On any given weekday in the summer, you will find me walking through fields counting bugs. In fact, it’s my job: I’m an ecologist studying the communities of insects that live in agricultural landscapes. Most days between early June and early September I drive between farms to scout crop pests and the beneficial insects that eat them, changing sticky yellow glue traps and sweeping vegetation with a canvas net.
But a single afternoon in August 2006 stands out in memory. Along one of the transects my colleague and I had set up in a cornfield, we noticed that several plants around one of our traps were missing. Strong winds or hail can knock down whole corn plants but what made this remarkable was what stood in their place: marijuana. Specifically, there were five plants, each standing about eight feet tall, in the middle of our survey plot and bursting with buds ready to harvest. While we were deciding how to proceed and what to tell the landowners, we received our next surprise; someone else was rustling through the field towards us.
It’s rare to happen upon someone strolling through a cornfield—and for good reason. If you’ve never walked through one, it is not a pleasant experience. Tightly packed rows of stalks almost 10 feet tall create an almost full canopy overhead. Underneath, row widths much narrower than your hips include sharp, jutting corn-leaf edges that inflict papercut-like nicks to any exposed skin as you brush past. And if you’re there during the tasseling and silking stages, your skin may break out in a rash from the falling pollen. Appropriate attire for field scientists in cornfields includes boots, long pants, and sleeves, a sturdy hat, and glasses to protect your eyes from being cut by the leaves. In other words, anyone making the trek into a cornfield is going with purpose, whether to sample insects or surreptitiously grow marijuana.