Wheat

Northwest Colonial Festival — Heritage Grains under the Big Top

The Northwest’s Olympic Peninsula is famous for hosting continental America’s only rain forest which averages about 150 inches of annual precipitation. That fact might make ocean-side grain culture there a hopeless prospect, but far from it on the dry and sunny north side of the Olympic Mountains. To the contrary, the imposing mountains shelter the vicinity of Sequim, Washington, from the region’s prevailing southwesterly winds to create a rain shadow effect causing only about fifteen inches of rain to fall in that area. The peculiar semi-arid climate combined with fertile landscape create ideal conditions for raising wheat, barley, and oats. Match the geography with the patriotic dream of Dan and Jan Abbot to build a full-scale replica of Mt. Vernon as a five star bed and breakfast and you get… the spectacular George Washington Inn.

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

Barley Field near Sequim on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula (2018)

The Abbots have been friends of Palouse Heritage since we first met several years ago at one of the WSU Grain Gathering conferences. Dan shares our interest in health and history and wanted to learn about the crops of America’s Colonial Era in order to provide a “living history” experience to visitors to the Inn. He might not have expected them to harvest the crop, but thought that establishing test plots with actual varieties that once grew at places like Mt. Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello would be a fascinating project. And so was launched a partnership between Dan, the WSU Bread Lab in nearby Burlington, and Palouse Heritage.

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

British Army Reenactors approach the George Washington Inn (Mt. Vernon)

The third annual Northwest Colonial Festival was held at the Inn this past August with hundreds of visitors attending a series of special events and reenactor encampments of British regulars and American patriots. Along with demonstrations of tool making, cooking, printing, weaving, and other traditional crafts, the August sunshine brought the landrace grain plots to maturity. Many of the guests gathered under an enormous tent where longtime WSU senior agronomist Steve Lyon and I teamed up to tell about the various varieties and discuss the challenges and benefits of heritage grain production. Several once prominent early American grains like Virginia White and Red May also made their way to the Pacific Northwest by the late 1800s, and seeing bountiful stands again wave in the seaside breeze presents scenes worthy of a painting.

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Three (Colonial) Musketeers

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

Early American Mediterranean Red Wheat Test Plot

One of the winter wheats planted last fall, Mediterranean Red, yielded terrifically and represents a remarkable chapter in the history of American agriculture. Most folks are familiar with the story of Hessian troops from Germany being used as mercenaries to fight for the British during the Revolutionary War. Many agricultural historians believe that these soldiers brought more with them to the Colonies that love of schnapps and sauerkraut. It seems that a tiny pernicious pest that came to be known as the Hessian fly likely arrived with the hay and grain brought over to provision the soldiers livestock. This insect wrought enormous havoc on cereal grains that had long been raised in North America, and local news and correspondence of George Washington and other farmers from the era is full of news about the calamity that ensured which threatened the food supply. Fortunately for the new nation, enterprising “farmer improvers” introduced Mediterranean Red which seemed to have a natural resistance to infestation. Scientists today study the remarkable genetic diversity of landrace grains that developed in locales throughout the world for millennia and continue to exhibit valued traits for hardiness, yield, and flavor.

Bridget Baker,  Olympic Gold  (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Bridget Baker, Olympic Gold (oil on canvas, wheat field near Sequim), Palouse Heritage Collection

Hands to Harvest! “Bringing in the Sheaves” in 2018

Few words conjure up richer connotations of summertime, country life, and abundance than harvest. During the past three weeks we have commenced harvesting our Palouse Heritage grains and are pleased to report excellent quality and yield. Ever being interested in matters of origin, I decided to investigate the derivation of the word “harvest,” and learned that it is derived from German Herbst (autumn). That word in turn descends from a root shared by Latin carp- (“to gather”) and Greek karpos (“fruit”). “Harvest” in the sense of reaping grain and other crops came into vernacular use during the medieval era of Middle English.

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Palouse Heritage Yellow Breton Wheat Harvest near Connell, Washington (July, 2018)

Palouse Heritage Yellow Breton Wheat Harvest near Connell, Washington (July, 2018)

Likely due to the light color of a wheat kernel’s interior endosperm, the word “wheat” in many European languages meant “white,” as with Old English whete, Welsh gwenith, and German weizzi. The Latin term “gladiators,” hordearii, literally means “barley eaters” since they subsisted on high energy foods like barley, oatmeal, and legumes. Roman legionaries were routinely outfitted with sickles in order to procure their livelihood throughout the far flung empire, and probably used them more often that their weapons. The helical frieze on Trajan’s Column in Rome (c. 110 AD) features a dynamic group scene of soldiers in full uniform harvesting waist-high grain with prodigious heads.

These days we don’t need to rely on sickles and legionnaires to bring in the crop. Good friends like Brad Bailie of Lenwood Farms near Connell, Washington, raise bountiful crops of organic Palouse Heritage varieties like Crimson Turkey and Yellow Breton. The latter is a soft red variety native to the northern France where for generations it was used for the prized flour essential for flavorful crepes. Farther to the northeast in the vicinity of Endicott, Washington, our longtime friends Joe DeLong and Chuck Jordan are harvestings stands of Palouse Heritage Red Fife, a famous bread grain originally from Eastern Europe, Sonoran Gold wheat, and Scots Bere barley that has become one of the most sought-after craft brewing malt grains.

Although there are some variations in climate and soil across the inland Pacific Northwest, this fertile region lies within the great arc of the Columbia River’s “Big Bend” easily identified on any map. While reading through some old newspapers recently I encountered the following poem titled “The Big Bend” by Louis Todd that was published in 1900. Little else is known about Todd’s life, but his literary expressions here make it clear he greatly appreciated this land of harvest time “golden splendor.”

 

No other river to the ocean

   Will a tale like thine unfold,

Of the wealth seen in thy travels;

   Of the wealth thy borders hold;

For thy thoughts the grandeur bear,

   And thy breath the sweetness breathes,

Of the boundless fields and forests,

   Of the richly laden trees.

 

And there grows within thy roaring

   All the fairest of the vine;

Luscious fruits in clusters hanging

   From the north and southern clime.

Great fields of wheat in golden splendor,

   Waving like a mighty sea,

Holding safe their precious treasure

   ’Till the grain shall ripened be.

 

Where nature works with freest hand,

   Builds her greatest work of art,

Will the feeble life of man

   There most smoothly play its part.

Oh, leave the dreary course you travel,

   Spurn the rocky path you go,

Join again your life with Nature,

   Where the fragrant flowers grow.

 

Palouse Heritage Red Fife Wheat Harvest (July, 2018)

Palouse Heritage Red Fife Wheat Harvest (July, 2018)

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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.

 

Comparing Old and New Grain Varieties

This post will highlight some of the points I have presented at recent gatherings like the Spokane Farm & Food Expo and the WSU Grain Gathering at The Bread Lab in Mt. Vernon.

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

Richard and WSU/Mt. Vernon Agronomist Steve Lyon leading heritage grains field trip tour; Mt. Vernon, Washington (August 2017)

This past June my wife, Lois, and I led a tour of the Baltic countries which provided an opportunity to see first-hand American and European farming systems and to meet agronomists from abroad. Of course agriculture in any single nation is an exceedingly diverse enterprise, so meaningful comparisons invariably require considerable explanation and generalization. At the same time, trends in nutrition and crop production are evident in important studies conducted in places like the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alarp. 

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm Porvoo, Finland (2017)

Savijäri Organic Grain and Livestock Farm
Porvoo, Finland (2017)

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Cereal researchers there conducted chemical analysis using plasma spectrometry on several hundred spring and winter wheats. In order to determine nutritional variations among the genotypes, these were divided into groups including primitive “pre-wheats” like emmer, landrace “heritage” grains like we raise at Palouse Colony Farm, old cultivars (1900-1960s releases/hybrids), and new cultivars (varieties released since 1970). The grains were grown at several locations in Sweden and under organic conditions in order to provide comparative results without influence of synthetic soil amendments, herbicides, or other chemical inputs. Results of the study were published in “Mineral Composition of Organically Grown Wheat Genotypes” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (September 2010) and indicate substantial variation among the various groups. 

Primitive and landrace grains were found to have the highest concentrations of the most minerals with selections highest in manganese, phosphorus, and selenium. Landrace wheats showed the highest concentration of calcium and high levels of boron and iron. Spelts were highest in sulfur and high in copper. The Alnarp researchers suggest that the negative correlation between recent cultivars and mineral density indicated in their study and similar investigations elsewhere is likely due to a dilution effect given the increased yield of most modern varieties. In other words, available minerals are dispersed more widely so require higher amounts of food to receive similar amounts. Another factor may be the deeper root systems of pre-wheats and landrace grains which enable the plant to tap minerals available at greater depth. 

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These studies indicate that mineral levels in whole grain kernels depend on absorption in the soil by the plant’s roots and subsequent redistribution to the kernels through vegetative tissues that are also influenced by photosynthesis. Higher chlorophyll content, for example, is positively correlated to iron concentration, as is availability of nitrogen which facilitates photosynthesis. The Alnarp study also indicates that grain type is more influential than location for mineral content in primitive grains. Finally, growing environments significantly contribute to variations for others, and high organic matter and increased soil pH also favor mineral concentration. 

Research by cereal chemists and soil scientists are contributing to new understandings of the complex biological systems that contribute to healthy crops and people. We at Palouse Heritage look forward to sharing news with you about this vital work and doing our part to promote health, heritage, and rural renewal.  

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

The Bread Lab, WSU/Mt. Vernon

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Bill Gates visiting the Bread Lab

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

Heritage Grain Friends (l to r): German Miller Wolfgang Mock, San Francisco Episcopal Agrarian Chaplain Elizabeth DeRuff, Richard, WSU Agronomist Steve Lyon, New York Artist Katherine Nelson, OSU Cereal Chemist Andrew Ross

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.

 

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