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Learning spiritual lessons from one Hopi dry farmer on his last day in the cornfield

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

“We’re out here at the very edge. My family, Sun Forehead Clan, they call us the last people,” said Gary Tso. “Depending on how early your clan arrived is how close your field is to the village. Bear Clan — they were first. Their cornfields are closest to the mesa. All of the other inner areas were already occupied, so out here this is what we call the very edge.”

Ancestors from his clan reached atop the towering Second Mesa off in the distance only about 400 years ago. Three ancient pueblo villages, Mishongnovi, Sipaulovi and Shungopavi, call this 5,700-foot flat-topped geographical landmark their home.

There aren’t any more plots beyond this barren spot nestled in sprawling fields at the bottom of the massive mesa along State Route 87. Tso’s single acre field resides on the Hopi Reservation. It’s enough land for him to steward.

Three decades of dry farming — growing crops without irrigation — all by himself. Relying on as little few as 8 inches of rain and snowfall annually, Tso firmly believes: “Individuals cannot survive in an environment like this, only units do.”

“That’s what drew us Hopis here. We wanted to design a society of people that is unit-oriented, that is incredibly religious,” Tso elaborated. “We are ritually giving; all of this is tied to each other.”

Corn is sacred to their Hopi way of life, often used during prayers and ceremonies year round. Even newborn babies are given Corn Mothers, a little ear of white corn with four kernels at the tip, when welcomed into the world.

An only son, Tso began stewarding his mother’s seeds after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps until 1993. Now, the 55-year-old is rustling through rows of withering corn stalks, searching for ears of Hopi corn and dumping them into his plastic purple laundry basket.

“I really don’t want those ones. I want the ones that are dry,” said Tso. “I'm gonna walk through here, salvage what I can salvage and then after that, I'm not going to come back.”

Today’s his last day in the field before this spring in preparation for next season. He’s been out a couple of times, picking the maturer ears during earlier months. Despite collecting most of them that have already reached their full potential, it’s still a profoundly solemn time.

“We’re gonna lay them down. You do that with reverence. You inter them,” Tso explained. “You know, and you say goodbye. The ground is making that transition from being a virgin desert to a cultivated field.”

He’ll consider hand tilling the soil in the springtime, but hasn’t done so in for a decade. His latest harvest has yielded him “in the neighborhood of about 500 plants,” Tso estimated.

Each plant placed is four paces apart in any given direction. And by design, so none of them end up competing with each other over the finite amount of groundwater stored underneath the arid surface. This practice is part of traditional teachings that Hopi dry farmers have passed on from generation to generation for a millennia.

“This should actually be one of the best harvests that I’ve ever had,” Tso even admitted while staring off at his crops. But in reality, “There are going to be years like this.”

In past years, Tso drove up and down each row, tossing bushels of corn onto a tarp in the bed of a truck. However, extreme heat stress caused by a scorching summer filled with stretches of days and even weeks climbing to triple-digit temperatures fried entire rows of drought-resistant bundled seedlings.

It saddened him to see some of them not survive, and only because of the brutal heat. 

Pests like quail and crows pose problems for Tso, and so does being away. He struggles to find a balance between spending time at Hopi Grounds, a coffee shop he opened in 2021, and his religion in the field.

Before he began his caffeine business, Tso would even pitch a tent and sleep outdoors in the field, waiting for the crows to come right around sunrise.

“See that post right there, they’ll usually have one watching. They’re incredibly intelligent birds: Corvus Corax,” said Tso. “They know the sound of my car. And once I hit my brake on the highway there, then they’ll start usually taking off like that.”

On that Sunday morning in September — a murder, or a group of crows — flew out of his field after Tso left his shop located along State Route 264 atop Second Mesa, a little more than a 10-mile drive away.

Before that, he stopped by home to see if any of his sons would tag along, but none of them came. This is something that Tso does on his own. “It’s supposed to be a family thing, but they all have their issues.”

Tending to his corn is akin to raising a family.

“But this corn, it’s got soul. It’s got an identity. They feel. And if you neglect them like you neglect children, they get wayward. They don’t grow,” Tso added. “I need to be instilling into my sons, this is what a Hopi does.”

"But this corn, it’s got soul. It’s got an identity. They feel. And if you neglect them like you neglect children, they get wayward. They don’t grow." —Gary Tso

And part of practicing his faith.

“The rituals, all the songs are about rain,” Tso emphasized. “There’s no point participating in the rituals if you don’t have a cornfield because you’re praying for something, you’re singing about something and all plentitude and everything else. And if you’re not growing a field, what’s the point?”

As the father of four sons and a daughter, one of his closest relatives taught him that corn “are your children,” and adding, “Every single one of these plants deserve your individual attention. You know, just like kids do. I’ve bent to them [at] one point or another during the growing season since May.”

Another lesson: “Never come to your cornfield angry, because when you get angry around your children, they get scared. Come here with a song in your heart.”

Tso talks, touches and even sings to them: “‘Look at where we are, you are the most beautiful thing that I can see.’ As they grow, now, I’ll say, ‘Just a little bit longer. Your work is almost done.’”

It’s also his form of healthy living, therapy and fitness. He quit drinking less than a year ago. This arduous labor has helped him heal and stay sober.

“When I’m out here that’s what I tell myself I’m not just working corn. I’m out here fighting diabetes, fighting hypertension, fighting depression,” Tso admitted. “The hard part will be putting it out of my mind and then finding something else to do until next year.”

Despite being disappointed with this season’s harvest, Tso doesn’t regret it.

“It’s a bummer that the crows are here and all of that. My journey here is done,” said Tso. “What if I didn't plant? I'd be standing here looking at this empty field wondering, what are the possibilities? What could I have done?”

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Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.