A hint of harvest

Perhaps it had been wishful thinking, but there seemed a hint of a lighter colour in the field of winter barley, maybe not signs of gold, but certainly something paler than deep green. A search of the web revealed that winter barley is harvested in July, and that in 2018, some of it had been fully cut by the end of June, so the suspicion that the field was beginning to ripen was not unfounded.

The winter barley harvest probably passes unnoticed by most people; most harvests seem to pass unnoticed by most people. The movement of combine harvesters and tractors pulling trailers of grain and straw might cause annoyance to motorists, but otherwise the work in the fields is generally not regarded as connected with the daily lives of those who drive by.

Food security is assumed in our country. We might panic buy some items, as happened at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown, but no-one will face the prospect of hunger if the summer brings a bad harvest.

Life was not always so secure. The opening words of Ellis Peters’ An Excellent Mystery capture a sense of the quiet happiness brought by a harvest in time for Lammas Day, 1st August:

August came in, that summer of 1141, tawny as a lion and somnolent and purring as a hearthside cat. After the plenteous rains of the spring the weather had settled into angelic calm and sunlight for the feast of Saint Winifred, and preserved the same benign countenance throughout the corn harvest. Lammas came for once strict to its day, the wheat-fields were already gleaned and white, ready for the flocks and herds that would be turned into them to make use of what aftermath the season brought.  The loaf-Mass had been celebrated with great contentment, and the early plums in the orchard along the riverside were darkening into ripeness. The abbey barns were full, the well-dried straw bound and stacked, and if there was still no rain to bring on fresh green fodder in the reaped fields for the sheep, there were heavy morning dews.  When this golden weather broke at last, it might well break in violent storms, but as yet the skies remained bleached and clear, the palest imaginable blue.

A failed harvest in such times would mean a long and hungry winter, it would mean, if not starvation, then poor health through malnutrition and a lack of strength to contend with illnesses. Someone passing a field nine centuries ago and seeing the grain starting to ripen would have seen it as a significant moment.



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