What became immediately clear is that it is stories – narratives – and the relationships we build with each other through telling and retelling them that create lasting change, not bald facts about a climate emergency. or nitrogen fixation. or biodiversity loss. or diet-related poor health.
There are no easy answers, but there is a simple mantra: diversity.
– Josiah Meldrum, Hodmedod co-founder, from Sheaf introduction
Today I live in the arable district of Suffolk, and it’s a long time since I saw any children riding laughing on top of a hay wagon down our lane. I’ve lived for 19 years surrounded by barley, wheat, rape and sugar beet, and I don’t remember seeing any children in the fields either, let alone working in barns. Farms are silent concrete places here, full of machinery, and a feeling of low-level threat.
In those intervening years my hands have been placed not on a shovel but on typewriting keys, and though I am neither romantic nor nostalgic and know full well the ecological catastrophe the Earth is now weathering, due in part to modern agricultural practices, something from those childhood labours settled in my heart, so that I can only feel a sorrow now when I look out and write of what I see.
But then that memory tugs at a deeper place inside, and pulls me further back in time.
‘OK, so now you need to sort them,’ I say, and pour a stream of seeds onto the table. ‘Oh, you mean for real?’ asks one of the 15 workshop participants. ‘Yes,’ I laugh. ‘There are six kinds and they need to be separated into piles.’
There is a silence as a sea wind moves among the tropical trees in the university garden. We have been exploring the myth of Psyche and Eros and how this Roman tale holds keys about the regeneration of ourselves and the Earth. ‘Sorting the seeds’ is the first of four tasks the mortal girl is set by the goddess Venus, as a test of true love for her son. In the myth, a sisterhood of ants helps Psyche sort the seeds, six staples of the ancient world that still underpin the food stores and medicine chests of modern civilisation: wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, beans, poppies. In the workshop, many light fingers get to work, discussing the differences and their provenance. ‘They are all from the UK,’ I tell them, ‘and these chickpeas are the first to be produced commercially in these islands.’
‘Is that because of climate change?’ asked another student.
‘Yes and no,’ I replied.
Once we had stories that kept us close to the land, that told us about a spiritual and physical negotiation between the wild world and the domesticated crops that fed and maintained us. As civilisations broke those contracts in favour of control, enforced by patriarchal religions, science and industry, we are now bearing the consequences of a culture that has ignored the tasks set by the goddess of love and beauty. The lessons which once taught human beings how to keep in harmony with the living Earth have been forgotten.
Once we had stories that kept us close to the land, that told us about a spiritual and physical negotiation between the wild world and the domesticated crops that fed and maintained us.
Can we recover those kinds of relationships again? Can those ancestral myths and teachings still speak to us? The seeds on the table that day in Cornwall all came from pioneer producers Hodmedod. The magical tendrils of their beans and peas have wound about my own writing projects for over a decade now, working as a metaphor for restoration and reconnection at grassroots gatherings, and as essential ingredients in a low-carbon cookbook. The pulses and grains act as a cultural intervention at a time when few people can spot the difference between wheat and barley, even though we have been eating bread and drinking beer for centuries, and when discussions about ‘sustainable food’ rarely venture beyond the confines of horticulture and animal husbandry to consider the vast arable territories that feed and fuel the cities.
I’ve been having a conversation about the relationship between crops, language and imagination with Josiah Meldrum ever since our paths crossed at a ‘Grow Local’ food conference he organised in 2008. Last year at Hodmedod’s Harvest Home gathering, I found myself speaking about the vast communications and knowledge gap between people and the fields in which crops are grown. How come, I asked, people never pay them any heed?
From outside the field it is easy to understand how the monocultural fields of Britain, devastated, like those of most industrialised nations, with their flailed hedgerows and heavily medicated soils, do not attract our attention. Perhaps we are reluctant to see them because, when we look at the fields, we look at ourselves, depleted, uncelebrated, devoid of wildness and creaturehood and song; producing commodities to sell within a rapacious market system that cares for nothing save its own monetary gain. From this perspective the challenge of shifting towards a sustainable Earth-friendly agriculture would appear as impossible as the tasks Psyche was originally set. What we need, I said, is a story that can grab our attention and pull us into a different relationship with the land. A pastoral tale that acknowledges the crises we are facing, and the hard work and skill that farming demands.
It was there that the seed of this small book was planted. What would happen, we said, if we asked Dark Mountain writers to go inside the fields of Hodmedod’s farmers and tell a story that was about the future: about farmers and farms that were remembering that original contract people made between their food crops and the wild territory that hosted them. In that spirit, in spite of the pandemic, three writers set out to write, in fiction, nonfiction and poetry, of their days spent on three different farms in Somerset, Suffolk and Essex, before and after the harvest.
Their testimonies and the book’s accompanying artwork of grain and field, speak of relationships between people, creatures and plants that you don’t always see, but are there nonetheless. They remember a world of connection and beauty that once existed across the land and in our hearts, and can do so again. Sometimes, as the fairytales and myths tell us, you only need the smallest of things to help you to change the course of destiny: an ant, a reed, an ear of tufted barley, a handful of coloured beans.
You can buy a copy of Sheaf from our online shop. The all colour booklet includes: essay by Joanna Pocock, story by Nick Hunt, poetry by Cate Chapman, art work by Anne Campbell and Kit Boyd.
You can read Josiah Meldrum’s introduction ‘Diversity’ here.
IMAGES: Cover – Domesticated Emmer wheat Triticum turgidum subsp. dicoccum by Anne Campbell
One of the parents to all modern bread wheat (T. aestivum), there’s evidence of wild Emmer being gathered and eaten at least 17,000 years ago in what is now Turkey. A staple of the Roman empire, it is little grown today but its resistance both to damp and drought as well as disease make it well suited to low-input farming systems.
Inset –Bere Barley Hordeum vulgare by Anne Campbell
Bere was once a generic Scottish name for barley but is now used specifically for a group of landraces grown on the Northern Isles and especially Orkney. A six row barley that arrived with Neolithic farmers it’s well suited to the short growing season and tough conditions of Northern Scotland. Bere would once have been a staple, used for brewing, baking and thatching straw as, well as animal feed and bedding.
Grown by Col Gordon, Inchindown Farm, Scottish Highlands. You can listen to Col’s podcast about his farm on Farmarama here: