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Corn dollies, enlightenment and wisdom

Most who work outside dread November; the shortening days, the mud, the slow and tortured loss of vigour from light-starved crops. Our descent into winter typically feels like entering a dark, damp cave with no guaranteed exit.

A fear of endless winter led our pagan forebears to make corn dollies from the last sheaf of harvest, to house the life spirit over winter. In spring, the dollies were burnt and the ashes spread before ploughing, giving rebirth to life and fertility.

But in contrast to the usual series of depressions rushing in off the Atlantic to dump rain on our already sodden fields, this year a blocking high pressure has anchored over the eastern Atlantic, deflecting the depressions north (sorry Scotland) and bringing the South West a gloriously dry, bright, and – initially at least – warm month.

Frosty Farm Leeks.alt
Spirits are high in the South West after a warm autumn heading into winter. 

The cows are still out grazing by day, a month after they are usually inside, and grain farmers have been able to sow winter barley and wheat in perfect conditions. In our polytunnels, winter salad leaves are enjoying the unseasonable sunshine and low humidity so much that we are already picking the earliest plantings. For later plantings, we will roll out a giant loo roll of ‘seed carpet’: two layers of paper with evenly spaced seeds sandwiched in between.

The secret to good germination is close, even contact with the soil, so we spread a thin layer of sand on top. This carpet works well for densely sown baby lettuce leaves, claytonia mustard, and ruby chard, allowing us to machine harvest a weed-free crop in January with minimal labour. If we are lucky, we will get a second cut of lettuces in March, before replanting with tomatoes, cucumbers, and basil.

My mother was an expert corn dolly maker; she knocked out dozens of them while watching telly, to sell to the tourists who visited our farm in the 1970s. One may scoff at the ignorance of our animist ancestors’ beliefs, but, for all our modern enlightenment, invention, and knowledge, we have lost much of the collective wisdom needed to maintain life and spirit in the land.

Perhaps COP26 would have achieved more if we had just given them a sheaf of wheat and told them to make corn dollies. But that is a hint of my usual winter gloom; this year, despite that disappointment, and despite the ravages of Covid, we are entering the colder months in high spirits. We have a long way still to go, but spring seems closer already.

    Comments

    phoebalice

    5 Months 2 Weeks

    A corn dolly tutorial, please!

    1 Reply

    view replies

    Positively Pagan

    4 Months 3 Weeks

    Hello, I am a happy customer of Riverford Organic veg and I have been making and selling Pagan Corn Dollies for many years on Etsy. I have a tutorial and materials available for anyone who wishes to have a go. Many thanks. Rowan aka Positively Pagan .
    https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/940278430/pagan-craft-materials-wheat-oats-and

    0 Reply

    Positively Pagan

    4 Months 3 Weeks

    Hello, I am a happy customer of Riverford Organic veg and I have been making and selling Pagan Corn Dollies for many years on Etsy. I have a tutorial and materials available for anyone who wishes to have a go. Many thanks. Rowan aka Positively Pagan .
    https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/940278430/pagan-craft-materials-wheat-oats-and

    0 Reply

    Guy Singh-Watson

    Guy Singh-Watson has over the last 30 years taken Riverford from one man and a wheelbarrow delivering homegrown organic veg to friends, to a national veg box scheme delivering to around 80,000 customers a week. Tired of meetings, brands and the assumption that greed is our predominant motivation, Guy converted the business to employee ownership in 2018, using the proceeds to buy a small farm and return to growing organic vegetables. In common with many of Riverford’s new co-owners, Guy is an advocate of using business to shape a part of the world, however small, to be kinder, more considerate and sustainable; more like the world most of us want to live in.  His weekly newsletters connect people to the farm with refreshingly honest accounts of the trials and tribulations of producing organic food, and the occasional rant about farming, ethical and business issues he feels strongly about.

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