A Letter of Two Parts
Dear Pat and John
I thought it high time I dropped another letter from the country into the post. Looking back over the past summer months seems more like looking back over a bleak and stormy winter. The weather has of course played havoc with the haymaking and harvesting. I hear that at one time, medium quality hay was fetching nearly £20 per ton, and taking into account the wide-spread flooding that has occurred, it seems there’ll not be enough oat straw to feed in place of it. With this drastic shortage of hay and straw, the outlook is black indeed.
Even as I write, the rain is beating alarmingly against the window panes, borne upon a gale that roars like an express up the valley, each gust falling over the next in its haste to wreak havoc on the exposed hills. As I gaze through the window pane distorted with rivulets and splashes, I perceive a hazy image of grey hills shouldering leaden clouds, and every few minutes the wind rattles the frame and comes sighing down the chimney. The whole house shudders a little and a log in the hearth slips, sending up a shower of sparks to meet the confusion above. The fields are in a sorry state. Most of the corn has been lodged as if trampled by some strident giant, fences have been breached by falling trees and many sheep throughout the country have been drowned in the spreading waters.
There was a period two weeks ago when the tempest eased a little and allowed a little watery sun into our eyes, but this lasted for only seven days, after which the rain set in again and eased up only occasionally for an odd day here and there. We have managed to stack about half the oats, but the remainder will probably have to be written off. The wheat would have encountered a similar fate had it not been for the three hired combines.
Now here once again are the winds and the rains. A dead leaf, too sodden to absorb any more water is whipped across the window and trembles for a brief second on the sill before joining the hosts that cling to the chicken coop wire. Incidentally, I’d better put this letter to one side for a moment in order to collect the eggs before the half light fades completely.
* * * * * * * *
Dear Pat and John,
I’ve had to restart this letter. Owing to this sudden bright spell we’ve been working like mad trying to catch up on the backlog of harvesting and general repairs. I started this letter well over two weeks ago but I’m afraid I’ve not had time to finish it until now. It is remarkable how the view has changed outside my window. The country scene these past few days has been one of violent human and mechanical activity.
Implements of all shapes, sizes and colours have erupted from their unusual passiveness and are droning, roaring and rattling over the soil. A combine harvester, like a metal monster from a Wells novel, trundles ponderously across the field, digesting the grain and vomiting the residue in its wake. Tractors career madly through the lanes, heave with throbbing effort towering loads of sheaves and haul balers which follow on, nodding idiotically like inane sheep. Men race fervently against time commanding machines, pitching sheaves, building stacks, their pitchforks leaping and flashing under the sun. Farmers and farm workers alike are conscious of the urgency of the hour, but no clock watching for them, they are eager to see the culmination of a years’ hard work. To these men, their work is not merely a means of earning a living, it is something far more than this, something far more personal and important to them as individuals. These men work not so much for their employers but with them, and it is through this combined effort that the tempestuous vagaries of the past year have been overcome.
If a machine breaks down, there is a curse and several pairs of hands are immediately locating the trouble. They may not be expert mechanics but farm workers are masters of improvisation and no machine is standing idle for long. It is this knack of ‘making do’ that is the seed of many weird and wonderful machines that have appeared on the agricultural scene, and it would indeed be difficult to find any industry which has produced in such a short period of time a greater range of impossible machines to tackle such improbable tasks. No doubt to the layman it would appear that with all these modern innovations, the life of the farm worker today is almost as idyllic as the sentimentalised conception of the pseudo-bucolic poets of the seventeenth century:-
“O happy life, if that their good
The husbandman but understood.
Who all the day themselves do please …”
Whenever a new acquaintance asks the nature of my work they are, on being told, shocked into silent disbelief. Apparently I neither look like a farm labourer nor do I sound like one (how does such a person look and sound), and henceforth I am re-introduced either as a farmer or, by those who are more sensitive towards the truth, as being ‘in farming’, thereby implying that I own vast acres and hunt every Tuesday and Saturday. A wistful ‘back to the land’ look then enters the eye. “I’ve always wanted to work on a farm” they sigh. No doubt there have been insuperable obstacles in ambition’s path for many people, but surely not all, and I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t bemoan his lot in town and gaze longingly at the green hills. And just as a point of interest, I have yet to meet the person who doesn’t have an uncle somewhere who owns a farm.
Their conception of farming today seems even more idyllic than that of their fathers’. Machines, they say, have taken the hard work out of farming, all we have to do is sit on a tractor all day and press buttons. Perhaps they would like to spend a day stacking bales of hay under a sizzling hot roof of a Dutch barn, or perhaps after a sixteen hour day during harvest, [perhaps] they would like to sit up all night with a cow who is having a difficult time calving and work another sixteen hours the following day, and the day after that. Unless a farmer specialises in a line for which a particular machine or implement has been designed, then it is not economical to purchase that machine. For example, a man with just one house cow would find it uneconomical to install a completely automatic milking unit, but even where this is justified, as in the case of larger herds, the farmer or herdsman still has to rise at five o’clock on a bitterly cold winter’s morning seven days a week. The advent of the machine has not necessarily lessened the amount of hard work to be done, it has merely allowed us to do more work in a given amount of time. In fact, it is because of the machine that the herdsman’s lot today is becoming an increasingly intolerable one.
An old friend of mine once milked twenty five cows night and morning with two machines. He know his cows and his cows knew him. Although he did not rush things, he was efficient. He would stand aside as the cows came into the shed and cast his eye over each one, and as he milked, he ran his hand over their coats and looked at their droppings. Old Charlie could tell immediately if one of the animals was off colour. Then his employer retired and a young, progressive farmer moved in. Fortunately he ask Charlie to stay on as cowman. Now, Charlie milks sixty cows night and morning with four machines in a well-parlour. On being asked how he liked the new system, the old cowman sighed.
“Well I dunno. We gets the milk, that’s fer sure, but ‘tis like working in a factory. There’s pipes, tubes, valves, taps an’ switches everywhere. The animals go through the parlour like a dose o’ salts – you’ve ‘ardly got time to wash their bags. All you can see of ‘em is one side, their guts might be ‘anging out the other fer all I know.” His addendum, I think, summed up his real grievance.
“Trouble is – I ‘ent got enough time to get to know me animals.”
What could once be classified as a pleasurable occupation was now, through the advent of the machine, become a tiresome chore, and as mechanisation infiltrates more and more, so true herdsmanship is disappearing. The reticent paragon of tolerance, that slow, amiable patient being that was once the cowmen, is now being pushed aside to make way for the impatient, ulcer-ridden milker of high speed conveyer-type milk production of today, so much so in fact, that on some larger farms, milkers are already working a shift system to break the seven day a week monotony.
I can foresee in the not so distant future, a herd of a thousand or more cows, zero grazed, moving almost continuously through a system of yards and parlours twice every twenty four hours. In the parlours, shift work will be in progress with round the clock milking. The milk will be pumped through to the distribution. The organisation will manufacture its own concentrates, will employ its own veterinary surgeon, accountant and secretary and will have a resident Ministry Inspector equipped with his own laboratory. And of course the whole concern will be owned by the big industrialists of the day. This is not such an improbability as may at first appear for this has already happened to a great degree to some of our poultry farms. There are now vast empires where eggs are fed into one end of a building and emerge twelve weeks later at the other as pre-packed chickens with their giblets frozen into little polythene bags inside them. Then there is the abomination of the sweat box and battery systems of meat production. Agricultural evolution has reached a point where farming, as we know it, is slowly but surely plunging into self-annihilation and dragging down with it the responsibility of moral thought into a morass of turpitude. We are entering an age of hydroponic systems where an agricultural technocracy permits controlled environment and mass production of living creatures to an extent unparalleled in human history. It is as if we have forgotten that we are dealing with life itself and not inanimate lumps of putty waiting to be moulded into any shape by the current market. Yet if the farmers of today do not keep abreast of [the] latest scientific developments, they would find it almost impossible to feed themselves let alone provide food for others. Even so, despite the fact that agricultural efficiency and production have increased beyond the wildest dreams of great pioneers such as John Lawes and Sir Humphry Davy, people are still dying in their thousands for want of food. Despite the fact that there is enough food produced throughout the world in any one year to supply mankind with the essentials of life for the next twenty, the bloated belly of the beggar is still a common sight in the greater part of the world. It is not, therefore, research into agricultural production methods which is urgently needed, but research into the distribution of those products. It is in this sphere that the great fields of ignorance lay.
But let me rein back awhile for I have digressed too far. This letter to you was intended to be a portrait of the countryside as I have seen it during the last two months, so now let me gaze upon the pastoral scene beyond my window. The cows have finished grazing and are lying in the meadow cudding methodically. The sun falls upon their backs like a warm blanket and a faint breeze fans their faces.
It was nine o’clock last night that the last load was brought home. Engines were switched off one by one across the fields and, as the evening star faded, Pegasus shimmered the in the warmth of dusk and gazed upon the southern elms. As the last sheaf was laid upon the stack, the year ended, our year, that is. George stood, hands on hips. Harry leaned upon his pitchfork. Alf and Arthur sat upon the trailer and Jim stood with one foot upon the wheel hub. In silence they gazed at the stack, each man with his own thoughts, each man reaping his own spiritual harvest.
read the collected work as it is published: here
chimney wormhole: the missing chord // the now-silent seagull
clouds & identity & time & wind wormhole: travelling // arrival
green wormhole: green and / luminant / to behold
grey wormhole: for / the first time
hills & valley wormhole: volcanic rock
morning wormhole: forgotten anything
poetry wormhole: Pilot 125 … // … being excursion in the interludes
rain wormhole: when the rain has settled / the dust
silence wormhole: without any buffet at all
sun wormhole: is this it // all the time
thought & writing wormhole: Christmas 2015
trees wormhole: Plumstead – Woolwich – Plumstead 220211
windows wormhole: river
work wormhole: I am not yet ready