Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 1)

This blog post is part of a series I (Richard) am writing about my past life experiences that helped develop a love and appreciation for agricultural heritage in general and landrace grains in particular. The series is called "Sickles and Sheaves - Farming, Faith, and the Frye" and you can view the other parts of this blog series here.


My Personal Connection with Landrace Grains

Somewhere in one of the outbuildings on our small Palouse Country farm in southeastern Washington, our parents kept a scythe (pronounced sigh, or sithe) in semi-retirement. The old implement appeared only when barnyard grass and weeds needed to be cleared, or when Dad thought his two sons had unnecessary time on their hands. We didn’t have a tractor-powered sickle mower like some of our neighbors, though a thoroughly rusted reaper-binder from our grandfather’s day rested securely in the branches of a cherry tree on the hillside just above our house. The dilapidated contraption with wooden reel, drive chains, and sprockets was an object of endless boyhood fascination. Although the machine had been abandoned long before Dad took over the farm in the 1940s, he had somehow mastered the elegant art of binding sheaves for decorative use or for us to enter into the Palouse Empire Fair, which to this day still has grain sheaf competition.

Our old scythe’s serpentine handle seemed taller than I stood so was awkward to handle. But Dad could adjust the weathered grips, which he called nibs, and would offer refresher lessons in swath, rhythm, and sharpening before sending my brother or me out to battle formations of wheatgrass and Jim Hill mustard. “There’s a right way, and a wrong way,” was his familiar refrain while demonstrating many tasks like this one for our rural edification, and as if watching some peculiar country dance he showed how to keep the heel down with each measured step to avoid sticking the point of the blade into the ground.

Located between the small rural communities of Endicott and St. John, Washington, our place was deep in the Pacific Northwest’s Palouse Country—a legendary grain district known for steeply rolling hills and a favored destination for landscape photographers from around the world. I suspect farms like ours held in common with many others a peculiar geographic nomenclature necessary for communication about what had happened long before, or what needed to be done with scythe, hoe, or other tool. Far behind the house we had the Huvaluck (Hessian dialect for “Oat Hole,” from Hafer, German “oat”), Windmill Hill, and Spud Draw where our clan had planted potatoes in an endless furrow during the week of Good Friday for at least three generations. The head of the draw led over a narrow hill aptly named The Saddle. With only a half-section, our farm was small even by 1960s standards but there could be no doubt where we might be directed to tend a thistle patch or harrow or rendezvous with the combine to unload grain since so many named features existed on that tussled 320-acre half-section.

Volga German Scything Scene (1768) Concordia Center for Volga German Studies, Portland, Oregon

Volga German Scything Scene (1768)

Concordia Center for Volga German Studies, Portland, Oregon

Over time I came to understand my father’s and grandfather’s familiarity with the land’s every twist and turn, and eventually my own, in terms that defy analytics. Nature writer Barry Lopez characterizes such natural relationships in Home Ground as “the unembodied call of a place, that numinous voice” when a hill, draw, or untilled sodpatch wildlife sanctuary seems to become “something that knows we are there.” This mystical relationship fosters a deep connection with landscape that predisposes some to feel a kinship of comfort and familiarity with certain other places—in my case the undulating Hessian Vogelsberg district in central Germany, and the steeply rolling Bergseite of southern Russia’s black earth Volga region; places inhabited by my ancestors long ago. People have perceived these forces since time immemorial, and they continue to inspire. The Lake District sustained Wordsworth like Suffolk enlivened Constable, and the Great Plains fed the souls of Willa Cather, Ole Edvart Rølvaag, and Hamlin Garland.

The broad hill rising westward from our house toward the entangled cherry tree reaper was steep enough to accommodate a spacious root cellar attached to our ramshackle porch. The cellar had been built not long after our paternal Russian-born German great-grandparents arrived in the Palouse in the early 1890s, so we were warned to stay out due to threat of collapse from the weight of the ground above. Our elders called these places zemlyanka, Russian for “earth-home,” which likely were successors to the medieval German grubenhaus (“dug-house”) their ancestors had fashioned in Hesse. Our people had lived in such places when first immigrating to Russia from Germany during Tsarina Catherine the Great’s reign 250 years ago. Some even inhabited such dens after arriving in the Pacific Northwest until a proper family home could be built.

The young are disposed to explore, so in our youth we ventured inside the cellar periodically to see dimly lit evidence of life from yesteryear. An exceedingly dusty pituvfka kitchen worktable stood against one wall with two rounded flour bins suspended beneath, and some old glass canning jars remained on wooden shelves. Most had long been empty, but a few held grain safeguarded by our grandparents. Perhaps these were remnants of the Hirsche Brei (“millet porridge” in Hessian) that Dad remembered eating with honey as a boiled wheat breakfast mush in Depression days. I learned later that usu Leut (“our people”) had brought ancient landrace grain seed from Russia’s Volga region and the Ukraine, varieties named for colors of kernels and glumes like Russian “Turkey” Red and Odessa White wheats, Purple Egyptian Hulless barley, and Green Russian oats. Perhaps the cellar had also served as Grandpa’s seed vault.