DAYDREAMING through the first lesson — the Song of Solomon — I suddenly hear the words that I had carved on the tombstone of my friend John Nash: “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come.” And then, in my wandering mind, I recall that other words from this beautiful Hebrew poem would have been carved on many a grave, “Until the day break and the shadows flee away,” and how they are an early acceptance of the cloud of unknowing.
In these days, it is fair to say, and without accusation, that these Sunday readings from the Bible do not ring a bell with most people — not so much because they do not read it at other times as because there now exists a vacuum between most villagers and the fields. Radio and film-makers know far more about flowers and birds than did their ancestors, because of Richard Mabey and Mark Cocker, but they are ignorant when it comes to, say, barley.
David, who is never out of his place at the rear of the church after bell-ringing, is often the lone exemplar of a parishioner who worked our fields all his long life, and a man who was part of them — although, in another direction, I doubt if either he or his friends in the back pew know that they are a continuation of the west-end music that led the services when Thomas Hardy accompanied them with his fiddle. How naturally they catch on to the psalm, how familiarly to the Te Deum.
And what a relief to see them in their places when I announce the processional, which is usually myself and Mike. Or Tim. And then this strong sound from those who can pick up the agricultural imagery of scripture.
This week, I saw a young man cut the barley in the top field. The barley — which they used to name “drink-corn” — was short and rustling and cracking as it poured from the ground to the grain-trailer. Everywhere else, the day was silent and still, warm and uneventful. The sky was a dull blue bowl. The solitary reaper’s little car was parked by the hedge.
I thought of Boaz and the young widow harvesting the barley at Bethlehem, the house of bread, and the boy with five barley loaves in St John’s Gospel — the only reference, I think, to barley in the New Testament. But Boaz and Ruth had a huge part to play in the barley field; for their love would found Jesus’s family.
Boaz reaped the field; Ruth gleaned it. In reaping, the sickle had to be put into the barley low, and make a clean cut. But there was no clean gathering of the stalks, and this left room for charity. Enamoured, young farmer Boaz ordered untidy cuts so that this unusual fieldworker could gather rather than glean. It was a heady courtship, aided and abetted by Ruth’s mother-in-law.
There is a Victorian window in our church which shows an old married couple themselves being “harvested” in a cornfield, not a barley field. They had farmed here, and I sometimes walk their fields. The last time, one of them was full of sugar beet.
Barley made the first loaf of the year. It was placed on the altar on 1 August, Lammas Day. Loaf-mass day. It is a whispering crop, which, when cut, does not journey on in a cloud of dust.