Walking along the old drovers road along the chalk headlands above Highclere, far reaching views suddenly emerge from the hedges either side and ripple out. Stippled folds of fields with hedges snaking through them, trees planted in clumps, or singly or in larger woods. Pillowing clouds in every imagined shape rising from the horizon whilst low sunlight creates light and dark contrasts which move across the landscape. Perhaps you might like to paint it, to write music about it, to walk even further through it, or as here, to write about it.
I sometimes wonder what it might have looked like, what it might have been like to stand here three thousand years ago. Observing the lines of field embankments and barrows, the imperative must have been to farm and store food, Equally the tumuli mark where those who were clearly much loved but no longer physically here, were buried – with care and tradition. These are bronze age barrows: now God’s acres.
All our predecessors were much closer to the earth than most of us are today. We may well only understand how food is grown or farms work through the prism of a lens, a TV or an Ipad, and read about the constituents of the food we have bought through plastic packaging on metal supermarket shelves. A minority of us walk across splodgy fields, peering down to see green tips appearing or look up to see the geese leaving us flying in perfect formation to another climate.
However, if you do think about it, you might consider that farming is something of a feat – it asks for skills, knowledge, experience of how to plant and how to harvest, to know about the soils and the lie of the land. Every farmer has to anticipate the seasons: we are now drilling into the soil for crops to grow next year into the warmth of summer. We will have to anticipate the commodity prices, accept the knowledge that the weather is never the same and, are subject to the whims of politicians.
Harvest festival is celebrated on the Sunday closest to the full moon of the autumn equinox. The equinox – as the name suggests is about balance, it is when the Sun is exactly above the Equator and day and night are of equal length. Various ancient traditions celebrate this time of year such the Celtic or Gaelic Mabon, Madron or Mea’n Fo’mhair and sometimes paying homage to the Green Man. Where ever you live however and in whatever era, it is about nature’s abundance , the harvest, the food and the feasting.
Growing food is a collaboration between man and nature, the respect and appreciation to share and optimise the fertility and beauty of the land. How we treat the land is embedded in every religion and culture. To quote Keats, “autumn is the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, collecting all we can to store for the winter. Huge barns are still needed although not perhaps the architecture of the medieval times.
Whatever words are uttered by politicians in this country, we cannot eat thin air -we need to collect and store the grains, we all enjoy bread, cereals, porridge, oatcakes, beer etc. Before the Second World War 95% of much is our foodstuffs were imported and of course Winston Churchill thought we might be starved into surrender. In today’s uncertain world that is what the figure will soon look like – again.
There is some British government support for rewilding (which does not support agrarian endeavour) but ever less for growing food in this country, unlike farmers in mainland Europe and in fact every other country. A population needs to eat. Many British farmers may soon have to cease to farm to grow food. We have been farming here at Highclere for ever – we have records from the 16th century of planting oats… it seems the saddest thing in the world to have to stop and grow almost nothing, just rewild…
Every year autumn represents a time of transition, of change and we all bring autumn inside ourselves in an introspective and contemplative journey. It is about gratitude and abundance, of balance and the cycle of life – the long view.