Corn dollies, enlightenment and wisdom

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.

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.

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