Like a proverb, it can be true or not at all. If it rolls off the tongue favorably, it might just stick around for a while. Add a rhyme element and the chance it survives the ages increases. And despite the sleuthing efforts of many, the source can be a mystery.
They’re adages. We rely on such constants in our complex world. We crave their simplicity. Sometimes an old adage is comforting to say even if it’s lost its meaning through time. “A penny saved is a penny earned” is from the famed Poor Richards Almanack, published 1732-1758 by Benjamin Franklin. Sure it’s true and it’s likely still used as relevant parenting advice. But we toss away our pennies into little containers next to cash registers at convenience marts.
“Knee high by the Fourth of July” is an adage or accepted truth that refers to the height of a corn plant by Independence Day, using a farmer’s leg as a yardstick. With the start to the growing season we’ve had this year it’s no telling how Wisconsin farmers feel about their corn fields. The late spring accompanied by copious early rain has likely delayed their corn.
Undoubtedly many have reduced their acreage dedicated to corn in favor of alternative crops suitable for later planting. The couple that purchased my dairy farm have dedicated some corn ground to teff grass as an alternative forage. I’m anxious to see the results.
In most years modern corn-production techniques and hybrid selection render the knee-high phrase irrelevant. I’ve seen fields sporting corn that was more waist- to chest-high than knee-high by Independence Day. But we still use that phrase — whose original source is a mystery to me after hours of searching the internet and old copies of The Farmer’s Almanac.
Some things just work for us. It’s the 21st century and time could have left this adage by the wayside. But “knee high by the Fourth of July” has hung around. It works for us despite its flaws. That little rhyme makes all the difference.
Those vast spreads of Zea mays – maize or corn – we’ve become so accustomed to admiring as the dog days of summer advance might be shorter this year. But for those road-tripping across America’s heartland this Independence Day, look across those acres of green corn thick as the hide on a farm dog’s back. Go ahead and roll down the window and proclaim it out loud.
“Knee high by the Fourth of July!”
On a still night when the stars align just right, in the heartland or on the plain, from the highway or a train, turn off the cell-phone glow to listen to it grow.
Enjoy Independence Day.