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We plough the fields and scatter…

To drive away from our base here in Oxford and out into the surrounding countryside at this time of year is to witness a scene of intense activity. It’s harvest time, and since the British climate can be unpredictable the farmers are moving as quickly as they can to bring in their crops before the next Atlantic cold front brings some rain.

The harvest season – in addition to mists and mellow fruitfulness – offers its own specialist vocabulary. Words like arable and fallow don’t often come up in normal conversation, and the term combine harvester is more likely to conjure up a vision of the Wurzels than of this impressive and – to the farmer – essential piece of machinery. But to the farmer, these terms are everyday.

I’ve got a brand new combined mower

Normally quiet fields echo to the sound of agricultural machinery, combine harvesters working into the night as ghostly leviathans in the twilight attended by tractors with grain trailers, their headlights illuminating clouds of dust. Back at the grain store the farmer will be anxiously checking their loads with his hygrometer and before long the countryside will echo to the roar of grain dryers as overly damp harvests are saved from deterioration in storage. The word ‘hygrometer’ (an instrument for measuring humidity) shares a Greek root with hygrophyte (a plant that grows in wet conditions).

Though modern agriculture and agro-industry has its critics who say it has replaced a diverse countryside with a sterile monoculture, it is at this time of year that we see it as a spectacle. Few who have seen a row of combines working against the sunset could contest that industrial agriculture can produce an impressive sight. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first record of a machine that can cut, thresh, and bag grain simultaneously dates back to 15 July 1857, when a ‘combined mower’ is mentioned in the Illinois State Register (Springfield).

When all the crops have been taken in a fresh set of machinery will descend upon the fields, first to bale the straw and then to cultivate the land in preparation for drilling the next crop. As the last of the seagulls surrounding the plough move on, the fields fall silent again. On the farms and in the villages, thoughts turn to the traditional harvest supper and on a forthcoming Sunday, the harvest festival service at the village church.

Giving thanks

For me, the harvest festival is the quintessential expression of life in an English village. My childhood memories are of the event in the village where Flora Thompson had her post office; the church piled high with produce and flowers to mark harvest home and the congregation singing ‘We plough the fields and scatter’ to the mellow accompaniment of the church organ. A contrast to the modern arable farming in the surrounding countryside and an over-sentimental harking back to an imagined idyll perhaps, but also a much-needed moment together for today’s fragmented rural communities.

Harvest festivals are by no means peculiar to Britain. In North America there is Thanksgiving, which takes place in October or November, depending on whether you are Canadian or American; in China, there is the Moon festival, and Navaratri is a Hindu autumn festival.

The word harvest itself has a long tradition, being originally (in Old English) the usual word for ‘autumn’. Another early meaning was the season in which the grain was gathered. The verb, which initially meant to gather in the crops, has extended in meaning since the early 15th century to such an extent that the mid-20th century brought a sense meaning to remove organs or cells.

Since Thompson’s day, improved environmental awareness, policies such as set-aside leaving more fallow land for wildlife, and improved farming technology leading to less indiscriminate use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides have changed the countryside for the better. There has also been a growth in sustainable farming. The harvest in 2011 has a different face to those of the 1970s, never mind 100 years ago. The British countryside is an evolving landscape rather than a theme park on which the clock has stopped, and just as oilseed rape would have been unknown to the farmers of a century ago I am sure that there will be new crops that we can’t yet imagine appearing in the fields over the next century. I just hope they look a little more impressive at the harvest festival than a bottle of cooking oil.

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