The technology may have changed – the rhythm and mystery of the seasons hasn’t.
For most of the year countryside life carries on at a leisurely pace. Seeds sprout, grow, mature and ripen in harmony with the seasons.
Then, towards the end of July the countryside goes a bit mad for six weeks or so as farmers rush to harvest their crops and get their grain inside before the autumn rains.
When I lived in London I never had much of a sense of the seasons. Yes, Christmas and Easter and hot summers gave one a sense of time passing, but not in the way that the grain cycle marks the seasons in the country.
The colour of the countryside
Here in Yorkshire we are constantly in sync with the seasons as the land changes from brown to green to golden yellow, then back to brown.
In fact, the last bit now happens so quickly its a shock. When I grew up in Yorkshire the fields were often left as stubble throughout the winter, then ploughed and planted in late winter or early spring, so the transformation was not so rapid. Walking the dogs and riding horses across the stubble was one of autumn’s great joys.
Today, however, fields are harvested, plowed and replanted often within a few days leading to a sudden change in the colour of the landscape from yellow to black within just a few weeks at the end of the summer.
High energy harvesting
We see this culmination of the grain cycle in many ways. There is a massive increase in farm traffic with huge harvesters and grain lorries emerging from their barns. The noise of the combines and the grain driers is ceaseless throughout the day and into the night – on a dry night you often see and hear the combines working by floodlights well beyond midnight until the dew starts to fall and the wheat becomes too wet to harvest economically.
In the pubs the conversation changes to crop yields, moisture levels and the cursing of the farmers and contractors as the combine breaks down yet again.
The mythology of the seasons and the harvest
In spite of advances in agricultural technology which make this time of year particularly noisy and stressful, the harvest still exudes a mystical spirituality. It becomes easy to understand why the ancient civilisations all had harvest gods and mythologies. What is fascinating, though, is the way the harvest gods and mythologies are often the same as those of life and death, and demonstrated how life and death are intertwined.
The Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone almost certainly dates back from neolithic times, and echoes the Mesopotamian myth of Inanna and the ancient Syrian myths of Bal, Anat and Mot. In the Greek version of the myth, Demeter is the god of the harvest and grain. Her daughter Persephone is abducted by Hades, lord of the underworld. Demeter in her grief withdraws her protection and blessings on the fields, which become barren and lifeless.
Hacked off with the fuss this is causing in Olympus, Zeus negotiates a deal with Hades by which the girl dies each year and spends three months with Hades during which the earth lies barren, before being reborn. Demeter’s grief is assuaged and she no longer withholds her power over the fields, allowing the dead seeds held over from last year’s harvest to germinate and grow.
The myth, re-enacted each year as a ceremonial ritual, becomes the explanation for the unfathomable phenomenon of death, life and harvest which was so important to the ancients, and remains as important today.
Locri Pinax Of Persephone And Hades on the throne. Found in the holy shrine of Persephone at Locri in the district Mannella. Locri was part of Magna Graecia and is situated on the coast of the Ionian Sea in Calabria in Italy. Source: AlMare assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
So what is grown in our fields?
Harvested and ground to flour, wheat is the source of many of our staple foods including bread, pasta, porridge, cakes and breakfast cereals.
Although used for human consumption in foods such as porridge, oatcakes and muesli, the main use for oats is as a livestock feed, most notably for horses
Barley is the primary ingredient in beer, along with hops. It is often processed into malt for use in malt breads and health foods.
Turns our fields bright yellow in spring and is used for culinary oil, animal feeds and bio-diesel
Photo / video credits:
Persephone and Hades: AlMare assumed (based on copyright claims), CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Oats image: Veli Holopainen at the Finnish Wikipedia project (Wikimedia Commons)
Barley image: Raul Dupagne – Own work (observation personnelle), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2179384
All other images and video: the author