retreat was over, Larry and I were still camped out on the land as we often did in the first few years of developing the farm. We faithfully watered the corn seeds every day, hauling water and dipping out the 5 cups on each dirt mound. Prayers and watering. We continued in this meditative rhythm for four days. On the fifth day, when we arrived at the field, little shoots of bright green had emerged from the mud cracked earth. It was nothing short of a miracle in my eyes.
Excitedly, I called all of the women who had attended the retreat and while on a call with one of the women, she exclaimed, “Did you know that it was San Isidro Day on May 15th, the day we planted the corn?” “No”, I replied, “who is San Isidro?” “He is the patron saint of farming," she told me.
After hanging up the phone, I walked back over to the field with its little slivers of vibrant green corn sprouts now held tenderly in the bosom of our Mother’s brown earth. Standing there in the presence of this generous moment, I whispered, “Thank you.”
Later, I continued to wonder, who was this Saint Isidro? So, I read about Isidro and was amazed by the story of this anointed farmer and discovered how here in New Mexico many rural communities celebrate this day on May 15.
The clouds kept forming more each day. Then seven days later the rain came. After that, we added bean and squash seeds around the fully emerging corn plants. This is another traditional Native American farming method that nourishes the soil and supports the corn. They call this “planting the three sisters.” The three crops of corn, beans and squash complement each other in the garden by providing shade, nitrogen to the soil and moisture retention. They also complement each other when harvested offering nourishing culinary benefits.
This May as I plant a garden in another new place, I remember that first humble cornfield at Tano Farm and how it nourished a spiritual foundation for many seasons of bountiful harvests.
The planting stick experience showed me how things seen and unseen work in concert. What it feels like to walk prayerfully on the land with a simple walking stick - listening to the eternal echoes on the land. Walking in blessing. Walking by faith with a corresponding action. How open hearts are ripe for harvest. And how a small handful of people planting seeds joyfully together witnessed a sacrament on holy ground right beneath our feet.
Our deepest gratitude to Larry Littlebird for sharing
his beautiful Keres Pueblo stories and deep wisdom with so many people!