I’ve started to walk our road a fews days a week; at the end of our gravel road are a pair of lovely horses enjoying a beautiful July morning out on pasture.
One of the most interesting of ancient European artifacts, and perhaps one of the earliest from a Classical civilization, is a black stone vase from Hagia Triada, an ancient Minoan city on the island of Crete. Hagia Triada was one of several cities – really large ancient palace complexes – that arose in Crete and were a part of the civilization that flourished there between 2700-1400 BC. The civilization may or may not have been Greek (the likelihood is that it was), and was certainly considered Greek by the ancient Greeks themselves. Minos was their mythical king, and his capital was Knossos, where today a massive palace complex still stands. It may have controlled several other vassal sites on Crete, including Phaistos, Malia, Gournia, and Hagia Triada itself.
This well-known Minoan vase from Hagia Triada on Crete shows a procession of workers bringing in the harvest; it dates to between 1500-1400 BC. “We shall go rejoicing bringing in the sheaves” may be a Christian hymn, but I’d say the inhabitants of Hagia Triada anticipated them by a few years!
The palaces are without walls or fortifications such as we find on the Greek mainland in the Mycenaean period, or even sites in Asia Minor and Syria that are roughly contemporaneous with Minoan civilization. The artifact, despite its antiquity, is remarkable for its immediacy, its relevance, and its joy. It depicts a group of laborers coming in from the fields with their bundles of hay. As they process with their burdens their faces are raised and their mouths opened in song, as one of them (some conjecture it to be a priest) leads them from the fields to the beat of a musical instrument. One can’t help but wonder what their music sounded like, or to whom their song was sung. My money is on a hymn to some deity like Demeter, goddess of grain, and the hymn perhaps one of thanksgiving for a successful and abundant harvest – although it could have been any number of deities, since the ancients had one for every aspect of every crop one can imagine. For example, the Romans had a god called Robigo, the god that protected wheat and grain from “rust” – i.e., mold and mildew, and they even had a very important festival in this seemingly minor deity’s honor, the Robigalia. Doubtless the destination of these laborers turned chorus was the threshing floor, where the chafe would be separated from the grain.
The importance of grain and the harvest of hay meant, for the ancients, security and power. It is why Roman emperors appointed their most trusted advisors as the curator annonae, a curator of the grain supply, in ancient Rome. It is why the grain-rich province of Egypt was governed by the emperor’s most trusted equestrian. Emperors had to feed their capital. Grain influx from Sicily, once Rome conquered it and reduced it to a province in the third century BC, depressed grain prices in Italy, drove small farmers off the land, and created an ominous influx of unemployed in Rome that led directly to the collapse of the Republic and the rise of the dictatorship of the Caesars. Moving forward to modern history, encouragement of farming grain as opposed to ranging cattle led, in no small part, to the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s – a phenomenon admirably explicated in Timothy Egan’s moving page-turner, The Worst Hard Times (if you have not read this outstanding bit of environmental history, it is well worth your time). It is remarkable the role grain has played in our history, and in making us who we are.
The field on the east side of the start of our gravel road, just past the creek.
In our region we see fields of wheat, oats, and barley, but above all we see grass: truckloads and truckloads of grass seed have been carted off the fields all around us in the past couple of weeks, and the chafe and stems bundled up into bales for straw and hay. (The difference between the two being that straw is bedding, hay feed – something I would not have know three years ago!) We are the largest grower of grass seed in the world, with much of it being exported to Asia. But it is not entirely about lawns: grass is grown for animal feed (such as orchard grass) and for cover crop. It helps to keep the soil in place particularly well – grass roots can penetrate down three or four feet – it is a first line of defense from letting your most valuable asset, your top soil, blow away.
The fields looking towards the Palmer place next door to us.
Maybe it’s because we have been less harried than the first two summers we were here; maybe it’s that farms around us grew larger amounts than normal; but this year, the hay harvest has seemed to be going on all around us in a way it hasn’t before. The fields are full of enormous stacks of bundled straw and hay just waiting for huge flatbed trucks to come and cart them off. Massive trucks trundle into the fields to be filled with tons of grass seed. Green and yellow Jon Deere combines move in serrated rows as they mow and delineate the harvested grass in neat lines over the fields.
Our neighbors lease much of their land to grass seed and Christmas tree growers; this is their field looking up towards our place, which is behind the oak stand. The large gravel “parking lot” is used by a fleet of trucks at harvest time.
It is an ancient annual ritual. Demeter works her miracle, and we harvest it. Whether on ancient Crete or in western Oregon, the goddess’ power has a long reach, both geographically and temporally. But in our hubris, we no longer acknowledge the goddess; the songs of celebration have given way to the roar of the machine. The steward’s timbrel has been drowned out by the combine. The joyous dance on the threshing floor has been cancelled by cold steel and automation. The sense of the miraculous has been devastated by the certainty of botany, chemistry, and micro-biology. The offerings of first fruits to the gods have been appropriated by the inescapable demands of profit margins and spread sheets. Yes, we can feed the world; but what kind of world do we feed? And will the gods tolerate such dishonor forever in a sullen, mute resignation?
Our neighbors’ field down the road a piece from us; two weeks ago that field was full of baled hay that we purchased, loaded, and stored at our place – you can barely see a lonely half bale that we left out on the field.
With much gain can come much loss – of wonder, of gods, of gratitude. Yes, working the land before mechanization was difficult and harsh. But somehow the singers on the vase do not reflect this. They appear simultaneously happy, celebratory, maybe even a bit raucous. And why not – they now have grain: perhaps for their livestock, for bread, even for beer (perhaps that is why they are so happy – perhaps we have the wrong deity here and it is Bacchus to whom they are singing; but no – these are likely Greeks, and they drink wine, not beer, like some savage Egyptian or Thracian). They have food for another day. In a simpler world that remains reason enough to sing.
The view from my walk, over-looking the valley and over to the coastal foothills of the northwest. Much of the land in the Willamette Valley, to my understanding, used to consist of prairie and native oak stands. The giant evergreen forests were a phenomenon of the coast and its mountain ranges.