Harvest season! So much better than pumpkin spice. :-)
Although happy images of pumpkins, Halloween, and Thanksgiving spring to mind, this is historically a labor-intensive, make-or-break season for farm families.
This is the first part of a two-part series on Harvest art.
Before the 16th Century in the northern hemisphere, the months of September, October and November that we call autumn, were simply called harvest.
IMPACT OF THE HARVEST
The harvest set the conditions for families through the winter and possibly for years to come, depending on the ramifications of a successful or a poor crop.
Think about the impact of the mold contaminating the potato crop in the Irish Potato Famine. Also known as the Great Hunger, it started in 1845, and for several seasons crops of potatoes were ruined. Irish families fled starvation; their migration changed the economies, ethnicities, and politics of Europe and the US.
Or, consider the virus that caused the ”tulip mania."
It was named the "tulip breaking virus", because it "breaks" the one petal colour into two or more." It gave some tulips vivid eye-popping patterns of stripes in the petals. This virus vastly improved the collectability and attractiveness of the tulips and created an explosive speculative period for tulips. Fortunes were made and lost in this tulip market due to the virus.
Historically harvest artwork has been an especially relevant topic to most people. Migration to urban areas disconnected people from the season of harvest – except for associations with Halloween, Thanksgiving, and of course pumpkins.
This powerful painting, The Harvesters, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, (1525-1569) shows a beautiful, golden wheat field. The men in the field have used a scythe to slice the wheat stalks close to the ground.
The men are visibly exhausted as the hot day beats down on them. The women would have been cooking for hours in preparation to bring the food to the fields. The midday meal was called supper and was the heartiest of the day. This being the Netherlands, there is plenty of bread and cheese in the offering. Probably quite a bit of beer, too. (I’m just guessing.)
Some women seem to be eating some sort of porridge. Some are eating pears. We can see pears on a white cloth and we see women picking pears in the back right-hand corner of the painting.
One woman in the field is bundling the stalks into sheaves of wheat. After bundling, each sheaf is balanced to avoid it being blown around by the wind, and to stay dry. In the background on the left, we can see an enormous stack of wheat on a horse-drawn wagon on a road. There are more wheat fields in the distance.
Without successful wheat harvests over the past 10,000 years, we would not have bread as we know it. Although other grains and legumes can be used to make bread, wheat is the most grown crop in the world; 90% of the wheat production is used for bread.
WHEAT HARVEST VS. HAY HARVEST
Some definitions are in order. As a non-farmer, I've been confused about the words “wheat,” “hay” and “straw."
Wheat is a grain that is generally grown for its kernel which is separated from the stalk and ground into flour. The stalks can be used for other things including straw for bedding. Wheat straw has no nutritional value so is not used for feed.
Hay, is used for animal feed, and is grown from grasses. Alfalfa (which we can by at the grocery store for our families as alfalfa sprouts) is the dominant grass used for hay because it has such a high nutritional value. Other grasses can be used for hay, too.
It’s noteworthy that there is even confusion about whether Monet’s series of “stacks" portrayed wheat, hay, or oats. The obvious subject of each painting is a stack (or several stacks) of harvested crops. The French title, “Les Meules à Giverny” translates simply as “The Stacks at Giverny.” The series is known in English as “The Wheatstacks” and also “The Haystacks." So, take your pick. I think they are haystacks, because wheat would need to be stored differently to best capitalize on the wheat kernel.
In an upcoming e-letter, I will share some amazing paintings and photos of harvests. Some hay stacks that are shaped like soft-served ice cream cones-- in Russia and in Virginia! It'll be, Part 2 of "Harvest."
Let me know what you think of this essay. Have you worked on harvests?