I was a farmer’s son a long time ago and remember the sense of apprehension and even fear of wet weather at harvest time.
Those ‘greyhounds’, the low grey clouds of a warm Atlantic front racing over the sky, made man and boy miserable at the thought of barley sprouting in the uncut fields and wheat laid flat on the ground by August gales.
In contrast, a bright summer’s day with blue sky and wispy clouds and the hot creak of the ears of corn expanding and drying as they waited the tractor and binder while the air seemed to stand still in anticipation of this pinnacle of the farming year could give a sense of arcadia, almost paradise.
Occasionally since then I have experienced that sense of fulfilment at harvest time. A few years ago there was this wonderful scene at Manor Farm, Heyshott, as the two Allis-Chalmers of Lou Hazell’s Chichester Tractors performed The Old Harvest Show. These two bright orange tractors, every bit as delectable as the orange pottery of Clarice Cliff and equally stunning as Art Nouveau, with their mini combines behind processing the wheat as they rumbled along, became a memorable and never-forgotten scene.
Will it be repeated this weekend at West Stoke? Another Old Harvest Show is to be given. But what will the weather do?
Now and then today you see organic crops that have not been sprayed and there are a few poppies and moon daisies growing in standing corn, reminding one even farther back in time of the brilliant scenes recorded by the surrealists. Today you have to search the edges of downland fields for the small, rare flowers of cultivated places such as fool’s parsley, long prickly-headed poppy, and heartsease. In the old days you would see corn cockle, cornflower, a sprinkling of corn poppies, pale poppies and musk mallows. You would hear the liquid, triple call of the quail, which had bred here and maybe brought up a covey of a dozen tiny chicks. You would hear the call of grey partridges in the evening dusk as they gathered their clan back together in the stubble.
You would probably see an occasional corncrake flying away like a thin slim partridge, and you would have seen a score of rabbits breaking out of the last island of standing corn as the binder circled their refuge.
Then you would see in the coming days all the cottagers coming out to glean fallen grain for their chickens. As the last sheaf was thrown up onto the horse-drawn wagon, there would be a cheer from everyone on the field as ‘harvest home’ was completed.
Sometimes you can have a resonance of times past: even the scent of diesel and oil up the pipe of an old Ferguson or Fordson Major gives that hint of A la recherche du temps perdu; a Proustian Madeleine of an almost-lost world.
So, fatally, can a grey sky falling like the shutters of hell.