Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Another Harvest

Our house in Ireland is a compact white bungalow, sheltered on one side by a wall of towering Leyland cypresses and hidden behind a briar-threaded untamed hedge. Driving in one direction along the road it faces, you may not see the house until you’ve passed. Sometimes there are cattle pastured in the field on the other side of the cypresses. In the bedroom, I found myself frequently startled by sudden deep shuddering exhalations or violent snorts when the large beasts moved, unseen beyond the trees, only a few metres away. From the front windows a field is just visible over a low, tangled hedge; sometimes wheat or barley grows there, other times cattle graze it.

Here in Salzburg, we live on the first floor of stout two-story house, with wide overhanging eaves. From our front windows, we look out on another row of similar houses along a quiet, suburban street. From our veranda out the back, we also look onto a row of houses. Beyond them, however, lie several acres of fields that have been cultivated all summer.

When I first saw these fields, they lay under ragged patches of snow; where raw earth was visible, it was pock-marked by mole holes. The day we moved in, a hot day polished by a wind nearly as dry as a Santa Ana, the droning of an engine drifted in the open window, audible over the scurry of brittle leaves on the pavement. It was a single tractor moving forward and back, turning over black earth in a single long, narrow strip and leaving a trail of dust behind.

Over the summer, my husband and I have watched the progress of the crops growing in relatively small strips ranging over the fields. In the early summer months barley and wheat, threaded through with bright red poppies, ripened. Himself, who likes a good Pilsner and finds wheat beer an abomination, would chant as we passed, ‘Wheat is for brot, barley for bier.’ As the summer stretched on and the grain’s green burnished to dull gold, the heavy pale heads bowed forward, until at last they were nearly doubled over, ready to cut.

Potatoes, too, grew in a long narrow strip, about 15 metres wide and perhaps 300 metres long. Through July and August we watched as the plants sprouted, greened, flowered and then sat, squat and close to the ground, the spuds waiting to be dug. We joked about stealing out in the dark with a spade to test their goodness. One day, though, we passed and realised the plants were gone, the earth churned and brown.

More recently, even as the wheat and barley were harvested and the potatoes dug, a stand of corn remained. Corn in the American sense, it grew taller and taller. Not having seen this type of maize grown before, Himself remarked that for the first time, he understood the lyric: It was indeed as high as an elephant’s eye. In my imagination, I re-lived summer barbecues with ears of sweet corn dripping with butter, sweet kernels salted and savoury with pepper, spurting juice with each bite.

As we’ve driven through the Austrian and, recently, Czech Republic, countryside in the last two months, we’ve passed many acres of maize like this, standing in tall, dense rows, rising high over the grass beside it. Row after row of amassed stalks caught the late summer light; their tassels blazed bronze. It puzzled us.

The sweet corn I recall had been a feature of July and August feasts. Why had so much corn been planted for harvest this late in the summer? I hadn’t seen it in markets over the summer, nor did it seem like something I’d expect to see on an Austrian table. What would it be used for? Was it raised as vegetable crop, feed, corn oil, corn syrup, or, perhaps, even popcorn? The question became one more on our list of Things We Wonder About Austria.

As fall drew closer, each time I passed the corn, I tried to assess its readiness. I searched for the white silken strands emerging from the pale green ears. Young boys wheeled their bikes on the road in front of it, leaving a litter of familiar fibrous leaves in their wake. Were they hungering for it too? I imagined the sweet swelling ears, growing longer and thicker. When would it be ready for harvest? And how would the ears be cut from the stalks?

One morning last week, the quiet was broken by a low but steady mechanical yawl. It throbbed, rising and falling but always there, as the day went on. When I later rode out on my bike, I saw a tractor moving along the tall, green, even rows of corn. As it passed forward and back, the corn disappeared, one row at a time.

Fascinated, I stopped and stood under the trees at the roadside to watch. The tractor, a shiny new red Massey-Ferguson, pulled an faded green and timber trailer. Near the ground, two parallel angular yellow blades, like the arms of a toy transformer, projected from the tractor’s side, just in front of the trailer. As the tractor moved forward, these sheared way the entire corn stalk at its base. Quicker than I could see, the whole plant – stalk, leaves, cobs and all – was felled and swallowed by a side-mounted device. Then, within seconds, a silken veil of green and gold sprayed from a tall narrow spout into the trailer.

I stood there watching, the low-lying sun of the equinox white-hot on the side of my face. After a few runs, the farmer, a well-tanned man with white hair tonsured like a monk’s, wearing in the heat only loose white shorts, manoeuvred his rig along side two large trailers parked at the edge of the narrow road. Another, younger, man operated the mechanical jaws of an enormous scoop to lift the load from the small trailer into the two waiting ones. Then the white-hair man reversed his tractor and trailer, turned the rig around, and aligned it with the three remaining rows of corn. With a nod towards me, he lowered the heavy yellow shears into place and slowly rolled forward, corn stalks vanishing before him.

As the tractor rattled away, I called out to the younger man, ‘Do you speak English?’

Only a little, he told me. As I struggled to frame my question, I thought how his ‘little’ English was so much more than my poor store of German.

‘Was machst du . . . ?’ I gestured, mortified, suddenly aware I had addressed him using the familiar, as if he were a child.

If he was offended, he didn’t show it. He simply answered my ill-framed question. The produce would be used as animal feed, he said. One mystery had been solved.

The next morning, all was quiet. Beyond the houses opposite my office window I could see the alternating stripes of the field: deep green, brown, pale-green-and-yellow, then deeper brown. In the slanted morning light, they glistened with a silver sheen of dew. In a few weeks’ time, they could well be glistening with frost. The field was, as far as I could see, empty, save for a few crows, like black-coated burghers, ponderously nodding while they stepped from side to side, gleaning what was to be had.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Irish Harvest

I wrote recently about fall in Southern California, but it was only this morning, a glorious day, the sky above Salzburg deep blue and cloudless, that I realised that today is just two days from the autumnal equinox, the point in the year after which darkness overtakes daylight, creeping slowly, day by day, each night’s length exceeding the previous day’s hours of daylight.

The realisation brought to mind Ireland, where I spent the last three autumns. I recalled the bronzing of the beech leaves there and the reddening of the rose hips in the hedgerows. And I remembered the harvest.

I’ve spent most of my life living in towns or cities, so the three autumns I lived in the Irish countryside were a revelation to me. In those three years, I found myself watching the skies each fall almost as anxiously as the farmers, looking for weather fine enough to bring in the harvest. Last year’s pleasant warm and dry early fall seemed a reward for enduring a miserably wet summer. I revelled in the sound of the combines droning in the fields surrounding us. I delighted in the shorn stubble shining pale gold in the sun, field after field of it, abutting in the distance green pastures. It was lovely to see, and surprisingly reassuring considering I have only an indirect stake in it. There was something peaceful about knowing the corn is safe in.

One golden day about this time last year, on a Sunday afternoon in Co Tipperary, I stood at the edge of a field watching a neighbour harvest the wheat. In the day’s heat and under the intense sun, I looked over my shoulder at what my husband’s family call the Old House – the now-deserted stone cottage built by my mother-in-law’s grandfather –  just across the road from where I stood. The sun glinting off its black slates suddenly seemed to solidify them. I saw as if for the first time the broken tiles and blotched greying walls. The golden light that bright September afternoon made me see it as a painter would. Its crumbling walls and chipped slates seemed more real, more weighty, than they had been a moment before.

That afternoon, it occurred to me that in three years, I’d never watched a combine at work harvesting the grain. So I stood at the entrance to Pat Murphy’s field, leaning over the gate and watching as Pat, working with his cousin and neighbour Johnny Donnell, manoeuvred the combine and tractor into position. This took longer than I expected, with Pat periodically jumping down from the cab and climbing back into it. Thick grey exhaust billowed from the combine. After 20 minutes or so, the combine, with Johnny driving it, rumbled off up the field, and Pat manoeuvred the tractor out the gate and onto the road.

The combine crossed and recrossed the rich ripe field, there at the foot of the Galtee Mountains, the din of its engine rising and falling as it approached and retreated. At last it pulled up to the large blue trailer placed at the edge of the field and aimed its towering cylindrical spout over the container. Down poured the golden stream, heavy, full, dusty. The door of the combine opened and Johnny jumped out. He stood by me and talked of the goodness of the harvest. He said, 'It is dry and the wheat is dry and falls nicely.' He spoke of its fall into the trailer as a thing, a noun, not a verb, an entity that was lovely, even, smooth. He talked about the price being dependent on the corn’s being dry. For each point of moisture above about 18%, the price drops because the corn buyers have to dry it, he said.

Standing in the heat and feeling the freshness of the fields, the trees and hedges, I felt exhilarated and connected to the countryside. Even the noise didn’t bother me. It seemed necessary, productive, reassuring. I remembered how the previous year, the combine had been brought to that very field and the next day the rain poured from the heavens, for days on end. The very fact that the corn could be cut filled me with joy.

The combine rumbled back and forth all afternoon and into the evening. Later that night, I walked over in the dark and stood watching it work. Its lights illuminated the field as it worked the hidden sea of wheat. I watched the light move across the field at the foot of the mountains to the north, which stood silhouetted against the horizon. The road and the hedges were black as I walked the short distance to our house, following the light I had left on. In the warm darkness, alone, far from crowds, I was comforted by the humming of the combine and the late song of birds.

They were at it until past midnight, Pat told me the next day, when it got too damp to work. The morning was overcast, so they waited for the sun to emerge and dry out the field to continue harvesting. When it’s damp, the straw doesn’t cut well and it clogs the header, Pat said as we stood in the mud at the edge of the field. Halfway across it, the uncut wheat swayed gently above the rough stubble with its litter of straw. At home not long afterwards, I listened to the rumble of the combine as work began again.

Later, just as evening set in, I walked up the road to see if Pat had finished harvesting the wheat. The light was gentle, the edge of pale grey, and the air as soft as a sigh. The hedgerow enclosing the field was luxuriant, its bracken still bright green, but I could feel in the air the coming chill. In the near-complete silence, I heard the deep lowing of a single beast, cow or bullock, from a nearby pasture.

I entered the field through the gap in the hedge and crossed the uneven muddy ground. The combine’s tracks seen from the distance appeared even and neat, like ridges of corduroy. But seen up close they were choppy, carpeted with chafe, ragged stubble and torn straw fallen every which way. I thought at first the ground was littered with the gold of wasted wheat. But then I picked up fingerfuls of the stuff and could see it was hollow chafe, as weightless as the pale light trickling through the shadows.

Leaving the field I looked back. The fading sun, low and red-orange, lay tangled in the spikes of the tree tops. Dozens of pale-gold straw cylinders, each over a metre in diameter and perhaps two metres long, were all that remained of the harvest. In the days to come, these would be loaded onto a tractor-drawn trailer and stored in sheds for use over the winter. For now, though, they were scattered across the field, washed pale pink and burnished gold by the sun’s last rays, like so many spools tossed aside by an outsized toddler. For the moment, they looked magical.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Not 'The Sound of Music' Tour

Some weeks ago, I spent a Friday afternoon strolling the streets of the Altstadt. It was a week or two after the opening of the Salzburg Festival, so the city was more than usually crowded with tourists, buskers and ordinary people going about their lives. Tiers of seats had been erected in the Domplatz for the performances of Jederman – Everyman – that, as is tradition, opened the Festival. The Universitätsplatz in front of the Collegiate Church was jammed with stalls under striped awnings displaying meat and fish, vegetables, fruits and flowers, honey and salts, carved wood and straw ornaments. Having bought vegetables for dinner and treated myself to spicy wurstl, I wandered aimlessly, stopping not so much to look at shop windows but in front of posters, trying to make out what they said. My German is coming along, but it still is halting and full of holes. Slowly I made out the news of upcoming concerts, many of them in churches. Mozart’s Requiem Mass was to be performed at 10 a.m. mass in the Dom the following day. A series of organ concerts at the Franciscan church began that evening.

A huge screen had been erected in the sprawling Kapitelplatz beside the Dom. Rows of folding chairs faced it and a tented café set with small tables stood behind the seats. For the first month of the Festival, there were screenings of past performances every evening, free for all of us too unfortunate, too poor, or perhaps too lazy to have got tickets for this year’s Festival.

Pushing beyond my comfort zone, I ventured where I’ve not been before. I passed the Neptune foundation in the far back corner of the platz and, coming upon a pair of narrow lanes winding around in the direction of the Festung, turned left. I found myself in a narrow cobbled alley that rose and curved slightly as it led away from the platz.

One of a welter of nearly hidden lanes that weave around the base of Mönchberg just under the Festung, it was nearly deserted. I passed only another man and woman as I moved up the slight incline. The buildings looked neglected, even desolate. At the corner, several windows of an deserted hostel had been smashed. Entrances were padlocked and paint faded and peeling. Warped wooden doors, varnish worn away, faced a blank wall lined with rubbish bins. A small grimy workman’s van stood beside them. Over one doorway hung a sign for a stub’n, ‘1 stock’, the sign said – one floor up. On this dark afternoon, the pub didn’t seem welcoming; I couldn’t tell if it were closed for the afternoon or abandoned. Above me, though, sounds of carpentry came from an open window.

The cobbled lane rounded slightly, like the curve on an archer’s bow. Pale green walls of a building rose from thick, sloping stone walls. Across its windows, darker grey-green shutters lay closed like eyelids. Overhead an iron sign dangled, like the medieval signs of old that advertised shops through images rather than words. This one was the silhouette of an elegantly turned out woman, small-waisted in billowing skirts, a boa flowing from around her neck. There was a date: 1501

Illuminated red lamps hung from under the eaves; deep pink lights glowed in its windows. A hand-lettered sign taped the door said the door was kept unlocked and that one could enter between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight. Pinned next to it was an array of photographs of women wearing thongs and bustiers, suspenders and stockings. Passing on, I made careful note of the sign on end of the building, ‘Altstadt Laufhaus’.

While on that afternoon last month some idea stirred in the back of my brain, naïve as I can be, I hadn’t given much thought to prostitution in Austria. As it happens, however, Himself and I had encountered street walkers on our first visit to Vienna. Our hotel was far from the city centre, and, on our search for a place to eat that night, we were surprised to find ourselves passing street walkers as they stood along the kerb, waving broadly at the passing cars. It was early in April, a chilly evening, but the women wore short skirts or tight shorts, their legs covered only in fishnet tights. To a one, they wore knee-length silver boots with inch-high clear Lucite soles that made them appear to float woozily just above the pavement. Eyes dark, they stared through us as we passed along the sidewalk. I, on the other hand, had trouble resisting the urge to study their dress and their posture, their behaviour and expressions.

Himself said he’d never seen working girls before, which seemed surprising, given our time in Los Angeles. Myself, I remembered one bleak afternoon on Christmas Day, many years ago, seeing a girl work a corner along Hollywood Blvd. But I’d never seen the boldness of these women as they nonchalantly ignored the Austria’s prohibition against street solicitation.

Prostitution is generally legal but highly regulated in Austria. And, it turns out, a laufhaus is a kind of brothel where prostitutes rent rooms, leaving their doors open when they are available. Lauf means ‘walk’; in a laufhaus, clients walk through the house to choose a woman of their liking or not, depending on their inclinations.

In fact, the Altstadt Laufhaus I stumbled upon may be the country’s oldest brothel. It’s located on Herrengasse, ‘gentlemen’s lane’, just at the edge of the university and cathedral precinct, which makes perfect sense to me.

I’ve been back to Herrengasse since, most recently on a bright afternoon when the afternoon sun illuminated the domes of Salzburg against a clear blue sky. Tourists clogged the platzes, snapping pictures and lapping ice cream. The narrow lane was, again, nearly deserted. Wisteria tumbled over a wall, leaves lit translucent green. Someone out of sight, in a room just over my head, stood by an open window practicing the violin, and notes and chords filled the lane like sunlight. On this afternoon, the entrance to the stub’n, one flight up, was inviting, its menu board boasting of the day’s specials. I realised it was St. Paul’s Stub’n, a well-known gasthaus, popular, I’m told, with students and locals. Voices floated down from the restaurant’s balcony, which was strung with bright coloured lights. What had seemed drab and grey weeks ago swelled with colour and life.

I pushed my bike along, stopping every so often to take it in. Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw, several metres away, a tall woman in blue jeans slip quickly through the door of a house, a pale green house with grey-green shutters.

Above me, through an open window, someone laughed. From which window it came, I could not say.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


The demons have been pernicious lately. They slither slowly through the grey nether regions of my consciousness, unseen but felt. Their utterances are soft but compelling, reminding me of the pointlessness of this struggle. My tongue is stopped, a red sore swells on my throat, burning and itching, now scabbing over, nearly healing, then angrily erupting again.

I tell myself to sit, to write, that unstopping my voice may release the poison. That may be pure superstitious bullshit. The one may have nothing to do with the other. It may be my need to make sense of things by seeing patterns in coincidence. I’ve had the eruption on my neck before, frequently, in times of stress, always in the same place. It generally fades with time, but this occurrence is stretching longer than usual.

‘You’re lazy,’ they whisper.

‘You’re right.’ I agree with them, shame, then despondency, drifting like a dull net over me. ‘What’s the point?’

‘You have nothing to say.’

I turn the sentence I have just typed over in my mind, wondering if it should stand. The red spot on my neck burns hotter.