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Shall earth her fruits afford?

by
03 May 2024

Charles Moseley laments the demise of Rogationtide

Alamy

Procession for the grain harvest, attributed to Jules Breton (1827-1906)

Procession for the grain harvest, attributed to Jules Breton (1827-1906)

TWO memories: a very small me in a surplice much too big, following crucifer, choir, and vicar (Uncle Alec), through a five-barred gate opposite the school into Farmer Greatorex’s field. The wind off the Westmoreland hills stirred the white surplices, and blew away my uncle’s words as he, well, bleated prayers about something I did not understand. Then we went back into church, and my mother told me we had been Blessing the Crops. I was no wiser.

Twenty-odd years later: evensong in the church in this hamlet to which we had just moved. The four lads in the choir, outgrowing cassocks that reeked of mould from their damp cupboard in the vestry, followed the milkman’s embarrassed son as he carried the cross out of church. We went down the lane to the Hythe, whence you get a good view towards Ely over the level fen. Surrounded by cow parsley and a foam of meadowsweet, Robin the Vicar blessed the crops — mainly unlovely sugar beet.

Almost forgotten, now, those summer processions just after the Fifth Sunday after Easter (BCP); yet my Hymns A&M (1875 ed.) has a section headed “Rogation Days”. I came to thinking about them (not without some nostalgia) because the village is starting its yearly planning for our fair. I run the bookstall.

A charter of King John granted the holding of that fair on the three Rogation Days before Ascension. Nowadays, it happens on the early May Bank Holiday; and that simple, secular, “rational” change speaks volumes to me about how our culture has turned its back on the centuries that made us — and, worse, makes us so easily forget that we are utterly, precariously, dependent on seedtime and harvest, growth and decay; on a web of life — the very earth — that we treat so badly.

“Where does bacon come from?” my country-bred daughter once asked her primary-school class. Hands shot up. “Asda!” said a bright little lad. . .

 

ONCE, Rogationtide — days of fast and intercession — mattered. King Alfred’s laws made them as special as any other holy day. People prayed for bounteous harvests, since hunger was always just around the corner. In 1816, in the Philippines, a couple of volcanoes burped and caused four “years without a summer” around the globe, as they were known. In Europe, what crops there were rotted in the fields. People did starve.

Those processions — Gang (“walking”) Days in “Cross Week” — were echoed all over Europe for centuries before. Germany had its Bittag in Kreuzwoche. But the more extreme of Elizabeth I’s clergy, like Edmund Grindal (later Bishop of London), worried that those processions perpetuated too much Catholic “superstition” — more exactly, that people were having too much fun. In 1571, he tried to get them reformulated as sober beating of parish bounds — turning them into something about property and ownership, bluntly, about control, the desire for which grows like a cancer in our culture.

Yet we are not in control.

Here is where the Genesis stories can be so helpful. In stories, you can say things that you cannot in philosophy, and vice versa. The garden is created; its inhabitants, including humankind, are created, too. The garden needs tending; the accounts nowhere suggest that Adam (the Hebrew pun on his name links him with the earth whence he came) and Eve are on a permanent holiday. They are to co-operate with their Creator in tending his garden: stewards — not monarchs — of all they survey.

But then comes that temptation of the quick fix: of power; of proudly denying your place in the scheme of things. And the garden is shut for ever, and we eat our bread only in the sweat of our brows.

 

ONCE, Rogationtide publicly acknowledged our precarious dependence on earth’s bounty. That dependence hasn’t changed, even if we now hide our vulnerability behind global markets and cheap sea transport, and pretend that we can control nature with chemicals and fertilisers.

None of those things is necessarily bad; what is dangerous is that we, in affluent countries, have come complacently to see ourselves as masters of something external to us that we call “Nature”, to be manipulated to our benefit. But we are self-evidently a part of that same nature, that infinitely complex web where, as the cliché goes, a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil triggers storms in Texas.

Everything, however tiny, affects everything else. The very soil beneath our feet is alive. No serious scientist could now repeat Bishop Wilberforce’s sneer (against Darwin), at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, that he would not “acknowledge [his] cousinship with the mushroom”. The web of which we form part reaches everywhere, from the smallest micro-organism to the untiring stars.

Time as well as space, too. What I do now is affected by what my ancestors did then — just as they irrevocably changed the world, so we, with far more power at our greedy disposal, are irreversibly changing things for our children. And for the poorer. “We plough the fields and scatter Our poisons on the land”, went the popular 1960s and ’70s parody.

 

SPRING has always brought promise, not guarantee. This spring — the wettest for decades — ought to shake us out of any complacency. My granddaughter’s farmer fiancé and his family in Lincolnshire saw their winter wheat and barley ruined. Last autumn, they could not lift their potatoes for the water on the fields.

This year’s cereal yields will be the smallest for half a century — if they can be harvested. Lambs in their thousands have died of cold and wet. This year, Farmer Greatorex (were he alive) could not have put his black-and-white Holsteins out to the lush new grass; for they would have sunk up to their hocks in sodden soil.

We should entreat God’s blessing on the earth and its ecology that it may still sustain us. We can never deserve that blessing: it is well to recognise that.

Our asking ought to be humble, with penitence for what our species has done and is doing. We should be looking hard at how we think (or, rather, don’t think) about other creatures; at how our pleasure and comfort might cost the earth; at structures and attitudes in our societies which ignore — even deny — the innate holiness of everything.

And — just as God seems to like being asked — thanks matters. Recently, I asked a young man, quirkily learned, what Rogation meant to him: “Oh, it’s preparation for thanking at harvest festival.”

Not bad. Harvest still has some hold on popular imagination. It’s not old, but it is wise. The Rector of Morwenstow, Robert Hawker (a good poet, incidentally, now almost unread, whose reputation once challenged Tennyson’s), invented that festival in 1843 and it was immediately popular. He knew how to engage his Cornish parishioners, and treated all creatures great and small seriously. He kept a pet pig and welcomed his nine cats into church. One cat he excommunicated, so it is said, for mousing on Sunday. Eccentric? Yes, but better that than a cold efficiency that sees all creatures — and this loved earth itself — as mere things.

People may say: “Well, our thinking like that won’t make much difference.” Perhaps: the default structures of our society do have huge inertia. We inhabit what have become happy prisons, as Marx saw. But butterflies (those left in our impoverished summers) do flap their wings.

Edmund Burke remarked: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” One day, there might be storms in Texas.

 

Dr Charles Moseley is a Life Fellow of Hughes Hall, Cambridge.

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