If you go by the August image from Les Très Riches Heures de Duc de Berry, this month is more about the lords and ladies hunting with their hawks than about the harvest, yet look more closely beyond the pond full of bathers, and you’ll see a couple of workmen mowing the hay and tying up the sheaves. That’s the real work of this month.
Harvest time, with all it entails, is at the heart of Hartley’s August chapter in Lost Country Life. It’s a long chapter, covering much more than I ever thought I needed to know about working the south forty. I’ve learned the difference between hay and straw (hay has more green in it and so is more nutritious as animal feed), and also the steps for getting the most out of grain crops — gather the head first, so it can be threshed, then the stalks to be sheaved and stored. Rain is always the challenge for harvesters, for if whatever is left standing or lying about gets wet, it will be good for nothing but plowing back into the land.
Barley, rye, buckwheat and wheat were the main corn crops (“corn” being British for grain; American corn — maize — didn’t reach Europe until the very late Middle Ages, and even then it was used mostly as feed for stock). Hartley explains the complex task of organizing the workers most efficiently, so that no one gets ahead or falls behind the others. She compares it a bit to an assembly line, because field workers do only one task. But the expert “harvest lord” (i.e., manager) knew who would be best where and allowed no shirkers.
“Threshing and winnowing were winter work,” Harley writes, “done under cover.” Inside the barn, that is, and only as needed. Unthreshed grain was easy to store, so there was no need to spend the time required to thresh an entire crop. Threshed grain went to the miller (few individuals had millstones, and often people were fined if they didn’t send their grain to the local mill). Most of the millstones were imported from France, while “special craftsmen”on site cut the edge and grooves before installing the stones. “It is the straight sharp edge of the stone that cuts the corn — the shallow grooves spill out the flour.”
Peter Mayle, in late-20th century Provence, is enjoying his August, despite the crowds and the overall disarray at his home, where their plumber is installing pipes for a heating system: “… the area in front of the house resembled a scrapyard. Piled around an oily workbench … were … boxes of brass joints, valves, soldering guns, gas canisters, hacksaws, radiators, drilling bits, washers and spanners, and cans of what looked like black treacle.” Note that this pile of items doesn’t include the water and fuel tanks, the boiler, and the burner.
On a hot day, Mayle and his wife go up to Bonnieux to bet on an entrant in the annual goat race. Near Gordes, they attend a party packed with elegant Parisians who drop their cool chic when someone puts Little Richard on the turntable:
The barn vibrated, and le tout Paris vibrated with it, arms and legs and buttocks and breasts giggling and shaking and grinding and flailing around, teeth bared, eyes rolling, fists pumping the air, jewelers out of control, buttons bursting under the strain, elegant facades gone to hell as everyone writhed and jerked and twitched and got down.
And finally, Gladys Taber, at her home in mid-20th century rural Connecticut, entertains visitors, deals with kittens and cats and becomes, once again, philosophical. After her housemate, Jill, died, Taber noticed “that I was working myself into a severe nervous state because I never could catch up with the daily chores, the kennel jobs, the errands, and futile attempts to keep some sort of books. I added all this to the major job of adjusting to what was, at that time, compete desolation.” Her solution was to make lists, and then feel happy about tasks completed: “And then, as if Jill spoke to me, I felt the sense of quiet that she always gave me, and it was as if she said, ‘Just do what you can. Forget what you can’t.'”
Good advice, which I plan to follow.
Back in a month!