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.