Chattering steel teeth skimmed through the oats and they fell in a veil like a grey, rustling wave. Rain threatened, and the crop cannot lie on its side when it is wet. It must be bound, so I only cut what I can tie. A single eight foot sweep yields forty sheafs, and it takes an hour of patient stacking and binding to tidy up in silence. There used to be machines which did this job in one pass. They were called “reaper binders”, and they passed through the crop and left a trail of sheafs in their wake. They were big and complex, and the important parts were made from canvas and wood. Few reaper binders have survived the grind of rot and woodworm, but some survive in the Outer Isles where crofters are encouraged to keep the old ways alive. They refused to embrace modernity, and now we pay them to farm as if it were 1950. I can’t resist a sneer of envy.
It will take several days for me to clear this field on my own, and my hands are raw with the burning slip of string and stems. More stooks, and the cut plants glow like golden chapels on the stubble. I am painstakingly slow, building beautiful hourglass sheafs and stacking them to spread their skirts so that the rain will run down and vanish into the soil. You cannot hurry this job, and good sheafs last longer than tatty ones. Even when I stop for coffee and a sandwich, the stubbles crackle gently like the sound of a fizzy drink. I sit on spools of golden tape; glossy straw in shining strands.
Some of the crop has fallen on its side and cannot be cut; the cutting bar cannot get beneath it. At first I try to dig these up with a sickle, but there is too much and I remember that part of this job is for the birds. I begin to leave small patches here and there where the tractor wheels have flattened the crop, and soon the field begins to looks tatty and amateurish.
I am surprised to find that I draw increasing pleasure from neatness and perfection. Perhaps it is the same instinct which has driven gardeners to create natural worlds with ruler-straight lines, but now I find there is dull joy in the imposition of order. I want to do a smart job and create something tidy. But birds love chaos, and I have to remind myself not to manicure the stubbles into uniformity. I could sift through every plant and pick the best for myself, but I resolve to do a sensible amount and hold back from outright efficiency.
The heat builds, and I work on until the air is thick and black darkness piles up over the hills to the west. A few curlews fly in the sunshine; yellow sparks against heavy naval blue. I wonder if they are new birds or whether these are more failures returning from another tragic summer in the North. Then there is rumble of thunder to match the tractor’s roar, and rain begins to shatter the dry peace of the morning. I tell myself that the crop will be safe in the stooks, but rain like this would destroy a field of hay and my confidence begins to fail. I spring from the cab and bind the last few sheafs beneath a battering veil of rain which drums on my back and turns my hair heavy. The water hunts for my blisters and a pink, watery juice drips from my palms.
It does not take long for the stooks to turn dull and black beneath the water. They look awful; looming, sodden heaps which are primed for decay. I can hardly ignore the certainty of disaster; the tall, waving heads are being gummed into dull submission and the job is falling apart. A stook falls over and I rush to repair it, but now the straw is soggy and weak and the bundle flops like a rag. I am glad I have done so little. Most of the crop is still safe and standing.