Caroline Kirkland

Harvest musings

Who can help falling into a reverie at the decline of a sultry summer day? Who can pass unnoticed the delicious changes in the light and in the air; the orange tints darkening into purple, and the hot breath of Day freshened by the soft-falling dew? The whip-poor-wills “striving one with the other which could in most dainty variety recount their wrong-caused sorrow,” fill the woods with their plaints; the harvest-moon rises in the blue depths of ether, globular to the sight, not merely round; and of a deep orange colour, like—like—Jerry dingle says it is like “the yelk of an egg that’s been froze, and then dropt into a great tub o’ bluin’-water.” Not so very unlike, good Jerry, as mine own observation witnesseth at this moment; and so, I the barrenness of our own sun-burnt and wilted fancy, we will let they homely comparison stand for want of a better.

How still is this evening atmosphere! The breeze is not yet strong enough to wave the curtain; it only stirs it, as with an expectant thrill! Would it might come! with force sufficient to drive away some of these musquitoes, whose attacks are enough to put to flight all romantic thoughts except those of boarding-school girls and midshipmen. The night-hawks are very busy; they have scented our broods of young turkeys; and there are owls enough hooting and flying about, to “scare” any body that was not “born in the woods.” The cows come lowing home, bringing with them a circumambient cloud of musquitoes to “spell” those which have exhausted their energies upon us. One lone and lorn individual of the horned people stays mourning in the forest; probably calling with fruitless iteration upon her tender offspring doomed to the knife at this season of “boarding hands.” The katydids are high in the eternal disputation; and somewhere within hearing, though out of sight, is Jerry Dingle, with a rifle, getting his cradle ready for tomorrow.

Oh, mystery of mysteries were once these dark sayings to my uninitiated ear! Why should a “rifle” be needed for reaping, since though grain shoots, nobody ever heard of its being shot? And the “cradle?” Wheat waves, but why should it be rocked? Wild music called me once to the gate, and there stood Jerry with a whetstone sharpening a scythe, which had several slender rods arranged parallel with its curved blade, and now the riddle was read. But I have never learned to this day why a whetstone should be called a “rifle,” while there is so different an implement of the same name so much in use among us. The “cradle” seems more intelligible, because the pretty slender curved bars which help to lay the grain in regular rows as fast as it is cut, do bear some little resemblance to the form of rockers.

The operation of cradling is worth a journey to see. The sickle may be more classical, but it cannot compare in beauty with the swaying , regular motion of the cradle, which cuts at once a space as wide as strong arms, aided by a long blade, can describe; and at the same time lays the golden treasure in beautiful lines, like well-ordered hosts in array of battle. There is no movement more graceful and harmonious than that of a row of cradlers; none on which one can gaze by the hour with more pleasure. It suggests the idea of soft music—siciliano or gracioso.

The subject of the weather, always so valuable a resource in the way of conversation, is never more prominent than during the harvest time. Saving and excepting new year’ day, when the beaux are apt to be, as Mr. C. said, “hard up for talk,” and some few bitter days in February when tingling fingers and crimson noses remind one inevitably of the state of the atmosphere, there is indeed no period when the weather is so universally the theme for young and old, rich and poor. In town this subjection to the skyey influences wears one aspect, in the country another. There is no part of the year when the difference between city and country views and habits is more striking. Those who have brought city habits with them to this green and growing world, and who naturally look back very frequently with feelings of affectionate reminiscence to the roasting brick houses and the broiling flag pavements which helped to ripen their earlier summers, are particularly alive to the change in their location and circumstances when this time comes round. How the citizen labours to be cool! How pathetically he descants on each particular stage of sweltering! How do magazines and dailies teem with articles which only to read bring the drops to one’s forehead! What listless hours! what groans, what fans, what lemonade, what ice-cream, are associated in civic minds with the idea of the dog-days! What racing to springs and watering-places what crowding in ferry-boats and rail-road cars, attest the anxiety of the urbane world for a breath of cool air! Recreation has become a serious business; amusement a solemn duty; for who can work in such weather? At Saratoga or the Falls, at Rockaway or Nahant, strenuous Idleness has but one aim—the killing of the sultry hours; and nobody will deny, that after all, the hours sometimes die hard.

We too labour to be cool, but it is after another sort. The citizen who finds it difficult to sustain life at this season, even with the aid of baths and ices, may be curious to know how the wretched being whom necessity forces to labour under the sun of August, endures the burden of existence; how often he seeks the cooling shade; what drinks moisten his parched throat; by what means he contrives to fan his burning brow. Fear nothing, oh! sympathizing reader! Save thy sensibilities for a more urgent call. This is a world of compensations. The labourer has neither shad, nor punkah, nor lemonade, nor even ginger-beer. He may get a drink of buttermilk occasionally; but the sparkling, ice-cold spring supplies his best beverage; and in place of all thy luxuries he lives from sunrise till sunset in a perpetual vapour-bath, of nature’s own providing; more refreshing by far than even the famed solace of the Turk; and he does his own shampooing so well that very power of his frame is kept incessantly in the very best condition. He would die on thy sofa.

Yes! in the country all is activity and bustle, at the very time when the seekers of pleasure are at their wit’s end for pastime. It is the era not only from which, but toward which all reckon for weeks. “I can’t undertake it afore harvest.” “Well, I’ll see about it after harvest.” “Wait till we know how the harvest turns out.” Does the wife or daughter long for a new dress? “I’d rather give you two after harvest.” Is a jaunt in question? The grain must be secured before it is talked of. Is a man “under the harrows,” that is hard pressed by his creditors? He begs only for a delay till after harvest. Not that all things turn out always according to the expectations of these sanguine calculators. But with the husbandman this time is the boundary of his immediate hope—his mental sensible horizon—the natural limit of his view. Hope, it is true, is in this as in other cases, often delusive enough; but the return of the season affords many a peg on which to hang bright promises that cheer from afar the weary way of the farmer.

When it comes, as we have said, all is activity and bustle. All energies are concentrated upon it, and every thing gives way to it. Politics for a time let go their hold upon the rustic partisan. He cares not for vetoes, nor even for tariffs; bad legislation stays not the ripening of corn; (fortunately for us all.) When the beneficent Sun has done his work, and wheat nods its brown head and sways languidly in the faint breath of the morning; when corn flings its silken banners abroad, and the earth seems every where burdened with Heaven’s bounty; at this glorious season the farmer, with his heart and his arm nerved by hope, goes forth to put the finishing stroke to the year’s labours. No fear of the sun’s fervours deters or disheartens him. He fears only the delicious cooling shower which would drive his “hands” to the barn, and perhaps detain his grain on the ground long enough materially to injure its quality.

To be early in the field is the farmer’s maxim. He waits only for light enough to work by, before calling up his men, who are apt to be up before he calls them, so contagious is the enthusiasm of the hour. No one likes to be a laggard in harvest. And then the early morning air is so fresh and so inspiriting; the brightening hues of the pearly East so irresistibly glorious, the rising of the sun so majestic, that even the dull soul feels, and the dull eye, gazes, with a admiration not unmixed with awe. Two hours’ labour before the six o’clock breakfast lays bare a wide space in the field, for very numerous are the strong arms brought up to the work. This season is the test of the husbandman’s capabilities, whether as a master or man. The unthrifty is behindhand in his preparations. He has depended upon luck for his assistants, and put off looking for or engaging them until the last moment. Luck, as usual, takes care of those who take care of themselves, and so neighbour Feckless is obliged to take up with the leavings. When it is time to begin, scythes want sharpening and rifles are worn out or lost, and perhaps a ride of ten miles is necessary to repair the deficiency. Before harvest is half over, the stock of provisions proves scanty, and half a day must be spent in borrowing of the neighbours. With all these and many more drawbacks, the work goes on but slowly, and the crop is perhaps not properly secured in season. Wheat will become so dead ripe that much is lost in the gathering, or perhaps successive rains, when it ought to be under cover, will rust and ruin it entirely. Neighbour Feckless has of course no barn; (in the new country better farmers cannot always afford one;) and being obliged to put up his grain in hurry it is perhaps not sufficiently died, or not well stacked; in which case every grain will sprout and grow in such a way that the entire mass becomes one body of shoots, so that it must be torn apart, and is only fit to feed the cattle with. “Bad luck!” sighs our poor friend.

Far otherwise runs the experience of the thriving farer. All is ready betimes, and due allowance made for lee-way and “peradventures.” He is not obliged to overwork himself or his people. He goes forward in his own business in order to insure its success. It is proverbial in the country that “Come, boys!” is always better than “Go, boys!” Neighbour Thrifty knows this so well that if he be not in the freshness of his strength, so that he can take the lead in mowing or reaping, he will yet engage in some part of the day’s labours, which will keep him in the midst of his men, so that the influence of his eye and of his voice may be felt, without his incurring the odious suspicion of being a mere overseer or task-master. And what a various congregation is that which does his bidding! Not mere day-labourers—for the country furnishes comparatively few of these—but all men of all kinds. Do you want your wagon-wheel mended? The wheel-wright, if he have no fields of his own, is busy in those of his neighbour. The carpenter will not drive a nail for love or money, for he too is “bespoke.” You are unlucky if your nag need shoeing at this critical period, for the son of Vulcan will not have time to light a fire in his own smithy, perhaps for a fortnight. Peep into the village school-house; you will find none there but minors, in a very literal sense; wee things who would only be in the way at home. All boys who are old enough to rake or run on errands are sure to be in the field, and the girls are helping at home to boil and bake. The interests of learning have for the time the go-by. This is so well understood that in most places the master abdicates for the season in favour of the female sovereign, again to resume the scepter when Winter grasps his.

Stranger than all, even law-suits are suspended, for the justice is in the field; witnesses are swinging the cradle; all possible jurymen are scattered miles apart, mowing the broad savannahs, and the contending parties themselves are too much engrossed each with his own business, to wish matters pushed to extremities at such a crisis. Even the young lover almost forgets the flaxon ringlets of his sweetheart in the bustle of a field-day, and if he meet the damsel at evening will be apt to entertain her with an account of his achievement with the cradle or the sickle. Idleness is banished so completely that even the incurably lazy bustle about as if they too wished to do something. It is amusing to see one of this class at this juncture. In the general rush of business and consequent scarcity of strong arms, he knows that even his aid is of consequence. Feeling this to be emphatically his day, he is disposed to make the most of it. He accordingly assumes a swaggering air; don’t know whether he’d come or not; but on the whole, guesses he’ll help! He braces up for he occasion, lays by his rifle and his fishing-tackle. And like a spinning-top whirls around bravely for a while, but if not now and then lashed into speed by some new motive, soon subsides into his natural state of repose. We have known a worthy of this tone promise to “help” four different farmers, and after all, take down his rifle and “guess he’d better go and try if he couldn’t see a deer!”

The good woman within doors is far from being idle all this time. Hers is the pleasant though rather arduous task of keeping the harvesters in heart from the labours of the day, and for this purpose she summons all her skill and forethought, and sets forth all her good cheer. Pies and cake and all manner of rustic dainties grace her bounteous board; for her reputation is at stake since she is supposed at this time to do her very best. To set a poor table at harvest is death to any housewifely reputation. Good humour too is very desirable, where work is to be done and to this we all know good cheer is apt to contribute; and no mistress likes to see her table surrounded by sour faces, even if the work should go on as well as ever. The providing for a dozen or two of harvest-hands is not a matter of any especial research; since although, as we have hinted, some delicacies are always included, yet the main body of the meal, three times a day, is formed of pork and hot bread. Where these are abundant, (and no Western farmer need lack either,) the adjuncts are matter of small moment. Pork and hot bread three times a day! No wonder they can work twelve hours out of the twenty-four. To labour any less on such diet would be suicide.

One of the pretty sights of these days is the passing of the huge loads of grain and hay as they are brought home to their several owners. There are generally three or four men and boys on the top of each load, chattering merrily, urging on the cattle, and evincing in their tones and gestures a glad sense of bustle and importance which is quite infectious. One cannot help watching them as they toss and stack their graceful burdens, and sympathizing in their merry laughter, and almost envying them their light-hearted jocularity. By and by the wagon passes again, a mere frame, with a man or boy at every stake, holding on for life, and laughing and talking louder than ever, since the speed is tenfold and the jolting in proportion. The gradual completion of a stack and the final pointing out and thatching which is to secure all within from the weather, is an operation in which we often find amusement by the hour.

The harvest-moon is a phenomenon which can hardly be passed over in thinking of this season. As if to cheer and aid the husbandman on whose apparently humble labours the comfort, the very existence of the proudest is absolutely dependant, the moon shows her glowing face at nearly the same hour for a whole week, lengthening out the day with some hours of refreshing coolness. The surpassing beauty of her mild light can be fully appreciated only after a day of heat and dust and exertion. In the country, in the true wild forest, and after the labours of the harvest field, it has an ineffable charm. We will not call the harvest-moon a miracle, for astronomers explain her constancy; but we will say that a phenomenon so admirably adapted to the consolation and refreshment of the weary tiller of the soil, seems to refer us directly to the divine benignity, which disdains not to watch over the comforts as well as the necessities of all.

Would I might add to this sketch of the labours of the harvest, that we do honour to its close by some innocent festivities like those which used to be known under the name of harvest-home. But alas! our holydays are only political; election days, when it is our business to vote and “Independence,” when it is our business to rejoice. We have no days consecrated to innocent hilarity; no days of the feast of in-gathering, over which harmless Sport may preside, gladdening at once the heart of human sympathy. But this is a work-a-day world, and we are a working people. Granted; yet we should work no whit the less for an occasional interval of gayety. But there’s “Thanksgiving”—true; and good as far as it goes. It is a family gathering; a set season for the meeting of near friends, and renewing of all thoughts of affectionate interest. In this new world we have scarcely begun to pay respect to this occasion; the custom is regarded partly as sectional, partly as inappropriate; for our family-friends, where are they? With our joy there would mingle a touch of sadness. We could not rejoice in thinking of the absent.

Are we wiser than our forefathers?—those of the olden time, when it was supposed there was a time for merry-making, among other good things in this world? Were the feast of harvest and the feast of in-gathering, which were ordained to the Jews by the highest authority, purely ceremonial? Imperative obligation is allowed to attach to the command, “Six days shalt thou labour, and on the seventh thou shalt rest.” Is no weight whatever to be given to that which immediately follows: “Thou shalt keep the feast of harvest, the first-fruits of thy labour…and the feast of in-gathering, which is the end of the year?” A plain reader may reasonably be puzzled by the very great stress we lay upon the one, and the absolute neglect with which we treat the other. It is true we know but little of the especial form of these festivals, but we know that rejoicing made a part of them, and that the joy was heightened by feasting and music. Not only were these permitted, but commanded; only the revelry which attended them, when manners became corrupt, was condemned. Has the nature of man so changed that all this has now become unsuitable? Does he really eschew pleasures, or have his pleasures assumed a darker character?


MLA Citation

Kirkland, Caroline. “Harvest musings.” 1842. Quotidiana. Ed. Patrick Madden. 1 Jun 2008. 04 Dec 2023 <>.

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