It is September and the green fields around here are interspersed with gold, just as they have been for generations. Not that there is much arable farming in this area as the culm grassland is mostly sheep and cattle country. But our local farmers do grow a little wheat and barley and this has been a wonderful year for it as the weather has been so warm and dry. Over recent weeks, on my daily walks around the countryside, I've had to keep a lookout for clanking, looming, lumbering farm machines pulled by tractors whose wheels, in some of the narrower lanes, reach from hedge to hedge.
The other day, two passed me in quick succession. The first was an ordinary, small baler—the sort that turns out neat little rectangular cubes of straw. The sight of it took me right back to the summer I turned 11, when we lived on a farm and my friend Edwin and I rode on an empty cart to the wheat field where the sheaves were piled in stooks. Talking and teasing and chewing on wheat grains, we watched the farm workers with their pitchforks, deftly slinging the sheaves on to the cart until it was full. And then we rode back clinging on to the back of the cart, with straw ticking our noses. The first big machine in the farmyard processed the wheat, pouring a river of seed into a sack. The remaining straw went, all free and unruly, into the other machine and came out the other end as a disciplined bale, all neat and rectangular, tightly compressed and bound with wire. The bales got piled up in a big, cubist-style stack and until the process was finished the stack was multi-levelled, so it was fun to climb to the top and jump from level to level (until they shooed us away).
Unlike the straw, hay was rarely baled back then. It just got tossed by pitchfork on to an ordinary, free-standing stack in the corner of the field—the traditional haystack that you'd have trouble finding a needle in. I didn't even notice the gradual disappearance of haystacks in the countryside until one day I realized that they were all gone.
The second machine that passed me in the lane the other day was a different one—sleeker, and more modern-looking. I had no idea what its function was until I caught up with it ten minutes later in a field and watched in fascination as it churned its way through some hay, with its rear section slowly revolving, and then stopped to poop out one of those huge, round bales that you see everywhere these days, neatly bound in plastic.
And that just about describes the evolutionary path of the harvest during my lifetime. From men with sun-browned arms slinging hay and wheat sheaves with pitchforks in 1947 to modern machines creating giant, plastic-coated parcels too heavy to heft except with a machine. In my grandmother's day and maybe into my mother's lifetime also they would have used shire horses instead of tractors. The tractors of my childhood were small, noisy, smelly things with bouncy metal drivers' seats. No doubt the tractor seats of today still bounce but the drivers sit high up, aloof, in air-conditioned comfort, shielded from the weather and deaf to birdsong, talking on their phones.
What I am wondering now, is whether I shall live long enough to see it all come full circle. When this unsustainable, head-in-the-sand culture that has been overreaching itself for so long finally has to face up to the devastating effects of its failure to honour the Earth's natural limits shall I still be here to bear witness ? When the oil is so scarce that the tractors can't run and things are falling apart and the process that blogger/author John Michael Greer calls 'The Long Descent' leaves us no alternative but to roll our sleeves up and harness up the shire horses (if we can find any to harness, that is), shall I still be around to watch the guys who used to build up their muscles at the gym do it with pitchforks instead? Probably not. Though if I manage to live to a hundred and the changes happen fast, well, you never know…
Picture © Andrew Smith