For centuries the coming of the autumn equinox on 23 September has marked the end of the harvest period, often culminating in a raucous Harvest Home celebration. The old English word hærfest actually means autumn, or the period between August and November.
A time of thanksgiving, harvest festivals are steeped in custom and folklore. The last sheaf of corn, signifying the spirit of the field, is woven into a corn dolly, drenched with water as a rain charm, and then saved until spring when it is ploughed back into the first furrow of the new season.
Also marking the end of the harvest, Michaelmas Day, or St Michael’s Mass, on 29 September is an occasion to dine on “stubble-goose”, thought to bring financial protection for the year ahead.
And 29 September is the last day of the year to eat blackberries if you know what’s good for you. When the angel Lucifer was banished from heaven by the Archangel Michael, he landed in a blackberry bush whose thorns drove him to curse and urinate on the fruit. Somewhat unfairly to this hedgerow treasure that just begs to be baked into a crumble, in the US Michaelmas is known as National Poisoned Blackberry Day.
Only 30-40 harvests left?
As this harvest draws to a close, there may be less cause to give thanks than usual. According to a statistic on the website of the Sustainable Soils Alliance, the UK has lost 84% of its fertile topsoil since 1850, with the erosion continuing at a rate of one to three cm a year.
Last year Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, warned that parts of the UK are only 30-40 years away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”. The impact of intensive farming is taking a catastrophic toll on our soil and on biodiversity.
Just this month the naturalist Chris Packham, in his People’s Manifesto for Wildlife, declared the UK to be “one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world”, referring to a 2016 State of Nature report that registered a decline in 56 UK species between 1970 and 2013, with 15% nearing extinction.
“We need to encourage quality, forward-looking, intelligent farming,” Packham said in an article in the Independent, “and it’s out there, it’s being done –but we need more of it.”
The science of soil
The People’s Manifesto presents nearly 200 measures to try and reverse the decline, including proposing a tax on pesticides and twinning every primary school in the country with a farm to engage children with how food ends up on their plates.
If we really do have only 30 or so years of topsoil fertility left, investing in agronomy would seem to be crucial. And maybe history has a lesson to teach here. The medieval practice of crop rotation, in tandem with livestock fertilising the land as they graze, is often put forward as one solution.
At the Knepp Castle Estate near Horsham in West Sussex, the arable land is left to lie fallow and returned to grazed pasture for a period to help rebuild the soil. Twenty years ago the owners felt that their soils were “almost biologically dead” but biodiversity is flourishing once again and the Estate nows boast the country’s largest colony of rare purple emperor butterflies.
If we want autumn to continue being a season of mellow fruitfulness, to paraphrase Keats, then promoting mixed sustainable farming has to be in the mix to help ensure bounteous harvests for generations to come.
I will sing to the tan-faced reaper
And the wren in the heat of the sun
And my father will sing the scythe song
That rejoices in a harvest home.*
*Taken from The Seasons, originally a poem by Joseph Campbell, then a folk song with additional lyrics by Jeff Wesley, arranged by Peta Webb and Ken Hall. Check out the beautiful version by Jimmy Aldridge and Sid Goldsmith, sung over birdsong recorded at dawn in Wacton, Norfolk.
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com