Ruth and Boaz, Past and Present

There is much interest these days in “back to the land” efforts to reconnect folks with country life. It is encouraging to see examples here some rural communities in our area of sufficient revival evident in thriving local schools and main streets. Art historians remind us that life back in “the good old days” was not always that “good” for lots of folks, nor especially “sustainable.”  Writings of medieval theologians confirm the view of many present-day researchers that European peasants were practitioners of extractive farming methods who were often deemed unworthy by the Church for anything other than servile labor to await reward in the hereafter. In the main, depictions of harvest from the Middle Ages do not show happy workers gathered together in fields of plenty. Reapers and gleaners still seen in the surviving stained glass, frescoes, and bas reliefs of great European cathedrals typically show a single individual or pair of field workers armed with sickle or scythe in tall, thin stands of grain. The expressionless figures are typically cast in larger theological “Labors of the Months” narratives as emblems of Christian suffering intended to impress parishioners with the need to toil ceaselessly throughout the year as sinful consequence of humanity’s fallen state.

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome,  History of the Holy Bible  (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

G. Freman, P[eter]P. Bouche (engraver), Boaz espouseth Ruth; From Richard Blome, History of the Holy Bible (London, 1688), 7 ⅛ x 12 ¾ inches

For three millenia the Old Testament Book of Ruth has been synonymous with the abiding theme of divine deliverance associated with gleaning, and served to inspire depictions of her and Boaz throughout the centuries from the vivid images of medieval illuminated manuscripts to the modern dreamy reverie of Surrealist Marc Chagall. The annual harvest of feudal times made possible the exchange of peasant labor for manorial protection and provision. Notions of upward mobility in moral or imaginative terms, therefore, are not found in the French Song of Roland, Slavic Tale of Igor’s Campaign, sermons of St. Francis, or visions of Hildegard of Bingen. (Hildegard did write, however, of the praiseworthy qualities of ancient grains like spelt and emmer.) The very constraints of social stratification fostered a degree of egalitarianism among serfs, who represented some 90% of the population, which significantly altered ancient Judeo-Christian concepts of gleaning intended to benefit the poor.

Agrarianism as Essential Discipline

Many folks will recognize the colorful flowing Great Depression farm art of Thomas Hart Benton. American regionalist painters like Benton and Marion Greenwood sought to portray the tensions of rural social and economic change wrought by the Great Depression and global farm commodity markets. Their British contemporaries included writers George Ewart Evans and Lady Francis Donaldson, and renowned artist-author Claire Leighton. Themes of sustaining values amidst economic dislocation were also subjects of the stirring 1930s harvest photography of Federal Security Administration photographers Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein.

Ben Shahn,  Wheat Field  (c. 1958), From  Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher  (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Ben Shahn, Wheat Field (c. 1958), From Ecclesiastes or, The Preacher (New York, 1971), 8 ⅞ x 12 inches

Rural change in the wake of world wars, the rise of consumerism, and environmental challenges have been explored more recently in essays and stories of conservationists like Russell Lord and Wallace Stegner. As founder of Stanford University’s Writer’s Workshop, Stegner mentored a new generation of influential regionalist authors including Edward Abbey, Scott Momeday, and Wendell Berry. Traditional themes of deliverance drawn from the Bible have been expressed anew in such modern art as Chagall’s Ruth Gleaning the Grain (1960), Ben Shahn’s Wheatfield—Ecclesiastes (1967), and recent operatic works by Lennox Berkeley and James Niblock. One of the founding “mystic artists” of the abstract Northwest School, Mark Tobey (1890-1975) painted After the Harvest (1970) and The Harvest’s Gleanings (1975) with the small, overlapping brush strokes that suggest the Oriental influence of his spiritual beliefs.

The reciprocating influences of agrarian art and literature offer important understandings to this contrasting complex of cultural ideas involving fulfillment and struggles with rural labor, individual and cooperative endeavors, and the facts and fictions of life on the land and impacts of technology. Progressive change to promote well-being of the countryside and future generations can be unwisely limited by amnesia as well as nostalgia. Amnesia is forgetting about cultural legacies bequeathed by ancestors and society, while nostalgia appeals to life in some halcyon past often overlook very real challenges of such times. We remember places, mark lines and verses, and appropriate elders’ counsel for synergy and solidarity to foster human flourishing and to safeguard natural resources for future generations. For these reasons aesthetic understanding through agrarian art and literature remains an essential discipline. 

The Abiding Significance of Agrarian Art

On numerous occasions in recent months I’ve been reminded how by the names of notable humanitarian groups like Second Harvest and Food for the Hungry that “gleaning” remains a highly relevant endeavor for our time. Although often associated with bygone days, gleaning has never been more relevant in this day when so much food goes to waste while hunger still stalks substantial numbers of the population. Hats off to the many dedicated workers in these organizations who devote themselves to collecting excess produce, and to farmers across the country who partner with these groups to provide these valuable commodities.

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018); Pasco, Washington

2nd Harvest Delivery Truck Trailer Mural (2018); Pasco, Washington

Universal themes of deliverance from want through rural toil and fellowship have been variously represented throughout history through images of reaping and gleaning in art and literature. The Bible and ancient writings by Homer and Virgil include numerous references to sickle and sheaf, which are also graphically depicted in Egyptian tomb paintings and Near Eastern mosaics. Representations of them continued to appear in stirring, numinous form for the next two millennia. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Valley of the Arno (1473), which shows distant Florentine fields from a mountain slope vantage, is considered the first landscape done for nature’s sake, though evidence of humanity’s presence is limited in Leonardo’s drawing to distant stone ramparts and partitioned fields.

But development of landscape as an artistic and literary theme was slow to develop in Europe and only in the mid-1500s do graphic works by Titian, Domenico Campagnola, and other Italian masters appear as idealistic countrysides with human figures to enliven such subjects. Images of scythe-wielding harvesters first appear in Late Roman Era sculpture and wall decoration, and as illustrations for religious works in the Early Middle Ages.

Lodewijk Toeput, Summer Harvest (c. 1590), National Archives

Lodewijk Toeput, Summer Harvest (c. 1590), National Archives

Sixteenth century Flemish painters and printmakers Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Lodewijk Toeput were among the first artists to depict harvest scenes. Such masterpieces as Brueghel’s celebrated The Harvesters (1565) significantly contributed to the validity of agrarian landscape as a prominent theme for painting and drawing. Farmer-poet Thomas Tusser, Brueghel’s English contemporary, composed A Hundreth Good Pointes of Good Husbandrie, first printed in London in 1557, to express the country year in rhyming couplets for a long poem that contributed to agrarian literature as an accepted genre.  In every country, as with most every artist and author, the function of art as expression of meaning and beauty is different and changes in manifold ways over time.

Perennial Grains and "Centers of Origin"

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration,  The Atlantic

“Feeding the New Global Middle Class” Illustration, The Atlantic

I read with special interest the article “How Will We Feed the New Global Middle Class” by Charles C. Mann in last month’s issue of The Atlantic (March 2018). It not only addressed this pressing question in terms amply supplied with meaningful examples and disturbing statistics, but referenced the important research long undertaken by a longtime friend and supporter of our work at Palouse Colony Farm, WSU plant scientist Dr. Stephen Jones. Mann’s article casts the controversy about supplying a growing world population’s food supply as a century-long contest between the “Wizards” and the “Prophets.” He characterizes the former as advocates of commodity production and scientific innovation exemplified by Norman Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution,” and the “Prophets,” or proponents of natural ecosystem conservation like William Vogt. I commend the entire article for your review of this complex question, but thought Mann’s discussion of Stephen Jones’s research on perennial wheat to represent a rare convergence of Wizard-Prophet interests.

Perennial grains do not exist in nature so cereal crops must be planted year after year which necessitates field tillage and attendant labor and other inputs. Development of a crop like the Salish Blue wheat hybridized by Jones and his agronomist colleague Steve Lyon offers hope for a grain of sufficient milling quality that can produce from the same plant for two to three years. Jones and Lyon have told me that the pioneers of perennial grain research were a team of Russians headed by Nikolai Vavilov (1887-1943), a brilliant scientist who paid for his independent thinking by perishing in one of Stalin’s GULAG prisons. Vavilov formulated the “Centers of Origin” theory (a phrase first used by Darwin) for the geographic origins of the world’s cereal grains. Vavilov had been a protégé of Robert Regel, Russia’s preeminent pre-revolutionary era botanist. Regel had appointed the brilliant young Saratov University scientist head of all Russia’s agricultural experiment stations on the very day the Bolshevik Revolution broke out in 1917. Vavilov became a prime-mover in the organization of the first All-Russian Conference of Plant Breeders in Saratov in 1920.

The group’s June 4 opening session marked a milestone for world science as Vavilov delivered his famous paper, “The Law of Homologous Series in Hereditary Variation,” in which he put forth the first hypothesis on plant mutation. For subsequent related research that led to the formulation of a law on the periodicity of heritable characteristics, Vavilov came to be known as the Mendeleyev of biology. Although Vavilov’s enthusiastic grasp of problem definition in crop breeding proved easier than problem solving, upon Regal’s death later in 1920 he was named director of the Agricultural Ministry’s Department of Applied Botany and Plant Breeding, and went on to organize the Soviet Academy of Agricultural Sciences.  

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Nikolai Vavilov (c. 1930), Library of Congress

Vavilov derived many of his insights from extensive travels “across the whole of Scripture” in Transjordan (Israel) and Palestine. He traveled widely in the Middle East and pored over religious texts in order “to reconstruct a picture of agriculture in biblical times.” His ideas were significantly influenced by the field studies of German botanist Frederich Körnicke (1828-1908), curator of the Imperial Botanical Gardens in St. Petersburg in the 1850s, and Aaron Aaronsohn, Director of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Haifa, Palestine. In an article published in 1889 on the history of world grains, Körnicke had identified a specimen of wild emmer found in the collection of the National Museum of Vienna as the progenitor of all modern wheats. He urged botanists to conduct expeditions in the foothills of Mt. Hermon where it had been found in order to better document its origin and range.

Aaronsohn subsequently recorded his historic 1906 discovery of the grain: “When I began to extend my search to the cultivated lands [near Rosh Pinna], along the edges of roads and in the crevices of rocks, I found a few stools of the wild Triticum. Later I came across it in great abundance, and the most astonishing thing about it was the large number of forms it displayed.” Indefatigable Vavilov followed Aaronsohn’s itinerary to locate this relict stands of the famed “Mother of Grains” and found it growing nearly forty inches tall with stiff, six-inch long beards. His further research demonstrated that emmer’s ancestral range extended throughout northern Transjordan and into Turkey.

Vavilov met Washington State College agronomist Edwin Gaines and his celebrated botanist wife, Xerpha, at the 1932 Sixth International Genetics Congress at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. This celebrated gathering was attended by some 550 of the world’s leading geneticists. The conclave’s highlight was the much-anticipated delivery of Valvilov’s presentation on geographic distribution of wild cultivar relatives. His paper focused on the importance of preserving threatened landraces and their progenitors for future breeding stock and pure research. He further postulated the origin of modern hard red wheats in the Fertile Crescent (“southwestern Asia”) and soft whites in northwestern Africa. Vavilov also described ancient selection methods by which early agriculturalists unconsciously conducted spontaneous variety selections.

In spite of myriad challenges in hosting such a prestigious event in the midst of the Great Depression, the Gaineses invited Vavilov to Pullman while on his extended trip to several western states. Vavilov accepted the offer and spent several weeks in the late summer and fall of 1932 touring grain research stations in the Northwest clad in ever present tie and fedora. The time of year and fecund Columbia Plateau laden with grains spawned from his homeland may well have reminded Vavilov of lines from the celebrated Russian poet Pushkin extolling life on the steppe. He could quote verse at length in fluent English. The Gypsies imagines new life in fall-sown wheat even as hunters and their dogs trample fields underfoot. The image poignantly anticipates Vavilov’s own fate a decade later as a victim of Stalin’s purges: “…the winter wheat will suffer from their wild fun” while the stream ever “passes by the mill.”

Travels Through European Agrarian Art History

This week my wife, Lois, and I are off to lead a two-week European tour with visits to Germany, St. Petersburg, Russia, and the Scandinavian capitals. Taking such a trip in 2017 has special significance since it marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and the 25th anniversary of our ancestors’ migration from Germany to Russia in the 1760s when the colonized areas of the lower Volga River region. Martin Luther (1483-1546) had often mentioned that he was “a farmer’s son” in his sermons as an Augustinian preaching friar and later as theological champion of the Protestant Reformation, and his extensive Bible commentaries contain much agrarian imagery. The complete Lutherbibel was first published in Wittenberg in 1534 and because of the newly invented printed press copies were widely disseminated and delivered Reformation thought in the vernacular of the laity. Indeed, fully a third of all books printed in German during the first half of the sixteenth century were works by the reformer. Luther had high interest in using artful illumination to facilitate understanding of biblical texts, and had known the Elector of Saxony’s court painter and engraver, Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472-1553), since 1504 as both men had been in Duke Frederick III’s circle of patronage.

Hans Holbein, Ruth and Boaz; Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam (Paris, 1552); Adolf Bartels, Der Bauer in der deutschen Vergangenheit (Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs, 1900)

Hans Holbein, Ruth and Boaz; Biblia Sacra iuxta Vulgatam (Paris, 1552); Adolf Bartels, Der Bauer in der deutschen Vergangenheit (Leipzig: Eugen Diederichs, 1900)

Luther and others from his circle of translator-colleagues like Wittenberg Greek professor Phillip Melanchthon (1497-1560) are known to have participated in the arrangement of text and Cranach’s vividly colored woodcuts of lively depictions for the first complete 1534 version. Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I commissioned Cranach and renowned German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) to illustrate in pen the margins of a parchment Order of St. George Prayer-Book (c. 1515) that included Dürer’s drawing of the Virgin Mary with ears of wheat. Images of Maria im Ährenklied (Mary in [Grain] Ear Dress) date to the late fourteenth century in Milan and cathedral paintings of the graceful Madonna with long blonde hair and clad in dark blue dresses adorned with golden heads of grain were popular until the Reformation. The origins of these depictions have been attributed to early church lore about the Virgin’s girlhood when she was said to have prayed for the Bread of Heaven while she embroidered clothes. In the medieval church tradition, blue represents heavenly grace and ears of grain have symbolized the spiritual nourishment and fertility of the church. 

Albrecht Dürer, “Mary in [Grain] Ear Dress” (c. 1515)   Randzeichnungen zum Gebetbuche des Kaisers Maximilian I (Munich, 1907)

Albrecht Dürer, “Mary in [Grain] Ear Dress” (c. 1515)  
Randzeichnungen zum Gebetbuche des Kaisers Maximilian I (Munich, 1907)

Maria in Ährenkleid (c. 1490), Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Salzburg

Maria in Ährenkleid (c. 1490), Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Salzburg

German artist and printmaker Hans Holbein (c. 1497-1543) also provided woodcut illustrations for early editions of the Lutherbibel as well as commissioned works for Sir Thomas Moore in England and European papal princes. While his ambiguous religious convictions changed over time, Holbein is generally associated with the reformist movement and his art is considered among the supreme examples from the German reformation. As seen in his rendering of Ruth and Boaz for a Vulgate edition of the Bible (c. 1525), Holbein’s art represents a unique aesthetic in the transition from Gothic formalism to the refreshing realism in illustrations and portraiture. German printmaking is also notable for the popular “perspective” (vue d’optique) panoramas by Georg Balthasar Probst (1732-1801) and others artists affiliated in the eighteenth century with Augsburg printers that simulated three-dimensional views of Bible and historical and city scenes.

Among the most important contributors to Hausväterliteratur were the Lutheran pastors Johann Coler (1570-1639) and Franz Phillip Florinus (1649-1699). German writers like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) were also known to moralize on agrarian themes in poems like “As a Man Soweth”:

We must not gather hope to be mowers,
And to gather the ripe old ears,
Unless we have first been sowers
And watered the furrows with tears.”

“It is not just as we take it,
This mystical world of ours,
Life’s field will yield as we make it
A harvest of thorns or of flowers.

Works like the Florinus’s widely read Oeconomus Prudens (1702) were beautifully illustrated with technical drawings and engravings of threshing scenes and other field labors. One of Germany’s most acclaimed engravers and lithographers of country scenes was Johann M. Mettenleiter (1765-1853), a native of Baden-Württemberg whose early work included illustrations for Franz Marius Babo’s Paintings from the Life of the People (1784) and Lorenz von Westenrieder’s History of Bavaria (1786).  Mettenleiter became a founding member of the Munich Kunstverein where he improved lithographic processes of the time which led the wider distribution of his workmanship and noble patronage. In 1790 Elector Karl Theodor of Bavaria appointed Mettenleiter as his court engraver, and Russian Tsar Alexander I subsequently commissioned him to complete a series of engravings of his country estates in St. Petersburg and awarded him the Imperial Order of St. Stanislas. Mettenleiter’s distinctive compositions that depict both country labor and aristocratic life are evident in his 1788 woodcut, Lords and Reapers Celebrate Harvest.

Agrarian associations with German Enlightenment thought is also evident in the writings of Augsburg’s Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm (1758-1811) and poet and pedagogue Christian Felix Weisse (1726-1804) of Leipzig. Wilhelm was a Protestant pastor and natural philosopher who contributed nineteen of twenty-five volumes in the magisterial Discourses in Natural History published from the 1790s to 1810 by his father, Christian Art Wilhelm, with hundreds of hand-colored copperplate engravings by Jacob Xaver Schmutzer (1713-1775) and Balthasar Friedrich Leizelt (1855-1812). Wesse tutored children of the nobility and edited the influential journal Bibliothek der schönen Wissenschaften und der freyen Künste (Library of the Beautiful Sciences and Liberal Arts) for three decades beginning in 1759. Weisse criticized extravagance in literature and became a popular children’s author of stories that blended religious piety with regional folklore, and published a pedagogical weekly, Der Kinderfruend (The Children’s Friend), the first periodical for children in German. As in his poem “After the Harvest” (“Nach der Ernte”), many of Weisse’s stories and poems served to impart young and old alike with appreciation for country life throughout Saxony.

The fields around all empty lie,
Our barns are stored with grain,
And joyfully we homeward hie,
And bring our labor’s gain.
Lovely field, when Spring around
Has flung her verdue bright,
When May spreads flowers on the ground,
And trees are blooming white.
But lovelier far the golden wheat
That springeth from the soil,
That bows the head as though to greet
With thankfulness our toil.
On wagons, ‘neath their golden weight
That groan, our maidens ride,
The while, with honest joy elate,
Our reapers march beside.

Attributed to Jacob Xaver Schmutzer, “Methods of Threshing and Flailing Grain”
Hand-colored engravings, 3 ¾ x 6 ½ inches
Gottlieb Tobias Wilhelm, Unterhaltungen aus der Naturgeschichte (Augsburg, 1810)


Rural themes in Continental literature further developed into the nineteenth century Volksliteratur (folk literature) and Dorfgeschichte (village tales) of Swiss writer Jeremias Gotthelf (1797-1854), Germans Fritz Reuter (1810-1874) and Berthold Auerbach (1812-1882), and Austrian novelist and poet, Peter Rosegger (1843-1918). Writing in the Low German dialects of country people, these popular writers composed colloquial verse, humorous short stories, and adventuresome Bauernroman novels of local flavor that idealized some aspects of peasant life while presenting frank depictions of the rural poor. Julian Schmidt, a literary critic of the time, observed that these writers keenly conveyed their characters’ personal enjoyments alongside internal dissensions common to village life through the hearty openness of peasant conversation. 

Gotthelf’s Uli der Knecht (Ulrich the Farm Servant, 1841), translated into English by John Ruskin, is the story of a poor farmer who struggles to learn newer methods of cultivation to transform his meagre holdings into a thriving enterprise. He seasonally hires out to more prosperous Bernese neighbors to sharpen scythes and tend livestock. He partakes of harvest feasting where, “Even the most callous [landowners] feel some sentiment of thankfulness towards God, and understand that they owe Him some offering as an expression of their gratitude. …Should not habitual thanksgiving be the result of so much bounty?” Reuter, who was jailed as a young man for political activism, wrote the three-volume novel Ut mine Stromid (1862-1864), published in English as Seedtime and Harvest (1872) and From My Farming Days (1878), which describes with hints of Dickens-like caricature the peasant farmers and villagers of his native Mecklenburg.

One of the most influential Dorfgeschichte writers was the German-Jewish poet and Swabian novelist Berthold Auerbach, author of the immensely popular Schwartzwälder Dorfgeschichten (Black Forest Village Tales, 1843), published in English in 1869 as Black Forest Village Stories. In the eponymous tale “Lauterbach,” Auerbach tells of the young country schoolmaster who finds work patiently tending the youth of Nordstettin. As a result of Lauterbach’s after-school countryside ramblings, readers are shown his “Wisdom of the Fields” notebook that records personal reflections and relates coarse-grained peasant harvest lore and provincial expressions to lessons for life:

     —In cutting grain, the reaper must lay the swath behind him, so as to have nothing before him but the blades still standing. So with the deeds that we have done. They must be out of sight, so that all our attention may be turned to what yet remains to do.
     —When in the distance I see mowers bowing and rising so regularly, it seems as if they were going through some ceremonious ritual of prayer.
     —The weeds in the grain-fields are no man’s property until the poor take them away and convert them into nutritious food. Do you ask, of what use are weeds? Perhaps many other things should be judged by the same rule.
     —Every patch of ground has its history. Could anyone unravel the mutations which transferred it from hand to hand, and the fortunes and sentiments of those who tilled it, he would understand the history of the human race….

    One of the Austria’s most beloved authors, Heimatdichter (homeland poet) Peter Rosegger fashioned lively novels, short stories, and poetry deeply influenced by his experiences as a farm youth and devout country schoolteacher in the rural southeastern Tyrolian highlands. Critics praised such works as Volklieben in Steiermark (Folklife in Styria, 1871), his semi-autobiographical Waldheimat (The Forest Farm, 1877), and epistolary novel Erdsegen (Earth’s Blessing, 1900) for their lyrical yet unsentimental representations of land-folk that combined humor and ill-fortune. Rosegger’s country characters live between worlds ancient and modern and confront challenges of the day in stories rich with rural proverbs, folksongs, traditional remedies, and culinary lore. Europeans who perceived growing urban pretentiousness found in Rosegger’s works meaningful expression of Die Gute Gesellschaft (The Good Society) where dignity and respect for others and nature were informed by tradition and religious belief. Personal autonomy celebrated by avant popular culture offered a choice of risk divorced from the stabilizing, meaningful Volksgeist humus of locale, community, and obligation. By 1905 Rosegger’s books had been translated into twenty-two languages; in 1913 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature and became the most widely read German author of his day. Details of agronomy and nature woven into Rosegger’s prose reflect intimate knowledge of farm life, as evident in the observations of Waldheimat farmer “Jakob der Letzte:”

    Before him the brown fields stretch away, the larks blow their trumpets, and in tender, reddish blades the dead arise and look up to heaven. Then gradually everything begins to grown green, the tiny leaves curl and bend earthwards again as if they are listening for any counsels about life that the Mother may give to them. Then they aspire upwards, rolling themselves into sheaths, out of which, little by little, emerges the stalk and the inmost being of the grain. …And the single blade is now in its full glory. The four-sided ear, in which the still tender grains lie scale-like over each other, hangs its blossom out like tiny flags wherever a grainlet lies in its cradle, which flutter and tremble without ceasing, while the high stalk rocks thoughtfully to and fro.
    …Strong and slender the stalks grow up from joint to joint. The lance-shaped, dark green leaves that lorded it at first, have nearly vanished, the stalks droop their heavy heads, which give back the sown grain thirty or forty-fold, one stalk laying its golden head on the shoulder of another. In the sun’s heat by day, at night in the light of the moon and the stars and the glimmer of glow-worms, they are ripening towards harvest. …When Jacob, always first and last in the heat and burden of the day, rests in late evening beneath a grain-stook in the harvest field, his dreaming begins again. The breath of grass and flowers makes him drowsy: he watches the antics of a jolly grasshopper, hears the chirp of a cricket—then it all fades away. He is looking out over a country where there is no blue forest, no green meadows, no mountain crags, and no clear streams. So far as ever the eye can reach is one great golden sea, an immeasurable field of grain.

    Anthologies of nineteenth century German poetry included works by such authors as Wilhelm von Merckel (1803-1861) and Martin Greif (1839-1911) whose verse attests to their intimacy with rural life. While von Merckel pursued a career in law in Berlin and Greif chiefly resided in Munich, these cities were surrounded by productive farmlands where city dwellers often visited friends and relatives on holiday. Von Merckel’s long poem Ruhe (Rest, 1855) expresses affection for country life and is filled with sensory descriptions of experience well-known to field workers such as the sight of quail weaving down rows of grain, and elders forecasting the weather and estimating crop yields. Grief’s short Hochsommernacht (High Summer Night), featured in Hausbuch Deutscher Lyric (1906) with a woodcut by Munich artist Fritz Schmidt (1876-1935), expresses the fragile serenity of a field of grain under the harvest moon:

The vast world silently rests,
Slumber falls on the moon’s horn,
All is held in the Lord’s safe hands.
Mountain furies seem to beckon—
But those sent to the harvest field
Are angels waving through the grain.

The early nineteenth century’s foremost Scandinavian landscape artist was Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857), a native of Bergen who studied in Sweden and Denmark, traveled widely in Switzerland and Italy, and created most of his art in Germany. Dahl’s mature oeuvre represented a synthesis of academy training in Copenhagen in the emotional power of the great Dutch Master grand landscapes with the Naturalism for which Dresden had become famous by the 1820s and where Dahl lived continuously from 1818. Throughout his experiences across the continent, however, Dahl returned recurrently in his art to interpretation of the northern landscapes of his native land with dazzling oils and attention to detail as seen in such canvases as The Fortun Valley (1842) and Hjelle in Valdres (1851). Nestled at the head of narrow Lake Oppstynsvatnet one hundred miles northeast of Bergen, scenic Hjelle in late summer offered an ideal setting for the artist to express the beauty and moral virtue of the country in a time of rising Norwegian nationalism. The spectacular Hjelle view rendered in Dahl’s meticulous tiny strokes depicts a golden brown field of upright sheaves that seems to glow between a row of village structures to the right with deep blue lake and emerald-clad mountain slopes in the background. 

Dahl’s most ardent disciple, Thomas Fearnley (1802-1842), met his mentor in 1826 during one of Dahl’s trips to his homeland, and studied with him in Dresden from 1829 to 1830. Unlike Dahl, Fearnley returned to Norway following his studies in Germany to reside there permanently from 1838. Among his many naturalistic rural scenes are Haystacks, Rydal, Cumbria (1838, PLATE 25) and View from Romsdalen (1838) that show harvesters strolling through  rolling fields of ripened grain in the fabled coastal valley northwest of Hjelle. The views express Rousseau’s Enlightenment concept of the intrinsic nobility of country people who live apart from the decadent influences of urban life. The paintings of Norwegian Romanticist Hans Dahl (1849-1937) evoke similar sentiment and reflect the influence of his landscape and portrait studies at the Düsseldorf School in the 1870s and ‘80s. Many of his detailed yet fanciful paintings like Norwegian Girl depict farm maidens returning from the fields in colorful national dress.

After Ferdinand Waldemüller, The Harvest (1847); Lithograph on paper, 7 ½ x 9 inches (1887); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

After Ferdinand Waldemüller, The Harvest (1847); Lithograph on paper, 7 ½ x 9 inches (1887); Palouse Regional Studies Collection



Sickles and Sheaves — Farming, Faith, and the Frye (Part 2)

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.

Palouse Harvest Memories

Richard and Don's grandfather, Karl Scheuerman, during harvest

Richard and Don's grandfather, Karl Scheuerman, during harvest

When I once asked Grandpa Scheuerman for explanation of harvest operations in bygone days, he retrieved his leather-cased sack-sewing needle—still razor sharp after many years in retirement, and an old photograph from his bedroom closet. The image (shown below) was labelled “Lautenschlager and Poffenroth, 1911”—surnames of familiar relatives, and I instantly recognized Grandpa standing under the wooden derrick clasping the handle of a pitch-fork. He then patiently described the role of each member of the substantial crew and introduced me to terms like derrick table, header-tender, hoe-down, and other agrarian vernacular from the steam-powered threshing era. Many farm families treasure such pictures today, and I have unrolled many that stretch as wide as a kitchen table. Grandpa delighted in relating tall tales of bygone August “thrashin’ weather” happenings—when the Moore brothers threshed a thousand sacks of grain in a single day the same harvest season R. R. Hutchison took that picture, the bumper crops of 1908-1911, and how Black field hand Otis Banks could lift a 120-pound sack of wheat with his teeth.

Among the few books I recall in my grandfather’s home were a Bible and ancient three-volume New Testament commentary in German, while our father’s most frequented volume may have been the weighty and exceedingly smudged parts manual to our dilapidated International-Harvester Model 160 pull-combine. I felt a bit embarrassed in a day of efficient self-propelled machines operating in every direction that in the 1960s we still resorted to an exceedingly faded red Rube Goldberg contraption of sprockets, pulleys, and straw walkers that Dad patiently guided through the seas of wheat during our annual month-long harvest. But the good feeling of accomplishment swept across all the crew with the cutting of the final swath that vanquished any boyhood unease over lost grain, equipment collisions, or other mistakes in the field. “No one should be deprived of harvesting,” artist-folklorist Eric Sloan observed in his illustrated 1971 rural memoir, I Remember America. “Beyond the value of feeling the fruition of nature all about you, there is the satisfaction of beholding the results of your own efforts.”  

Don and Richard "helping" during harvest

Don and Richard "helping" during harvest

Richard and Don's father, Don Scheuerman

Richard and Don's father, Don Scheuerman

Like most boys in wheat country, my brother and I started driving truck in the harvest field on teen farm permits that legalized our trips throughout the day to the Endicott and Thera elevators to unload grain loaded into our faded red and blue ’56 Chevy truck and older black Ford. The obligation came with explicit warnings about harvest time dangers—field fires, equipment collisions, and tragic combine tip-overs on steep Palouse hillsides that claimed the lives of more than one boyhood acquaintance. While periodic visits to the field by friends and relatives provided welcome breaks in the daily routine of waiting for the several “dumps” needed to fill a truck, considerable time for other pursuits is available when waiting alone in a draw of stifling heat or on a breezy hilltop. Perhaps our mother’s example had led us to be readers of paperbacks available on a large revolving rack at the local drugstore. While my brother was attracted to Ian Fleming spy thrillers, I found myself introduced to new worlds of former experience through historical fiction. 

1925 Scrapbook of Country Poems Fragement (Vol 2, Winter 1925, Private Collection)

1925 Scrapbook of Country Poems Fragement (Vol 2, Winter 1925, Private Collection)

The Galilean archaeological dig in James Michener’s The Source (1965)—a thick book I thought would last all summer, acquainted me with Stone Age wadi life in the fictional village of Makor where the Ur family matriarch comprehends the value of planting grains for self-sufficiency while the men travel widely to hunt. Having grown up hearing many tales of our Norwegian-born Sunwold great-grandparents on the Dakota frontier, I was also incredibly captivated by Ole Rølvaag’s stirring and often disturbing scenes in Giants in the Earth (1927) in which Per Hansa and his wife, Beret, struggling against storms, locust plagues, despairing homesickness, and the mystical universe of Old World thought. The Hansas, in turn, led me to meet Karl Oskar and Kristina Nilsson in a subsequent summertime encounter with Vilhelm Moberg’s magisterial four-volume Emigrant Series (1949-1959). The books dramatize the 1850s Swedish farmer immigrant saga of home building and barn raising, and planting and harvesting in Minnesota Territory. Experiences described on many pages reminded me of family tales my grandfather often spun about Palouse “sod-bustin” days as he rode in the harvest truck with us to see the hills of his youth—

“He liked to sit at the window and look out at his fields; this was the land he had changed. When he came the whole meadow had been covered with weeds and wild grass. Now it produced rye, wheat, oats, corn, potatoes, turnips. The wild grass had fed elk, deer, and rabbits; now the field yielded so much there was enough for them as well as for other people.”