For various reasons, I had been wanting to attend a couple of Lammas celebrations this year, and stumbled across one that was 2 1/2 hours from my home in Minneapolis, which seemed a bit much of a drive, until I saw two things. One, it was being held near a rural town named “Sacred Heart”, and two, it was in the middle of farm country, in an area not too different from the farm where I grew up. Where better to celebrate the “first harvest”, than in the middle of farm country? And, “Sacred Heart” – what a name for a town!
The soil in southern Minnesota is incredibly rich, and black, and this region likes to think of itself as one of the bread baskets of the world, which is not without merit. The richness of the soil lends itself extremely well to growing corn and soybeans (which are grown in rotation, since the corn depletes the soil and the soybeans enrich it (they’re nitrogen “fixing” legumes- but I’ll spare you the agronomy lesson), whereas the small grains – wheat, barely, oats – are better suited to the dry land farming of the more western states.
Nonetheless, when I was growing up, I would estimate that about 10% of the land here was planted to small grains, and the rest into corn and soybeans and hay. Since Lammas is about celebrating the “first harvest” – the harvest of the small grains, I looked forward to my drive through the rural landscape and seeing, scattered here and there amidst the still rich green of corn and bean fields, the golden-maned fields of ripe grain, ready for the the harvest.
I have more than a passing interest in this, for, from the my mid-to-late teens, I was very much involved in the harvest of these grains (well, I was very much involved in the harvest of the corn and soybeans too, but that’s so exciting I’ll save it for a post about “the second harvest”). During those years I operated a Case “Swather”, about identical to this these:
which you’ll notice are built upon a triangular frame, rather than the conventional rectangular frame of most vehicles and machinery – it has only 1 wheel in the back, which merely pivoted. The power wheels were the front left and front right, which functioned indepently of each other. Meaning, the left wheel could be moving in reverse while the right wheel was moving forward, and vice versa. Which made it an incredibly maneuverable machine to operate. In fact, it is the most elegant piece of machinery I’ve ever been on. Operating it was almost an art form. With the wheels moving in oposite directions, one could make a complete 360 degree circles in a space no bigger than the machine itself.
So, when the landscape (and fences) necessitated it, or if one simply felt the inclination 🙂 one could turn pirouettes out in the middle of a field.
It’s impossible to convey the full effect of that, for the reel that you see in the picture would be constantly turning like the wheel of a paddlewheel boat, and the sickle blade (which cut the grain stalks), which you cannot really see, would be moving back and forth with sewing-machine precision. And one needed to raise the entire front mechanism over the standing grain or over the “windrow” (I’ll get to that in a minute). So the reel would be spinning high in the air and there was all this other motion going on in the machine itself as one turned one’s pirouettes; it was a thing of beauty.
Again, it’s called a “Swather”, though my father always called it “the swatter”. I towed the “swatter” behind our pickup truck, going from farm to farm, cutting their hay fields 2 0r 3 times a summer. And then when it came time to cut the grain fields, we made adjustments to it, so as not to damage the grain heads. I cut all of our immediate neighbors fields, and we also had other customers miles and miles away from our farm. Can’t tell you how many farms we did, nor how lunches I was served in farm houses scattered throughout the county.
The function of the swather/swatter, was: 1) to cut the grain while the stalks were still a bit green, so that the grain heads could dry out in the field before it was actually harvested with a combine, and 2) to pile the grain, still on its stalks, into thick rows, called “windrows”, as you can see here:
Gosh, I still love that word, “windrows” (not to be mistaken with a “wind rose”) – these were made so that the wind would not scatter the grain about and knock the seeds from their husks.
I should mention here that we went through a number of “swatters” over the years. 2 or 3 made by Case, one by John Deere, and one by Owatonna – manufactured in the town of Owatonna, Minnesota – with a cab – like this one:
– the cab saved me from becoming covered in grain “rust”, a fungus that grows on small grains – some fields were so bad, my father used to kid me that I would go out to work as a white boy, and come back as an African American (that was not the term he used).
Something to grasp here – while most occupations these days have overlapping beginnings and endings of sales and production cycles, on-going throughout the year, farming is the only occupation in which you spend months and months of planting, cultivating, and tending something, only to shear it all off and then start over the next year. It’s a remarkable feeling, to go out to a field, stalks standing tall, heavily laden with the fruit they’ve spent the growing season producing, and to leave that same field with it shorn to the ground.
But that’s what Lammas is all about – the death of the God – in the form of the grain, and gathering it’s seed to feed the people and to re-fertilize the Goddess Earth in the spring.
So, back to Lammas and my drive to Sacred Heart. It was very striking – for over 100 miles there was not one field of small grains or hay. It was all corn fields and soybeans. Field after field of the lushest of green, but all the same two crops. Times have changed.
I had time to do some hiking in a natural area before going to the ritual, and there found the remains of what I believe was a broadwinged hawk. There was very little left, just some of the primary feathers and a scattering of bones. My intuition suggested that I take with me some of the leg bones, but I was not sure why.
Finally, within a couple of miles of the farm where the ritual was to be held, I encountered this field of oats:
~ so idyllic, and so reminiscent of a late summer day of my youth.
When I arrived I was warmly greeted by the group of complete strangers, who welcomed me as though I were a member of their extended family.
This was also so striking to me – to encounter a group of Earth-worshipping pagans in the middle of farm country. This was unheard of when I was growing up. Back then I often mused how far removed from the Earth many farmers actually were. Even though they tended it throughout the year, they did not possess an emotional connection to it – it was merely the medium in which they worked to make a living. But here I was , on a farm, with people who thrived upon their deep awareness of the Earth and her cycles.
From our sacred circle formed in their backyard, this was the view to the south – a wheat field that had just recently been shorn and harvested:
In our circle, I was stationed in the East, and here is the view to the East, overlooking a soybean field:
The great, long vistas of the flat prairie…
It was a lovely ritual, with everyone playing one role or another. One of the men in attendance was being initiated as a “Warrior” of the coven. In the midst of this, I was led to give him one of the bones from the hawk that I had found, to serve as a talisman to connect him to the hawk energy.
The entire experience was so moving, to have so many memories return to me, to experience this celebration of the harvest in the midst of farm country, in a setting that was so reminiscent of where I grew up.
It was a beautiful integration of two very significant parts of my life…