Hazardous harvest: “Obsternte” (1913) by August Macke
Around this time last year I became fixated with ladders. My parents have some apple trees and I decided that I needed to deal with them better. You might think, how lovely to have an apple tree — and of course it is! — but the picking and storage of the fruit of even one apple tree is time-consuming and, if you’re using the wrong kind of ladder, feels (is) hazardous. The ground around the foot of these apple trees is soft, uneven and nettley, and household ladders are wobbly on this ground even with a helper standing on the bottom rung. I became convinced that with the right ladder our fruit problems would be solved: our crops would grow, the wasps wouldn’t build their nests, and the apple gods would withhold their wrath. My ultimate dream was to produce some of the slightly higher-difficulty harvest foods (juice, cider, fruit wines); this would require more kit — specifically an apple-crusher (or “scratter”) and a press (the cheapest option, from Vigo Presses, is around £100) — but my brain kept record-scratching back to the issue of the ladder.
The kind I wanted was influenced by one too many viewings of the BBC’s Edwardian Farm. (I sometimes claim in a jokey way that this is my favourite TV programme of all time, which is really just a way of just saying it’s my favourite programme without having to defend myself.) In one episode, our heroes investigate cherry-picking. The ladders they use are immensely tall, with narrow parallel sides and a wide flared base, made for picking cherries in the days before dwarfing rootstock. Photographs from the 1900s show the cherry-pickers posing dangerously in the treetops, looking so badass that I also became convinced that we needed to plant old-fashioned full-sized cherry trees — ideally sour cherries, because they are both delicious and self-fertile (i.e., don’t need another tree around to produce fruit).
We do now have a ladder. My father bought it, which I suspect was to discourage me from buying one that looked cool (I had been fixated on a type that had spiked feet to hold it in place on soft ground) but was still dangerous. It has very broad, textured rungs which are a pleasure to stand on. So phase one of a many-year endeavour can start. The timing is perfect. With Brexit on the horizon, presumably we will soon descend into a dystopian, medievalised society based on barter, and I can trade our apples door to door for solar panels, paracetamol and VHS tapes of Edwardian Farm. (I won’t play them — they’ll just be part of a shrine to the various harvest gods who will replace the Common Agricultural Policy.)
The thing about the autumn glut is you see it coming from a long way off. I failed to get elderflowers this year, the wasps and the snails took the first soft berries, and my plan to investigate bird cherries (tiny wild cherries which in Russia are made into liqueur, while the stones are dried, ground and made into cakes) was foiled by the birds eating them all. By September I am generally paying attention and feeling guilty about not getting the fruit in. Now I have a ladder, there is no excuse.
“Haerfest”, from Old English, was our word for the season until the 16th century, when Latin-origin “autumn” displaced it, and in a time when cutting corn took weeks, not days, getting as many people to help was crucial for tipping the balance in favour of survival. C.M. Woolgar’s The Culture of Food in England 1200-1500 (Yale, £30) lists some 14th-century fruit-picking accidents which reveal exactly who was picking the fruit: “Agnes, the daughter of Simon Miln, climbed up an apple tree to collect the apples and fell from the tree . . . in June 1347, a boy fell into a well trying to collect plums hanging over it . . . in July 1359, a three-year-old girl was drowned falling from a tree over a well while climbing after plums.” In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Faber, £12.99), the novelist Barbara Kingsolver describes her family’s experiment with farming their own food, and she’s quite clear about the commitment this took: in her essay “You Can’t Run Away On Harvest Day”, she explains that “a harvest implies planning, respect and effort”.
It used to be considered bad luck to cut the last piece of corn in a field. In The Golden Bough, Sir James Frazer argues this is a remnant of belief in a corn god or corn spirit who flees from the scythes, moving from place to place in the field until there is nowhere left to hide: it is “conceived in human or animal form, and the last standing corn is part of its body — its neck, its head, or its tail.” In the West Country, there was a ritual: the man who cut the last handful of standing corn shouted “I have it, I have it, I have it — the neck, the neck the neck.” In Devon the man who cut the neck was drenched with water as a rain charm. In other places no one man cut the neck — all the harvesters took turns throwing their scythes at it, to diminish responsibility. The neck was woven into figures which gave the corn spirit a home until the following year — corn dollies. “In some parts of Holstein the last sheaf is dressed in women’s clothes and called the Corn-mother.” I don’t think people are quite so afraid of the apple gods.
Ed Ling, the British trap shooter who won a bronze medal in Rio, is also a farmer. After his triumph he was concerned about getting back to Somerset for the harvest: “I don’t expect Dad has done much because he has been sat in front of the telly watching this, so it will be all hands on when I get back.”
His father confessed: “He usually does the spraying. He will probably want to see his corn being cut. I’ve not told him the truth the last few days — we’ve been cutting corn.” Harvest marches on. At the time of writing I find myself lying awake at night with, presumably, an Asterix-style word bubble above my head: “I’m going to pick so many !÷#†* apples.” I hope so.