July brings cooling showers

Hot July brings cooling showers, 
Apricots and gillyflowers. 

My experience has always been that showers in July provide no cooling at all, for they only add to the humidity, but that could be the difference between east coast USA in the last 40 years, and Sara Coleridge’s England of nearly 2 centuries ago.

In this month’s image from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (Limoges brothers, 1412-1416) we see farm workers shearing sheep and scything hay. In Lost Country Life, Dorothy Hartley devotes more than half of her July chapter to three crops: hay, flax, and hemp. Rain at the wrong time during harvest can ruin a harvested crop left unprotected in the fields. Proper haycocks require skill and great care — if the interior is still damp, the hay will begin to rot and can even spontaneously combust.

Hay, flax and hemp were not food crops — not for human consumption, that is. Hay, of course, fed cattle and sheep and provided bedding for various stock animals. Flax was made into linen, hemp into ropes. Here’s an interesting side note: according to Hartley, “A first-rate man-of-war was said to require 80 tons of rough hemp to supply her* with necessary tackle….[thus] a man-of-war requires 1 year’s produce of 320 acres of hemp for an outfit of cordage.” A square mile is 640 acres, so that’s one year’s crop from half a square mile per ship per year.

This image from Lost Country Life shows three types of scythes (English, Scotch, Welsh), and the fairly basic dance moves for mowing hay. But don’t let the drawing fool you. I imagine a day of swinging the scythe would leave newbies with aching muscles and seeping blisters on the palms of their hands. Note the final comment about how the “experienced reaper” will leave a neat line of grass just to their left. How many acres must a person mow before they can call themselves experienced?

The other half of Hartley’s chapter is given to bees, honey, beeswax, and fungus (used to pacify the bees before harvesting their honey). Hartley undoubtedly admires the medieval beekeeper, who knew the hives centered around a queen, while “experts” (i.e., people who had never worked with bees) were certain that a king sat at the center of a beehive. And one final note: the birch polypore fungus (see an image here), is tough enough to use as a strop for razors and other tools. Next time you hike through a grove of birch trees, perhaps you’ll spot one of these.

This Common Ground, illustration by Jessica Reynolds

Scott Chaskey, in This Common Ground, also discusses bees, including what to do when your bees decide to swarm. If you’re lucky enough to notice the swarm in time, and prepared with their next home, you can often coax them into it by shaking the tree limb they’ve moved to temporarily. If the queen inside her ball of devoted drones and workers drops into the new home, you’re all set for another few years of honey-making.

On Chaskey’s community farm, summer is a busy season of harvesting crops, planting for fall, weeding, and watering. He has lived through enough droughts out on eastern Long Island to know what to expect, and is ready. Even so, he notes that some summers, their wells run dangerously low, refilling each night, but barely lasting through the next day. Birds take a large portion of their crops (crows, of course, are the worst), and sometimes 90% of a corn field will go to the scavengers. Yet, despite the challenges, he finds solace and even pleasure in working the land. He helps set up a summer camp for children in foster care, noting how the children seem to blossom as they work on and with the land. I love seeing the land through his language: “As we glide into summer with the diving finches we see the green hem of the valley garment flash with the sea’s light. Seamless–gold through green, finch through bramble, honeysuckle, and the wild grasses, seamless–through the quilted valley.”

Since it’s summer, and I’m sure you have better things to do, I’ll cut this short. Life for Ella Pontefract in her Yorkshire Cottage, for Gladys Taber on The Stillmeadow Road, and for Peter Mayle in Provence continues as ever. Perhaps there’ll be something of note to report next month. Until then, get outside!


*A man-of-war ship is nevertheless gendered female. Weird, eh?

About Lizzie Ross

in no particular order: author, teacher, cyclist, world traveler, single parent. oh, and i read. a lot.
This entry was posted in History, Memoir, Reading the Year and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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