27 AUGUST 1948, Page 12



IT is a distressing thing that Nature, having provided a starving word with the most bounteous of harvests, should have decided during the first three weeks of August to slash and smash the fine crops which she had grown. Fields, in which a short month ago the orient wheat was straight and crepitant, now show round patches of flattened vegetation as if some dinosaur had rolled and slept ; the oats are tumbled and disarrayed. It has been said that in many shires the only hope of saving this lavish harvest is to revert to primitive methods, to abandon the internal combustion engine, and to return to scythes and sickles—instruments which, as the Oxford Dictionary avers, were " formerly used for cutting corn." Some elderly sentimentalists, who have resented the intrusion of the loud- voiced engine among our gentle fields, have been delighted by this misfortune, contending with glee that these new-fangled mechanisms are of value only along the dull plains and pampas, in the mono- tonous and repetitive climates of distant continents, and are ill- adapted to the lilliput acres which form the beauty of our English shires. Being a horticulturist, and not an agriculturist, I have no opinion upon the economic aspect of these ingovations, suspecting only that any method which makes for economy in man-power must in these days of shortage and high wages be preferable to more old-fashionable modes. What irritates me slightly is the mental habit of those who, in their passion for the fields and gardens which they knew in their childhood, can derive no pleasure from any time- saving devices. Such people would have moaned over the abandon- ment of the three-field system, lamented the enclosures and those fussy little hedges which broke up the fine wide sweeps of tilth, and regarded as immoral any human devices for the preservation and storage of meat and flour. Blind mouths such people are—not Theocritean in the least—since their lean laments grate upon scrannel pipes.

* * * I have a personal affection for the machines which hum like bees about my garden. There are moments, of course, when I regret the disappearance of the old white pony who mowed the lawn. All morning and all afternoon he would pass and repass with gentle iteration, and when the shadows lengthened he would be taken back to his evening meal, the mower would be rolled into the tool-shed, and the pony's two boots would remain upon the neat lawn, like the babouches which stood waiting (in the days when the Moslems still regarded infidels as unclean) upon the steps of mosques. Such repining, I well know, is undignified and thoughtless ; it is far nicer to have the lawn shaved rapidly by a machine. We possess also a neat little contraption, coloured like a fire-engine, which displays immense adaptability. At one moment it will snort along, with three hooks behind it, churning the black earth sturdily, preparing a tilth in which all manner of vegetables can find a happy home. At another moment it will insert a different tool within its mouth and cut as much coarse grass in one morning as two men could scythe within two days. At another moment it will alter its whole appearance, take a thin rubber tube within its mouth, and cut hedges as neatly and rapidly as a barber with his clippers snips the little hairs. I know, I know, that in the old days the sound of the gardeners with their shears, snipping on August afternoons, gave a pleasant effect of drowsiness. Yet my little fire-engine is a stout and friendly instru- ment, and it can cut hedges four times more rapidly and just as well as any somnolent shears. It was an agreeable pastime in the old days, as one lay in a hammock, idly to watch the gardeners carrying their hoses and their watering cans ; but now that one has to do the thing oneself, it is even more agreeable to fix a sprinkler and to watch it gyrate while one is busy dividing primroses.

The sentimentalist who bemoans the passing of old agricultural methcds is almost always a person who has never dug himself and

has no financial responsibility for the products of the soil. I agree with him that few patterns ever devised by man or Nature can equal in symmetry the pattern presented, against the sky-line, of a horse and plough. A tractor does not, I admit, provide such perfection of design. I agree also that the Saxon names of our old implements (scythe, sickle, spade) are more comely than the more modern com- pounds such as fertiliser distributors, manure spreaders, ridge busters, pulverisers, seed scarifiers, combination harvesters, field ensilage harvesters, or milk emulsifiers. I agree that we can rightly regret the passing of the old farm horses and the beauty of a hay-waggon lumbering up a lane. I agree that it is a sad thought that within a few years from now our hops will be picked by a machine, that iron tentacles will strip the bines and cast them inhumanly upon a conveyor belt. Our hop gardens, which in the mellow Septembers of the past would echo with the merriment, and be gay with the bright colours, of the London hop-pickers, will now be stripped coldly and taken to a factory shed to be scratched and torn. Already the old charcoal and sulphur in the oast-kilns are being replaced by diesel drying-engines ; already the round oast-houses which were so decorative are being replaced by square boxes of London brick. Yet when we regret these changes, we must remember that this island is short of dollars, and that the people must have their food and drink.

More reasonable, although just as sentimental, is the regret that these new American methods entail a break in that long continuity of agriculture which has lasted from the days of the Pharaohs to our own early years. No longer is our agriculture Hesiodic or Virgilian ; Tityrus today has become a garage hand. The farmer of today has little affinity with the happy husbandman of the Georgics : he reads the Daily Mirror and he listens to the news. He is no longer unaware of the decay of empires, no longer immune from " pity for the poor or envy of the rich," no longer indifferent to the " Dacian sweeping downwards with his Danube Convention." Our agricul- turists today pay far more attention to the meteorological reports of the Air Ministry than to the rising of the stars ; no longer do they believe that it is unlucky to sow upon the thirteenth of the month, or accept the Virgilian injunction to avoid the fifth day, the day upon which Orcus and the Furies were born. I question whether a Mantuan farmer of 1948 would derive much profit from Virgil's superb poetical pamphlet. I doubt even whether Virgil, when he was turned on to write the Georgics, remembered very much about the farm of his childhood days. After all, he was only twelve when sent off to the too neighbouring school at Cremona ; he believed that silk grew upon trees, and it is most unlikely that his father allowed him to, do anything much on the farm except to help his mother tend the bees. Yet no man has ever been able to evoke the beauty of ancient agriculture (the mattock, the wicker harrows, the heavy plough, or." Demeter's slow-rolling wains ") as Virgil was able to invoke them. And when we re-read the Georgics, or even Works and Days, we are bound to resent more than ever the intrusion of Cyrus Hall McCormick.

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I force myself none the less to dismiss this foolish longing for the flails and the well-stamped threshing-floors of old, and to welcome the hum of the combustion engine in our fields and lanes. Machinery is like education—the only cure for its defects is to have more and more. I shall be glad indeed when America sends us a machine so sensitive that it will, without disturbing a single intended plant, root out ground elder, the creeping thistle and the tiny tubers of the celandine before they show their noses above the soil. And mean- while I shall watch the shaking harvester, even the scratching hop- picker, not with vain regret at the disappearance of the old slow lovely implements, but with satisfaction at the ingenuity of man's unconquerable mind.