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Harvest Time


Harvest used to be the centre of the year for pretty much the entire population, it is what the long school summer holiday was for, It wasn’t time off: it was time to do some real work! We may not be the agrarian society we once were but we all know of annual events that hold great importance and carry extra stress. Tax returns, exams, stock take; we plan for them, work towards them and celebrate with a drink when they are over, but we don’t really talk about them… unless something goes wrong.

So, harvest appears in folk tale as a marker in time or a backdrop of activity that was understood by any audience, in the same way that shopping in the third week of December might be nowadays. If the actual business of bringing in the crops is important to the plot then you can be pretty sure that trouble is on it’s way. Despite many tales from other times of the year indicating the superiority of the female intellect, sending a young wife off with a scythe to tackle a field on her own is apparently a bad idea as she is likely to fall asleep or accidentally cut her own clothes off, instead of cutting the crop, and then suffer a personality crisis as she fails to recognise herself and thinks she must be someone else!

The most well known tale of harvest is “The Tops And The Butts”. This simple tale has been told, with little variation, across the whole agricultural world for hundreds of years. Sometimes the protagonists are a fox and a bear, or some other animal pairing, but mostly it’s a human farmer and a devil / bogle / boggart / (insert supernatural being of choice). The farmer (or fox) is preparing a field for planting when their antagonist appears and claims that they own the land. After some negotiation the devil (or bear) allows the farmer to proceed on condition that they share the crop. The wily farmer (or… you’ve got the point by now) asks their new partner if they would like the tops or the bottoms and when the poor dupe says “tops” the farmer plants beets, resulting in a full harvest for himself and a pile of waste leaves for his “landlord”.

Naturally the next year the bogle requests the bottoms, whereupon the farmer plants wheat and pulls in a second harvest whilst leaving the fall guy with roots and stubble. Many versions end there with the stooge muttering “This land is rubbish! You can keep it.” and wandering off in a huff.

This breaks the story telling rule that ‘Anything that happens twice happens three times.’ and I rather like it for that. Some variants though, have a third year which I am sure has been added on to make up the magic three. The field is divided in two along it’s length, planted with wheat and both parties agree to a mowing match: whoever finishes their half first gets the whole field. So the farmer cheats by planting thin metal rods amongst the wheat in the other’s half which sufficiently slow their opponent, who thinks the scythe-blunting rods are “burdocks”, that he gives up the race.

Entertaining as it is, “The Tops And The Butts” does not stand up to examination if what you want is a moral at the end of your story. The boggart’s ownership of the land may not be proven but neither is it disputed and he gives no provocation for the farmer’s trickery save being different and maybe a little slow. The story seems to suggest it’s ok to cheat people of other races, that the ‘civilised’ farmer has a right to displace the ‘ignorant’ native from their ancestral foraging grounds.

For a more ethically palatable harvest tale I recommend “The Field of Genies” which not only teaches the whole process of preparation and planting but warns against the employment of forces we do not fully comprehend. The genies who own the field (and increase in numbers exponentially as the story progresses) enthusiastically repeat the actions of the farmer, which is tremendously helpful when doing the back-breaking tasks of digging and raking etc, but accidentally giving them the wrong actions to follow results in disaster.

As artificial fertilisers and indiscriminate pesticides deplete our soil or reduce our essential biodiversity and genetically engineered crops promise magical returns that are too good to be true, we would do well to listen to the message of this old yarn.

Be it harvest, exam or stock take, if you want to reap the rewards then you have to put in the hard work: There are no short cuts.

Here’s to living happily ever after …until the next adventure!

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Filed under August, Folk Tale, stories, Storytelling, Summer