Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 8)

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.

Some of our local church traditions that were observed seasonally contrasted with some enduring aspects of agrarian folklore. We gleaned some of this from Norwegian farmer elders on Mother’s Sunwold side of the family who lived in the Palouse “upper country” environs of Fairfield, Waverly, and Oakesdale. I could grasp the significance of planting field potatoes on Good Friday, but among many members our grandparents’ generation the seeding of grain crops took place during a waxing moon, harvesting commenced when it waned, and in some cases women were not allowed out-of-doors during the combine’s first pass around a field of grain. Still in my day harvest concluded with spirited shouting and the ceremonial threshing of the straw fedoras worn by many of our fathers. Delving into the medieval European folk traditions occasioned by this study provides some explanation for why such traditions persisted through the years of my 1960s youth amidst harvest truck radios blaring rock music and news of Vietnam and moon landings.

Through verse by an accomplished local poet, Harry Helm (1906-1987), claimed as kin through some vague ancestral connection, we also knew poetic expressions about the beauty of area landscapes. Harry’s grandparents, John and Mary (Kleweno) Helm, had been among the first group of Volga German immigrants to settle in the 1880s in Palouse Hills not far from our country home. In a bucolic setting along the Palouse River, some half-dozen immigrant families established an Old World peasant commune using methods suggesting medieval origins—long, narrow Langstreifen fields (akin to English furlongs) in three-crop rotations (Dreifelderwirtschaft), Almenden commons for grazing and gardens, grain harvest with sickle and scythe, and “hoof-tread” threshing using horses led around a circle of piled stalks. Harry had grown up hearing stories about these ancient ways, and his reflective eye wove heritage and horizon into such poems as “Endicott Wheat Field” (1962):

Grandpa said:

The grass was like Europe’s grass,

Soft and waving like a sea.

It hissed and whispered like a friend

In well-known German words to me.

The hills were like German hills,

Green plumed against a feckless sky.

And I went riding bunchgrass trails,

Where the prairie chicken fly.

Clear waters tumbled through the trees

In every golden, sun-swept vale.

While flowers tipped their hats to me,

As they touched my prancing pinto’s tail.       


The Helm family’s aesthetic influence was prominently evident in the life and art of Robert R. Helm (1943-2008), great-grandson of John and Mary Helm. His mysterious, exquisite painted and collaged arrangements of landscape, rocks, and architectural fragments meticulously crafted oil on cherry, birch, and pine masterpieces reflected his relationship with heritage, terrain, and imagination. Though Helm’s style is sometimes associated with Surrealism and Luminism, its distinct physicality makes it more akin to that of a medieval artisan using unique combinations of format, composition, and color that explore meaning, reality and memory. Characterized variously as “icons of stillness” and “neo-trecento renditions of rural America,” Helm’s dreamy, rustic creations led to global recognition with his works exhibited in Paris and Berlin, and in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian, Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Louvre Gallery in Venice, California.

Although works by Helm evoke timeless themes of natural beauty and isolation, he drew inspiration from frequent travels along the Washington-Idaho rural borderlands between the Coeur d’Alene Valley and Palouse Hills where stories of his pathfinder ancestors were often retold in my visits with community elders. Oil on panel works like Spring Thaw (1985) and September Burn (1991) are notable for the placid depictions of hills, as well as for the artist’s meticulously crafted hardwood frames. “The Palouse has nurtured and reinforced his formal, psychological and metaphysical vision of life and its meaning;” writes Marti Mayo, director of the University of Houston’s Blaffer Gallery, which hosted a one-man exhibition of Helm’s art in 1994. Northwest author William Kittredge offers further commentary on how place shaped Helm’s art, just as it has power to influence others who take time to know a landscape relationally:

Go back to a place, Helm knows, and purely physical memories of who you were when you were there before may begin to echo in your body. You may remember exactly how things first felt and something of how it felt to be the person you used to be.

Go back enough times and your sense of yourself in that place may begin to stack up before you in layers. It’s a way to recall your story of yourself through the years of change and to relearn the reasons for your work and the consequences. It is a way to keep reinventing your knowledge of who you are and how you are trying to make your work matter in the world.