Saturday, March 8, 2008

History Matters: West-Bloomfield inhabitants’ transition from corn-eaters to corn-consumers

We, as suburbanites living in Greater West Bloomfield, are the fourth in a chain of residents living on this land. The three groups that preceded us are Native Americans, farmers, and vacationers. As the Township has transitioned through these four phases of inhabitation, its residents have transitioned from being corn-eaters to being corn-consumers. The Native Americans that came before us grew and consumed the sun’s energy that was harnessed within corn. Today, as suburbanites, we consume proportionately greater amounts of corn—in the forms of processed food and ethanol.

Corn-Eaters

Charles Martinez’s Song of the Heron cites an 1826 report that references Native Americans living on Apple Island and around Orchard Lake: “A pleasant fertile island, containing about fifty acres, on which there is an orchard rises (sic) in the center of Orchard lake, and is cultivated by Indians, who occupy good bark huts in the primitive state, situation adjacent to the lake on the table land isthmus, that separates lakes Orchard and Cass, and commands a view of these extensive sheets of water. . . . Ears of corn mottled with a diversity of colors, and dried fish, were suspended within and around their huts.” Corn’s life-sustaining properties were also recognized by the Pilgrims, who survived their first winter at Plymouth Colony because local Wampanoag Indians shared their harvest.

Corn-Consumers

Corn has become a cheap commodity—so much so that we have become corn-consumers. In his 2006 bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan persuasively notes the plight of our food choices today: the average supermarket has 45,000 items, more than a quarter of which contain corn. We are spending considerable amounts of fossil-fuel energy processing corn into other foodstuffs, delivered to our dinner tables in vehicles sometimes powered by corn. As consumers we have options. For example, eight months a year, my wife and I have a Saturday morning date at the Oakland County Farmer’s Market in Pontiac. There we have befriended the potato guy, the peach guy and the egg lady, as we affectionately refer to them, who have taught us about the unique characteristics of their farms, farming practices and even their families. As Pollan suggests, it is critical to know what we are eating, where it comes from, how it found its way to our table and what it really costs.

Three-Sisters Garden coming to West Bloomfield

This summer the township will have the opportunity to step back to a time of corn-eaters: when the earliest inhabitants were growing corn and other staples in what is referred to as a three-sisters garden. Michigan native Tony Schad, an expert on Native American lifeways, will prepare such a garden at Shulak Farm on Maple Road, by interplanting Native American corn, beans and squash (the three sisters) in traditional mounds with a perimeter of tobacco plants.

The project will begin on May 7 with a presentation that describes the sources of Native American corn and the processes and techniques used to tend the garden. It will culminate this fall with a harvest of the crops. For more information about this project see, “Three-Sisters Garden” on page 1. We are looking for volunteers to help maintain the garden during the summer. I hope to see you at Schulak Farm!

Charles Martinez’s Song of the Heron: Reflections on the History of West Bloomfield is available at the West Bloomfield libraries and for purchase at the Orchard Lake Museum or at www.gwbhs.com Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma is available at the West Bloomfield Library and in bookstores.


About the GWBHS

The Greater West Bloomfield Historical Society (GWBHS) is a non-profit, tax-exempt organization. It serves the Michigan communities of Keego Harbor, Orchard Lake, Sylvan Lake and West Bloomfield. The Society's goal is to provide a vital museum to familiarize residents with our area's history. For more information, please visit www.gwbhs.com