We know that we plant in the spring and frolic for fertility in the Summer. And we know the reaper comes along at harvest with his scythe so sharp to cut down the wheat and pluck the apples from their branches. But that is not the whole of it. Harvest may be winding down, but there is still work to do. Someone must man the plough.
Ploughing is much more than digging organized rows into dirt so that it can accept seeds. It is actually the last act of harvest- the action of ploughing turns under anything left in the fields and garden. The plant materials that are ploughed under are left to purposely rot as their decay will enrich the soil to prepare it for the next planting cycle. In some places, the ploughing is left till right before early spring sowing. But in much of the world, the first round of ploughing happens in the Autumn right before Winter comes.
Ploughing is very hard work. The beast of burden pulls the plough, but the man must steer it and hold it at the right angle to make orderly rows of correct depth and spacing. Ploughing is not glamorous- it is sweaty work amidst the dead ends of a year’s labor -shifting dirt back and forth in patterns that repeat over and over- forward to the end of the row, turn, plough the spent roots up, push the last leaves down. It is a lot like digging then filling a grave. You don’t see a lot of Tik Tok videos of people trying out this aspect of simple country living.
Ploughmen were considered simple, honest, hardworking masculine archetypal figures as far back as the ancient world and in just about every culture that utilized drawn ploughs in agriculture. .
Ploughmen became symbolic and mythic figures for medieval writers. They represented the wise every man who could be counted upon and who would require little praise beyond a good meal and a fine drink at the end of a day. They were considered hunky too. One famous example of this is “Piers Ploughman.” The poem, a mix of theological allegory and social satire, concerns the narrator/dreamer’s quest for the true Christian life in the context of medieval catholicism. This journey takes place within a series of dream-visions; the dreamer seeks, among other things, the allegorical characters Dowel (“Do-Well”), Dobet (“Do-Better”), and Dobest (“Do-Best”). The poem is divided into passus (‘steps’), the divisions between which vary by version.
Of course, the Ploughman is one of the characters in The Canterbury Tales.
The Ploughman, amongst other things, is the one who gets the job done. He brings the agricultural cycle back to square one. He resets the ritual ground of the fields so that the farmer may plant the seeds, then the May Queen can rise again over the Summer sprigs of grain and work her specific magic. But he is not a Royal of the cycle. He is a peasant. The remarkable thing about Chaucer is how very sympathetic he is in his writing of this character. The Knight is so perfect- too perfect. The Ploughman who is so plain and brutish, is the one who gives to charity, works so hard, and needs little outside attention to feel satisfied in his work.
Shakespeare referred to the simple wisdom of ploughmen. Oliver Wendell Holmes was inspired to write about them too. Robert Burns, who started as a farmer, took a spin at waxing poetic about this character
The Ploughman knows how important his work is and how no matter what he needs to get it done. Because there has to be a set point. You can’t leave yellowing bits ( see- yellow = liminal) of the harvest just out on the surface looking like the field is half reaped. When that field was ploughed, it was claimed by man. Man needs to keep that claim legitimate and active by making the land a space of human order. You have to declare an ending to the ritual of the year as part of keeping that ordered system. You can’t leave anything uncertain out there. Because there is danger in fields left for purposes other than growing human food.
“The Fields” is a film set in the early 1970s. It deals with a very modern construct- a couple have to work on their relationship, so they send their son to live for a while with his grandmother in a rural home. The boy is told to stay out of the fields, but soon learns something inhuman lurks there.
“A Field In England” is a film set during the English Civil War. A group of deserters meet and try to find their way to a pub. They end up in a deserted field left untended by farmers who presumably have fled to be clear of the martial conflict. Instead of finding the pub they end up in a field full of mushrooms. Logic would dictate that they not consume them. But they share a meal of the fungi and everything starts to go downhill.
There are allies in the fields that keep watch on behalf of men- Scarecrows. These assembled beings have mythos all their own. Like Ploughmen, they know that corn rows can hold danger including the kind made by wrongful humans. “Dark Night of the Scarecrow” is a southern tale of a community frightened by tragedy and fearful of an avenging figure in the fields.
The Cottage Core aesthetic takes notes from some aspects of agricultural life, but cherry picks what it thinks will look good on line. Ploughing has not made it big on social media. But one very big trend right now are Charcuterie Boards.
What the heck is a Charcuterie Board?
Basically- they are a large flat board piled high with meat, cheese, nuts, fruit, crackers, whatever. ( pssst- a great way to clean out the fridge and pantry). A deconstructed bougie lunchable, if you will. They are the opposite of a bento box- the finger foods are all piled around in one space and touch each other. They make cheese and crackers look rustic and picturesque. Kind of perfect for a socially distanced outdoor dining experience.
But they aren’t new. A Ploughman of just about any century would recognize them as simply his hard earned lunch.
Ploughman’s lunches are excellent balances of carbs and proteins, salty and savoy, and often involve a pickle.
Sadly, certain types of people can’t leave well enough alone and won’t pass a pitcher of cider along the counter to sit next to that groaning board. A ploughman just wants a pint of cider or ale to wash down his lunch. But no……people had to go and make a cocktail about it. Ugh
Who is Ms. Sid kidding, that sounds delicious.
But never fear, you can authentically fortify yourself for watching those scary agricultural horror films with Switchel- often called haymaker’s punch.
It takes a village, or a farmstead, or a cult to keep the human cycles of the year going. Man has to work to establish order in the wild lest he be swallowed up and turned into a raging beast. Folk Horror movies challenge us to not become beasts- to get ourselves in order and know our specifically negotiated place aside from the wilderness or on one side of the village gate or another. The Ploughman’s magic is to make the place so people can hold it and get ready for the next time of planting.