France

When Bill Murray Met Jules Breton: “Another Chance Every Day”

On a recent train trip through Chicago, I found myself with a couple extra hours between trains at the city’s main railroad terminal. I glanced at a city map and saw that I was only about a ten minute walk from the Chicago Art Institute so braved a brisk wind to take a look. The CAI is well known for its priceless collection of Monet’s Grainstack paintings (more on that someday soon), but what struck me were several images about harvest time gleaning. These evocative images attest to the widespread rural poverty of past centuries and how grateful we can be for many of the conveniences we take for granted.

Given many poor women’s dire circumstances in the late Middle Ages and Early Modern times, they periodically sought to reaffirm the ancient privileges of gleaning. But so did less scrupulous miscreants who sometimes gleaned by night in harvested fields where crops had not yet been completely gathered. King Henry II of France’s Edict of 1554 had blamed, “…a number of scoundrels, both from the city and suburbs and hinterland, [who] make use of such permission and form gangs, and under the pretense of gleaning, steal the sheaves, wheat, and cereals left on the fields….” In these cases, gleaning was no longer an incidental act of charity, but an offense that could significantly threaten crop yields for worker and owner, as well as tithes for the church, seigneurial dues, and taxes for the state. For these reasons, stricter laws were enacted to regulate gleaning, especially in the emerging free market economies of France, Germany, and England.

Jules Breton,  Song of the Lark  (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

Jules Breton, Song of the Lark (1884), Oil on canvas, 43½ by 33¾ inches, Henry Field Memorial Collection, Chicago Art Institute

These conditions suggest other interpretations of scenes sympathetically depicting the saintly qualities of ordinary people in solemn nineteenth century master works by Realists like Millet, Breton, and Léon-Augustin Lhermitte. These artists came of age during a time when European social revolutions spawned a new creative and idealistic spirit. The emergent social awareness and sense of individual dignity regardless of class-bound constraint is reflected in the period’s art and literature that challenged prevailing academic notions of classical aesthetics and subject matter.

The enduring popularity of these depictions is evident in Breton’s timeless Song of the Lark (1884) which garnered the most votes a half-century later in a public poll conducted, ironically, for the 1933-1934 Chicago’s futuristic Century of Progress International Exposition. The painting continues to inspire. Actor Bill Murray credits it with pulling him from despair at a time of particular disappointment early in his career: “I saw it that day and I just thought, ‘There’s a girl who doesn’t have a whole lot of prospects but the sun’s coming up anyway and she’s got another chance.’ I think that gave me some sort of feeling that… you get another chance every day.” Millet’s The Gleaners (1857) may be the genre’s apotheosis, and like his other harmonious compositions shows masterful use of soft forms to portray field laborers, inviting viewers to thoughtful reflection. Claude Monet’s Impressionist canvases of ponds, groves, and gardens inspired early twentieth century French artists Camille Pissarro (who taught both Gauguin and Cézanne), Pierre-August Renoir, and George Seurat to depict forms like sheaves and stacks of grain in highly individualistic patterns of light and color without Romantic moralizing. Monet’s style also greatly influenced Vincent Van Gogh whose synthesis of religious belief with the rustic wonder of the French countryside led to his completion of thirteen large expressionistic paintings of writhing grain fields in thickly layered bright colors that were his final works. 

Zane Grey’s The Desert of Wheat (Part 3)

This post is the first of a three-part series about Zane Grey, the father of the modern Western novel, who spent time in Eastern Washington in the early 1900s to write his agrarian-themed novel The Desert of Wheat.


Grey’s novel relates the tragic end of protagonist Kurt Dorn’s father, Chris, who collapses while fighting a crop fire. While recovering from the loss and challenge of bringing in his grain from the field, Kurt is unexpectedly greeted by “a wonderful harvest scene.” Neighbors from all around his home gather for a grand threshing bee to complete the harvest. Grey cleverly uses this special “American” event—commonly seen in rural areas for families in distress, to describe the complicated and labor-intensive process of grain harvesting operations in an era of horse- and steam-power. Kurt arose to see “the glaring gold of the wheat field… crisscrossed everywhere with bobbing black streaks of horses—bays, blacks, whites, and reds; by big, moving painted machines, lifting arms and puffing straw; by immense wagons piled high with sheaves of wheat, lumbering down to the smoking engines and the threshers….” Few other novelists provide such colorful and detailed narration of the harvesting sequence from cutting by combine and reaper to threshing and hauling the year’s precious yield to storage:

First Kurt began to load bags of wheat, as they fell from the whirring combines…. For his powerful arms a full bag, containing two bushels, was like a toy for a child. With a lift and a heave he threw a bag into a wagon. They were everywhere, these brown bags, dotting the stubble field, appearing as if by magic in the wake of the machines. They rolled off the platforms.

…From that he progressed to a seat on one of the immense combines, where he drove twenty-four horses. No driver there was any surer than Kurt of his aim with the little stones he threw to spur a lagging horse. …[H]e liked the shifty cloud of fragrant chaff, now and then blinding and choking him; and he liked the steady, rhythmic tramps of hooves and the roaring whir of the great complicated machine. It fascinated him to see the wide swath of nodding wheat tremble and sway and fall, and go sliding up into the inside of that grinding maw, and come out, straw and dust and chaff, and a slender stream of gold filling the bags.

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910,   Palouse Heritage Collection

A Northwest Harvest Scene Postcard, c. 1910, Palouse Heritage Collection

With the successful completion of harvest providing payment on the farm’s mortgage (Kurt sought no favors from Lenore’s sympathetic landlord father) and resolution of further WWI turmoil, young Dorn finally feels free to enlist in the army. Following basic training in the East, he is transported to the front lines in France where he experiences the brutalities of war. Grey paints the ugliness of battle in vivid terms that also express the wastefulness of violent conflict. While an ardent patriot who decried foreign aggression, Grey also uses dialogue and description to relate the horrific long-term consequences of war for survivors frequently overlooked in contemporary press accounts. The injuries Dorn incurs going over the top of a trench amidst machine-gun fire, panic, gas-shelling, and bombardment nearly end his life. The scene is less heroic than nauseous in “pale gloom, with spectral forms,” and death. He returns home as a broken man haunted by hideous dreams and devoid of hope for the future. Once again the abiding power of love and land shown through Lenore in their native fields of Columbia grain bring forth meaning and restoration:

Then clearly floated to him a slow sweeping rustle of the wheat. Breast-high it stood down there, outside his window, a moving body, higher than the gloom. That rustle was the voice of childhood, youth, and manhood, whispering to him, thrilling as never before. …The night wind bore it, but life—bursting life was behind it, and behind that seemed to come a driving and mighty spirit. Beyond the growth of the wheat, beyond its life and perennial gift, was something measureless and obscure, infinite and universal.

Suddenly he saw that something as the breath and the blood and the spirit of wheat—and of man. Dust and to dust returned they might be, but this physical form was only the fleeting inscrutable moment on earth, spring up, giving birth to seed, dying out for that ever-increasing purpose which ran through the ages.

With the completion of The Desert of Wheat in 1918 and lucrative contracts from Harper’s for future works, Grey and his wife, Dolly, relocated from Pennsylvania to southern California in 1920 and acquired a Spanish-Mediterranean Revival mansion near Pasadena. He had long been an avid outdoorsman, and his financial success led to worldwide fishing expeditions and support of conservation efforts. Although one of America’s most prominent authors, Grey had still harbored doubts about his continued capacity for creative writing. But the recent Western travels and popular acclaim for The Desert of Wheat fostered renewed commitment and a turning point in his career. His journal entry of February 16, 1918 records, “…[M]y study and passion shall be directed to that which I have already written best—the beauty and color and mystery of great spaces, of the open, of Nature and her wild moods.”

The commercial success of Grey’s books led in 1920 to his formation of a motion picture company, Zane Grey Productions. The company released a silent movie version of The Desert of Wheat which played in theatres nationwide as Riders of the Dawn. He eventually sold the company to Paramount Studios but continued writing short stories novels for the rest of his life and consulted for later Hollywood productions of dozens of films based on his books.

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from  Starry Night  (2016)

Paxton Farrar, “Zane Grey House” from Starry Night (2016)

The Desert of Wheat also inspired Paxton Farrar’s award-winning 2016 short film Starry Night funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Farrar cited “the vastness of the landscapes” and “melancholic romance that permeates the land” as important cinematic influences. In Farrar’s presentation the main character is a young woman who seeks escape from small town life  to pursue her passion to become an astronomer. The film’s starlit scenes evoke young Dorn’s evening soliloquy as he surveys the cosmos and expresses an eloquent philosophy of life uncharacteristic of a Western novel: “Material things—life, success—such as had inspired Kurt Dorn, on this calm night lost their significance and were seen clearly. They could not last. But the wheat there, the hills, the stars—they would go on with their task. …[S]elf-sacrifice, with its mercy, succor, its seed like the wheat, was as infinite as the stars.” Whether returning to familiar Southwest scenes and frontier action for new novels, or while sailing to the South Pacific, Grey’s time on the Columbia Plateau left a favorable and enduring impression.

 

Ancient Grains & Harvests (Part 7)

This blog post is part of a series that I (Richard) am writing about grain and agricultural themes in classic art. The research I am sharing here will contribute to a new book that will soon be published under the title Hallowed Harvests. You can read other posts in this series here.


North African Threshers and Gallic-Roman Reapers

During the summer of 1914, a team of Italian archaeologists excavating near Tripoli near the ancient seaside village of Buc Ammera uncovered the substantial (19 x 13 feet) and well preserved mosaic floor of a Roman villa. Named for the area’s principal oasis, these and other smaller Zliten mosaics date to about 200 AD and include a colorful allegory of summer showing a winged, sickle bearing Ceres holding grain stalks, as well as depictions of everyday life that feature a remarkable threshing scene. Libyan coloni are shown beating pairs of horses and oxen to lead them around a wide pile of grain stalks. A large tree heavy with ripened olives shades an aristocratically clad woman who appears to supervise the operation as it takes place below a substantial Roman country villa. The artist’s depiction of the figures in action imparts a sense of their boisterous tasks that likely took place on the estate day after day beneath the hot North African sun.

Zliten Allegorical Summer Mosaic (c. 200 AD);   R. Bartoccini,  Guida del Museo di Tripoli  (1923)

Zliten Allegorical Summer Mosaic (c. 200 AD); R. Bartoccini, Guida del Museo di Tripoli (1923)

The shape of the one-handed sickle and mode of threshing in the Zliten mosaics suggest that the harvest methods known from ancient times had changed little by the third century AD’s cusp of Roman Empire expansion and continental influence. The era would witness displacement by the end of the first millennium AD of older unbalanced sickle forms long used as far away as Scandinavia and central Russia. The famous Maktar Harvester funerary stele inscription, discovered a century ago in central Tunisia, likely dates to the third century AD and relates a reaper’s prideful account of being “born into a poor dwelling and of a poor father” who nevertheless managed through years of hard work in the harvest fields and capable management of roving bands of itinerant harvesters (turmae mesorum) to become a Roman censor. Seasonal migrations of “sickle-bearing gangs of men” brought annual journeys to North Africa’s “Fields of Jupiter” and across the vast fertile plains of Numidia. The Harvester’s epitaph relates, “This effort and my frugal life brought success and made me master of a household and gained me a house, and my home lacks nothing.” Enduring rural values of hard work and honesty are implicit in the rather fulsome tribute, which the author concludes with counsel for his readers: “laedit atrox discite mortals… (Learn to pass your lives without giving reason for reproach).”

Pliny’s Natural History describes use of sledges, flails, and the hooves of horses to separate out the kernels on hardened threshing floors. He also notes the existence of a remarkable harvesting device he termed a vallus that he had seen in use during his time of Roman military service in Gaul. Pliny described it as, “a large hollow frame, armed with teeth and supported on two wheels, …driven through the standing grain, the beasts being yoked behind it. The result is that the ears are torn off and fall within the frame.” Twentieth century discoveries of limestone funerary bas-reliefs of this Gallic-Roman reaper, which functioned more like a stripper with stationary serrated teeth that collected ripened grain heads in the storage receptacle, have been discovered in Arlon, Reims, and Koblenz. The image of this remarkable device also appears on the decorative panels of Reims’ immense third century AD Porte de Mars. Standing nearly forty feet high, the city’s grand Mars Gate featured colorful calendar scenes, now substantially deteriorated, above the central vault that show rural labors associated with each month.

The appearance of an animal-powered reaper with adjustable height during this period and its depiction on such prominent objects suggest the machine’s significance to its owners for reduced labor. Flanking the Porte de Mars’ August picture of a worker tending this remarkable device are also the first known images of long-handled scythes, seen on the July panel both in use and being sharpened by Roman reapers. Archaeological evidence shows the advent of the scythe in Western Europe as early as the second century, though typically in the context of mowing hay. The earliest known picture of a scythe in a written work is from the Calendar of Salzburg (c. 820 AD) in which a barefoot worker is shown holding the tool across his shoulders. Archaeological remains of the heavy iron blades in the Rhine Valley, however, date to the late Roman period.

Trier Gallic-Roman Reaper Bas-Relief Reconstruction (c. Third Century AD);   Trier Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany;   Wikimedia Commons

Trier Gallic-Roman Reaper Bas-Relief Reconstruction (c. Third Century AD); Trier Archaeological Museum, Trier, Germany; Wikimedia Commons

This cluster of locations suggests a core heartland of agricultural innovation during the late Roman period on the fertile eastern plains of the empire’s Gallia Belgica province. A principal artery of the Roman Via Agrippa highway network led from its capital at Reims (Roman Durocotorum) to Trier (Augusta) where it divided into routes further eastward to Koblenz (Confluentes) and Mainz (Moguntiacum). This panoramic region between the Marne and Rhine rivers, where the boundaries of present Belgium, France, and Germany converge, became a strategic Roman “bread basket” much as Ukraine’s black earth steppes and America’s Midwest prairie lands would supply their peoples. Historians attribute the Gallic-Roman reaper-stripper’s disappearance by early medieval times to such factors as inefficient cutting design, especially in times of high humidity, and the collapse of Roman administration in the wake of fifth century invasions by the Franks. But dispersion outward of technological advancements is evident in the appearance of an array of distinct sickle and scythe designs adapted to local conditions in places surrounding the Reims-Trier corridor to Germany, France, the Low Countries, and in southern Britain.

Porte de Mars (Mars Gate), Reims (c. 3rd Century AD);   Albumen print, 8 ¼ x 10 ⅗ inches (c. 1880);   Palouse Regional Studies Collection

Porte de Mars (Mars Gate), Reims (c. 3rd Century AD); Albumen print, 8 ¼ x 10 ⅗ inches (c. 1880); Palouse Regional Studies Collection

European farmers developed a remarkable array of blade sizes and edges (smooth or serrated), curvature angles, and handle lengths associated with prevailing smithing conventions and local crop conditions. In areas susceptible to lodging, for example, where stalks fell over from wind and rain, farmers could salvage more flattened grain with sickles, weedy crops were also often cut with sickles to avoid gathering unwanted plants, and sickles preserved taller straw if needed for thatching. Great areas could be harvested with scythes, however, and important considerations in places with shorter growing seasons, and lighter grasses were more efficiently mowed with a scythe for hay. No clear linear progression of sickle and scythe development is indicated in the archaeological or artistic record since a range of styles emerged over time based on local conditions and cultural exchange. But Danish scholar Axel Steensberg (1906-1999), eminent historian of ancient and medieval harvesting implements, found physical evidence of general trends originating with the diffusion of at least three basic Middle East Late Bronze Age tool designs (c. 2000-1500 BC)—the bronze sickle, short-handled scythe, and hook sickle. With the advent of iron smithing relatively shortly afterward and expansion of the Roman Empire, the sickle expanded northward during the Early Iron Age to become (I) the angular iron La Tène (Swiss) and Viking sickles of the Roman era; the (II) short-handled bronze scythe evolved into the short Italian crescentic and northern European short scythes; while the bronze hook sickle became (III) medieval Europe’s familiar balanced sickle with broadly curved, longer blade, and (IV) long-handled scythe (from Transylvania to Germany and Central Europe).

Mediterranean landrace grains spread throughout western and central Europe along Roman military and trade routes, and often grew together in such field cultures “mixes” as maslin (winter wheat and rye—French metail, Dutch masteluin), beremancorn (winter barley and rye), and dredge (spring barley and oats). Many farmers of late Roman and early medieval times planted single grain crops in two-year rotations (winter- and spring-sown) along with soil-enriching legumes like peas, beans, and peas that improved soil fertility and also provided cheap sources of protein. Farmers periodically rested, or fallowed, lands to conserve moisture, and these were kept as weed-free as possible by livestock, and periodic tilling. Depending on the area, rotations generally divided grains into higher valued bread cereals wheat and rye which were cut with the sickle for the most efficient harvesting, while the “lesser cereals” (French menus grains, Italian minuti) like barley, oats, and buckwheat that were sometimes harvested with a long-handled scythe. These latter grains could be used for food and fodder and while scything risked some loss from the shattering of stalks, use this larger tool made harvesting faster and easier.

 

From Colonial America To El Camino Real — The Great American Heritage Grains Adventure (Part 4)

This blog is the final installment of a series on my (Richard's) recent trip across the country visiting important sites related to heritage and landrace grain studies. View the previous posts here.


Cabizon Cultural Museum, Indio, California

Judy Stapp, Director

The Garden Oasis Of Mara, Joshua National Monument, Twenty-Nine Palms

John Legniole, Keeper

Oasis of Mara Scythe

Oasis of Mara Scythe

My incredibly gracious hosts and longtime friends, Cliffand Lee Ann Trafzer of Yucaipa, California, generously provided lodging for me during my week in the Los Angeles area so I could further my research on landrace grain varieties of the American West. Cliff and Lee Ann are both noted professors of history, and our friendship goes back to the 1970s when Cliff taught at Washington State University where we began a close friendship that has long endured and led to collaborations on many publishing projects. Lee Ann is an author in her own right, and by some coincidence we learned when she was also studying at WSU back in the day that has many mutual friends and relatives from Brewster, Washington, where she had lived for many years.

Cliff serves a Rupert Costo Endowed Chair of History at UC-Riverside and arranged for me to lecture there on environmental sustainability. Cliff is a prolific writer with the heart of a humanitarian, and he introduced me to an impressive group of graduate students who included Cahuilla tribal elder Sean Milanovich. What Cliff and Sean proceeded to share with me about early Southwestern agriculture was fascinating. I learned that early grain culture spread from 17th century Mexico to the native peoples of the Southwest where some like Cahuilla of present south central California had long gathered grain-like seeds of indigenous plants. Cahuilla elder Francisco Patencio (1857-1947) explained the appearance of the first wheat through the ancient tribal story in which benevolent Cahuilla Creator Múkat fell victim to a conspiracy of the people and animals he had fashioned. The people mourned his loss, and in the place where Múkat died and was cremated in Painted Canyon near Palm Springs, they noticed a variety of nutritious plants emerge from the ashes of his heart, teeth, hair, and other remains. “The first name that they had was the beans, which were the fingers of Múkat,” Patencio related. “These were named Ta va my lum. The corn was named Pa ha vosh lum and the wheat was named Pach che sal and the pumpkins were neh wit em, ….” Soon afterward Múkat returned to earth as a spirit. The following day Cliff took me on an extensive tour east of Riverside to tour the Cahuilla’s legendary Garden of Mara, a place know widely from the tragic story of Willie Boy, Joshua Tree National Monument, and the Painted Rocks area associated with the Múkat story.

Garden of Mara Keeper John (left) and Author-Scholar-Friend Cliff Trafzer

Garden of Mara Keeper John (left) and Author-Scholar-Friend Cliff Trafzer

Cliff is of Wyandot Indian heritage and was raised in the Yuma area so also had much to share with me about the early grain culture of the Pima and Papago peoples of the Gila River basin. By the mid-1800s Pima growers substantially supplied wheat to private teamsters for trade along the Overland Mail Route. These grains contributed to nutritious piñole and other staple soup mixtures of grain, corn, and beans. Some of the earliest California missions developed substantial grain farming and milling operations including places I had been like San Carlos Borroméo de Carmel (1770) and San Antonio du Padua (1771), founded on the fertile lowlands to the south near present Jolon, and San Gabriel Arcángel near present Los Angeles. By the early 1800s San Gabriel, Santa Inéz, and La Purísima led the California missions in production of wheat and barley and helped provision other missions along the El Camino Real. The 1806 stone foundations of San Antonio du Padua’s reconstructed grain mill remain intact, and a stone circular stone-lined threshing floor remains remarkably preserved and is likely the oldest known feature of its kind in North America. German-born artist Edward Visher (1809-1870) included these missions in his collection of twenty-six drawings and pen washes, The Missions of Upper California (1872).

Colored lithograph after Edward Vischer, “Mission San Antonio du Padua”; The Missions of Upper California (1872)

Colored lithograph after Edward Vischer, “Mission San Antonio du Padua”; The Missions of Upper California (1872)

Mission Mortars and Pestles

Mission Mortars and Pestles

The Alta California missions produced substantial amounts of grain and vegetables and raised considerable livestock. An 1850 sketch by frontier artist William H. Dougal (1822-1895) of the San Mateo Rancho granary near the San Juan Bautista Mission shows one side of the wide two-story structure with six doorways and five high windows near the eaves. The oldest extant one in North America is believed to be the Mission San Jose Granary (c. 1726) near San Antonio, Texas, which is a massive barrel-vaulted stone structure with flying buttress supports. Wheat production was especially notable at San Gabriel, Santa Inéz, La Purísima, and San Luis Obispo where at least 150,000 bushels raised at each location from the 1780s until secularization in the 1830s. Mission granary foundations have been located at Mission San Antonio de Padua, La Purísima, and Nuestra Señora de al Soledad. I had read somewhere that the latter, located a few miles west of Highway 101 near Soledad, was among the least restored of the El Camino missions so had not intended to stop there until I found out later its namesake was Mary’s sorrow between the time of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. Since I was traveling by on that Saturday I made a pilgrimage to that quiet place which gave some consolation since I had never spent an Easter apart from the family.