Monday, 26 October 2015

Harvest Festival

I'm about a month late writing this up, but never mind.

Harvest Festival: a church phrase very meaningful when I was very young, and (for a while) obliged to attend church on Sundays, and not (as I am now) able to look into churches whenever I like, when nobody is around, out of sheer, unforced personal interest. There's a world of difference between finger-wagging compulsion, and stern social sanction, and anything done happily simply because you want to, whether you believe or not.

My childhood experience of church wasn't all a matter of fidgeting boredom and not wanting to be there at all. There were things I really rather liked. Certain rousing hymns and carols, for instance - generally the same ones sung at school. Not because of the words so much (they were archaic and rhymed awkwardly), but because of the tune - although I could sing along to some lusty hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers with genuine gusto. Another hymn that comes to mind was the one that begins:

We plough the fields and scatter
The good seed on the land...

This wasn't an easy opening, descending as it quickly did into a deep bass after the high of 'scatter'. Young throats couldn't manage it very well. But the men's voices could, and the tune was extremely evocative of the old countryside, and the mellow end of the year, when the fields had been harvested and thanks were due for all that abundance. A pre-industrial, country scene indeed, when vicar and squire ruled the local roost, and nearly everyone else was a labourer of some sort. This was the society that Thomas Hardy wrote about - cruel and unkind for the destitute or dependant; and still full of dissatisfactions, jealousies, and impossible yearnings for others much better situated. The glue of this society was the land, and what could be made of it. The crops were the visible sign that seed, sunshine and rain, hard labour, and God's grace, would sustain everyone - provided all pulled together and did their allotted work. It was a simple connection - that of sweat with whatever was dug up or picked or herded.

I suppose that in a much simpler age, with a slow rhythm to it, regulated mainly by the season, it was easy to see the hand of a Deity in making - creating - food enough, at least in the good years. And it must have been supernaturally significant to crowd into a church and see the good things of the land spread around within, a colourful expression of fruitfulness, unconsciously pagan, but in any case a matter of very real rejoicing.


Harvest Festival is still alive in country churches. I came across one of the best displays of fruit and vegetables and flowers I have ever seen in the parish church at Stockland in south-east Devon. Stockland is in a side-valley of the River Yarty, one of the two rivers that flow south and merge at Axminster (the Axe being the other). It's this sort of countryside, and this kind of church:


I met an older lady near the church entrance. She urged me not to miss the Harvest Festival flower display inside. I needed no further persuading. The flowers were extremely well done.


But, you know, I thought the displays of vegetables even more impressive. Once again, an expert hand had arranged the fruits of the earth to best advantage. There were also tins and bottles and pots and packets of this and that, which I thought detracted from the visual purity of the display. But they had mostly been covered up. Some of the tins provided a good firm base to pile vegetables upon, so that the display wasn't all on one level. Taken as a whole, it was all very artistically arranged.


These pictures were taken with my new Panasonic LX100 camera. As hoped for, it seems to get great results in the subdued light you find in country churches!

The church was a big one, as you often find in West Country villages. There was - as is often also the case - a wall memorial to a particularly esteemed past vicar, in this case The Reverend William Keate, 1711-1777:


What praise of him! Or was it all eyewash? Country vicars and rectors were frequently anything but the humble servant of their flock, especially if they hunted with the squire and superintended the local school. He sounds a jolly sight too zealous for modern tastes!

I enjoyed Stockland church, and felt thrilled to have secured my pictures.

Did the congregation of 2015 have anything in common with, say, the local people who came to that same church in 1750 or 1850 and sang hymns of thankfulness for another good harvest? Beyond a love of their village church, and wanting to celebrate? It was worth pondering. I fancied that anyone who came to live in a place like Stockland would be inclined to join in and continue the conscious tradition. Not from religious zeal, but from wanting to be a part of the unfolding, evolving, history of their chosen patch of countryside. A final resting-place.


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