We took a ton and a half in the end. This had been my goal from the middle of July, but it was a sore and steady business threshing the oats by hand, and the final few days of labour fairly drove the joy off it. We packed our tall piles of straw into seventy small bales, then stashed them into the rafters of the old byre where the last swallows busily fouled them with flecks of shit. I thought the job was more or less done, but if we had sixty bags of clean oats in the shed, I reckon that another sixty lay out in the field. Every hard fought mugful of grain had a twin which had been dribbled into the ribbony stubble. The sheets we used to thresh the sheafs sprung holes and the yellow oats pissed through them like water so that when you pulled up the floor to move somewhere new there were heaps of seeds to mark the time and location of your passing like an hourglass.
Soon this wasted crop grew back into itself. The shining stubbles were green again in a week and thicker than ever with the passage of a month. Far from the orderly sowing rate of spring, this was a dense and crazy crop without sense or reason. Some patches were utterly bare, but millions of thready stems crowded together in other places with the plush thickness of a new towel. The tiny plants were starving themselves in panic and the crowded rush to get ahead. There was something headless and demonic in this second-life; new plants rising up from the destruction of old, warped and bottomless and lacking value.
I began to think that this crop could cycle forever. I had been naive to imagine that my harvesting would be an end to it. I had infected the field with oats, and their voracious recovery came to me with a swell of worry like the throb of a sting or the tolling tug of a blackening tooth. Maybe I would rue the day I ever sowed this crop, but now winter comes to nip the leaves and slow this healing process before it can gain momentum. Soon the cattle will be treading in the green leaves and mashing this disorderly surge. Rats and mice rustle beneath the rooty straw, working through the seedbank and undermining future generations of plants. I watch an owl hunting them in the half light, pouncing with a cat’s crunch into a bundle of black and fallen sheafs.
And now there are birds in their thousands. I peer across the field from my desk and spy whirling clouds of life like smoke above the field. We left a few patches of the standing crop, and I told myself it was for them. The truth is that I was exhausted and could not bear to cut and bind another sheaf, but these standing rows were torture to me at first. They seemed to represent waste and my own idleness, and I found that I was under the farming spell. I coveted neatness and tidy bags of well-found crop, and I had forgotten the limitations of old ways.
During the early days of the harvest when I rode the peak of my enthusiasm, I would have taken every damn grain in that field. My blood was hot and keen and wild to boast of weights and productivity. What farmer does not want to take the most and fastest? There is a hardwired need to maximise your output, and that was all very well in the days when we were limited to the power of our own muscles. We strove to take it all in the knowledge that we could never do it, but now we have machines and brains which leave nothing behind and expect still more. I had done well to get as much as I had by hand, but wildlife prospers alongside old farming ways because they are fundamentally wasteful. We used to be happy with these techniques because we could not imagine doing any better, but I have seen combine harvesters and I know all that is possible. I set out to feed the birds, but the process of growing made me covetous and greedy. My labour was old, but my brain is very new.
And I see yellowhammers in the field; broad gangs of seventy and more. There are linnets and buntings and finches which say “finch” when they rise and turn their bellies beneath a wide sky. Hawks have come to fleg them, and now there is a hare sleepwalking through the icy foam of yarrow. It is no surprise that wildlife prospered in the old times when the countryside glowed with fields like these.
I do not have my crop in hand. The stars have come out as I have written these words, and there are comparable galaxies of spilled oats in the dark soil below my window. I am learning to live with it, and I peer at the birds and try to weigh their value.