Harvest

Come, ye thankful people, come, 
raise the song of harvest home; 

Churches and schools may be the last bastions of the harvest festival, lingering elsewhere as a kind of contemporary folk memory or an image to sell products in supermarkets*. But I think there is still a general understanding that it is farming that feeds us, whether it is done at home in the British countryside or elsewhere in the world, that farmers harvest crops and that the success of that harvest is variable. So despite our general detachment from the food chain, we are perhaps still residually grateful for another year’s bounty of wheat, corn or perhaps even rapeseed**.

All is safely gathered in,

Ere the winter storms begin.

So we sang as the good folk of South Newbury and Wash Common processed up the aisle with their harvest offerings. Among them were six cartons of pineapple juice, a box of after dinner mints and a first aid kit, all shrink-wrapped for protection from the travails of supermarket logistics. But then it has been the case for years – at least since my childhood in the 1980s and 90s – that most of what is ‘safely gathered’ at a harvest festival is tins and other similarly less-perishable foodstuffs. All the more practical for distribution by foodbanks and other agents of local charity, if lacking the symbolism and romance of the season. The work of human hands, but less obviously the fruit of the earth.

First the blade and then the ear,

Then the full corn shall appear

The production of an After Eight in its paper sleeve must be a long way removed from this simple image of the earth giving up her bounty, but then so is the more contemporary version of progression from seed to ‘full corn’. Farming seems to me a bewilderingly complex business, whether considered scientifically, economically, culturally or politically. Over the millennia agriculture has produced the patchwork British countryside that is apparently well used for recreation by a wide cross section of society, but has also periodically robbed it of wildlife, especially in the latter part of the 20th century. Today we know how to produce twin harvests of food and wildlife from the same land, but these techniques must compete amid a frenzy of studies and debates, Brexit and buzzwords, tradeoffs and ‘consumer choices’, while there is some dispute about whether the word ‘wild’ can be applied to farmed land at all.

Giving angels charge at last

In the fire the tares to cast;

But the fruitful ears to store

In the garner evermore.

So what, if any, are the tares in today’s farmed landscape that should be cast into the fire? What fruitful ears do we wish to preserve for the future? What sort of harvest do we ask of the land?

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The Harvest by Vincent van Gogh (Arles, June 1888). Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

*See the current Harvest campaign by Waitrose, for example.

**Better intensively home-grown rapeseed oil than rainforest-felling imported palm oil in your processed foods? Just one of many choices facing the eco-conscious shopper.

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Picking Fruit

I must need a break – I’ve made a cup of tea without a tea bag in it. It’s time to walk the garden and see what’s ready to be picked. I grab a punnet and head out the back door, the cat skipping ahead of me and grumbling to himself as always. In the first, more obviously cultivated half of the garden I claim a few raspberries and two pods of peas. That’s the sum total of our ripe and ready crop for this week, but both the berries and the peas are deliciously sweet and worth so much more to us than their insipid packaged cousins.

There’s another, more bounteous harvest that we hardly had to work for at all. A few snips here and there to stop them taking over the garden completely is all it took to spur new growth in the bramble hedge, first triggering bright green creepers, then buds, flowers and finally seed-filled fruits. The quantity of ripe blackberries takes me by surprise, showing how little attention I’ve been paying lately. The day itself is ripe too, matured into that soft, peach-hued light beloved of photographers, as rich as spiced honey wine. Some of the berries are soft to the point of disintegrating in my hand, their crushed fruitlets leaving intense inky stains. Some only come loose with a gentle twist and tug which sets the stem bouncing, piercing my fingers with tiny thorns.

Meanwhile a carder bee weaves a trail through the tangle in front of me in search of one of a few remaining flowers. I can hear a wasp working its way into a weak spot on a windfall pear. Greenfinches mournfully trill overhead and house sparrows are chirping contentedly to each other in their evening roost by the canal. All around the garden it feels as though fruition is the active word; grass refreshed by recent rain, birds well-fed and relaxed, most weedy plants running to seed. There’s an air of contentment. I breathe slowly, consciously, grateful for the light and to be outdoors on a fine evening, picking fruit.

Returns

I find it difficult to state how utterly brilliant swifts are without resorting to cliché. They dominate the sky in our part of Newbury. Early on a weekday morning on my way to the station I see them barrelling down street canyons, boomeranging past recently vacated nest sites. When I’m here during the day, they’re intermittently visible as they follow layers of airborne insects up and down with the meteorological cycles. They’re after that productive layer between the peak of convective plumes and the point at which insects fall out of controlled flight and into the prevailing flow.

In the mid-afternoon parties of two or three break off and rocket down to the canal at the end of our garden to drink, perhaps to clear their gullets of all that dry chitin. They descend on the water in a swooping dive that’s impossible not to compare with a jet on a bombing run, clipping the water with their beaks just briefly enough to slake their thirst. I watched a trio buzz close to a kayak in the process, surprising and I hope delighting those paddling it.

In the evening swifts congregate back at low levels in great screaming parties. They pass our house in sudden bursts, so fast that the sound reaches us almost no sooner than the bird does and equally quickly fades as they accelerate away. As the sky fades to dusk the swifts rise into swirling towers, now often joined by a few house martins (which you can pick out by sound – they blow raspberries) which I rarely otherwise see here, though they must nest somewhere in the neighbourhood.

I never quite manage to notice the point at which they vanish for the night, but eventually they do, ascending to the clouds for sleep. One evening this week two came back over low, unusually late, in rapid level flight punctuated by short stuttering contact notes. Perhaps it was just my imagination, but these staccato calls sounded more serious and purposeful than the usual exuberant screams. A practice run for migration? They’ll soon leave us. It’s the saddest reminder that the months and years roll by all too quickly, a thought I can’t shake off in a month that marks 10 years since our wedding and 12 since graduation.

I seem to keep coming back to swifts, and I make no apology for it. For as long as we share a planet with creatures so ridiculously wonderful we should keep shouting about them! See also here and here