Tierra Viviente

When a calm wind blows across the fields of Michoacán in southwestern Mexico, it can be easy to forget this was once the heart of a great civilization.

But the abundance of the harvest and the warmth of the people soon remind you that here, at the intersection of nature and culture, you have found something greater — the place where the purest maize first grew, and carpeted the land with a life-giving grain that could be yellow, or blue, or purple.

The people and their grain nourished each other. The maize stayed pure and rich and nutritious. And the people treasured each harvest, passing the original seeds from generation to generation as a priceless inheritance.

Time has slowed, but the culture thrives. And maize endures, at the very center.

“This is where it all started,” grower Miguel Uribe tells us as the ancient sun ripples waves of heat from the sky like an immense red stone falling into still blue waters. His company, Tierra Viviente Agricultura Orgánica, works with farms throughout the region, promoting organic cultivation and finding markets for the community harvests.

“This corn has had a natural evolution,” he explains. “It has been guided and grown together with a tribe of people for as long as the river has flowed and the grass has grown green. And so the product that you have is not a product that’s developed for the sake of money, it’s a product that’s been naturally developed, and that means nutrition and it also means flavor.”

In Michoacán, you are never far from maize. It’s in the fields where men labor. It’s in the meals women prepare for their families, and part of every celebration. It’s in the history, the stories, the imagination.

“We are accustomed to this way of life around maize,” says farmer Javier Gabriel. “It’s a very basic food in every single meal. If there’s no tortillas, there’s no meal.”

“I truly love the colors and the flavors and the sizes of what it is that we have here,” adds Miguel. “We get white tortillas in my house one day and we say this is great, this is the greatest tortilla, then the next day we’ll get blue tortillas and then we’ll go, yeah, the white was great but the blue is better.”

The maize from this region is nature’s original design, nutritious and timeless. It is still open-pollinated in the fields, and has never been crossed with any other type of corn.

“If you’re going to be doing it right you have to be tied into the land, and you have to have a relationship with the plants,” says Miguel about the commitment needed to be a successful farmer at these high elevations. Ironically, the challenging growing conditions are the best defense maize has against the advance of profit masquerading as progress. Over many centuries Michoacán’s maize has adapted to the climate and the land, something new hybridized varieties developed by biotech conglomerates have been unable to do.

For the multinationals, of course, maize is just a kind of corn. And corn is a commodity, grown to make money and build mansions. The people of Michoacán don’t think that way. Maize is respected as nature’s gift, and so it survives in its purest form, with all the nutrients that modern, more profitable varieties lack. And a way of life survives too, one centered on hard work, close families, and communities of kindness.

These descendants of a great civilization remember their past; and, each harvest, remind the world of this magnificent truth: They never really left greatness behind.

— Charlie Dodge