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.


  1. Lorraine -

    A big thank you from L.A. for this beautiful reminder of what fall in the Alps feels like. As children we used to play hide and seek in the corn fields. We would pick an ear, peel it to the kernels, and enjoy playing with the long, moist filaments that protect the tip of the cob. The silky strands doubled as hair for a bald doll.

    Today, when I think of farmhouses in Tirol this is what I see: white washed walls, the dark wood of the balkonies and the sections below the roof, and a dried, golden braid of corn hanging against it.

  2. I'm glad to know I've evoked memories for you Christina. Can you tell me if corn you remember was raised for animal feed or for the table? Was it eaten off the cob, as it is in America?

    The culture in Austria is new to me in so many ways. I'm still trying to find the vocabulary to express it and the context in which to understand it. I'm appalled at how little I knew and staggered by how much I have to learn.

    But to continue the image of the corn, yesterday I cycled along the road that winds through the fields I describe in this post. Coming around a bend on the other side of the stream that cuts across it, I saw another stand of corn, not yet harvested. And another field is just now sprouting frail shoots of green. I don't know what that would be, planted at this time of year.

  3. In the Tirol corn is traditionally planted for feeding. The kernels are small and have neither the juice nor the flavor of table corn. The entire plant is shredded and then goes into a silo to be used as cattle feed later.

    Wheat is the dominant staple in the Alps - at least north of the Brenner pass. While Italians have enjoyed eating Polenta for centuries corn was always considered poor man's food in the Tirol. I cannot think of any regional recipe or dish that would include it.

    I do remember eating corn off the cob as a child. My mother served it with butter and salt, just the way it is eaten in the US, but my mother is English and our eating habits were never Tyrolean.