Why I downloaded six volumes of 18th Century agricultural essays this morning

Today I went to Google Play, found five volumes of A New System of Practical Husbandry by John Mills (there are more generic names than that, but not many!) and I downloaded them all. And then I downloaded An Essay on the Weather by the same author, too. Of course the real titles are much longer than that because they are eighteenth century books.

Why did I download six massive tomes about obsolete horticulture? Not because I’m into reconstructing old farming methods (much less old British farming methods, which would never be applicable here in California without a tremendous lot of tweaking I am noit qualified for). I grow some fruit trees, some herbs, and kale in my little backyard, and when the weather cooperates perfectly, also some tomatoes. That’s it. Not wheat!

I’m revising The Drummer Boy for what I hope is the final time before submitting. I think I have solved its problems by turning it into a trilogy. As I go along I find more little places where I need more information to prevent idiotic errors. The world of The Drummer Boy is set in a backwards corner of a sort-of-Central/Eastern-Europe, and it starts at what is kind of equivalent to the 1890s-1900s. That is, there are automobiles and telephones and electric lights and iceboxes that use ice blocks, but only in some places. In other places, farmers are living an eighteenth-century life. I figure what was new and scientific in the mid 1700s would be sufficient for my farmers 150 years later.

But of course I can’t depend on this source either! Because, again, the climate, soils, and traditions are different in this fictional place as compared to Britain. So this source is only going to help me think about things, really. It’s better than where I started, though. Oh my. I started with James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, again, not as a final source but to accumulate a few sparks for some of the celebrations and activities Yanek might encounter in his rural childhood. Here Frazer is useful because a lot of the book is a compendium of facts from wherever he could gather them. He had a narrative to uphold, and he wanted it to be generally applicable, so Swabia and Tahiti and Macedonia and Yorkshire were all grist for his mill, when he found them. And–bingo! he had a few Central/Eastern European anecdotes that fit right in with what I wanted to do. The “need fire” which in which Yanek participates is from The Golden Bough.  And the “last-sheaf” celebrations that Yanek adores so much are derived from his extensive discussion of Corn Dollies, which appear in various forms all over the landscape. I can no longer tell you which details were from Central/Eastern Europe and which were from somewhere else and which I made up. I could look it up, though.

It’s an obvious idea, of course–to use the last little bit of grain and straw to make one or another kind of decoration/figure/amulet for a ceremony/game/party/prank which may or may not carry over into other times of the year and which may or may not have various kinds of symbolism relating to the passage of time, fertility, sex, death, or outright foolishness. You can explain the widespread appearance of Corn Dollies either by independent invention (because it is such an obvious idea and the specifics vary so much) or by diffusion (because if your neighbors are wrapping up teenagers in bundles of straw and flowers and chasing them around the fields, or your other neighbors are braiding the stalks into figurines and stealing them from each other, doesn’t that sound lot a lot of fun?

However–it’s a good thing I wasn’t clinging to an obsolete mythological thesis for all of the verisimilitude in the book. I have been looking things up as I encountered them, and then one day I was musing online about something to do with the harvest–the use of the scythe, I think–and (ljuser)heleninwales linked me to a video of some people recreating nineteenth century agriculture and I realized what I did not realize before: that you don’t bring the grain in as soon as you cut it. I should have known, right? I’ve seen haystacks and I’ve seen stooks, though I didn’t know that was the name for the grain set out to rest before being taken in for storage. But haystacks are just hay, which is not grain, and I didn’t know the significance of stooks until I saw these videos and heard them named and discussed. So, of course, that needed a sentence or two of revision in each of three or four spots. Not hard to fix, but necessary. Because I’m not going to be that author that gets that review that starts out with “Kemnitzer’s book is appealing on the surface, but for a story that spends so much time in the fields and forest, it is much too vague and inaccurate about country ways.” At least I hope not.

So today I was on that bit about the last-sheaf again, and suddenly felt the need to have a better handle on how long the grain stands in stooks before it comes in. I searched on the question, and guess what came up? This extensive writing by John Mills. And it’s so delicious to read why it’s better to cut the grain before than after rain, and how to keep it from sprouting in the sheaf, and how wheat from India did not grow well in France in the eighteenth century. If you follow Jo Walton you know how ecstatic she can get when she finds a good source on ancient philosophers and poets. Well, that’s exactly how I felt when I discovered these! I felt the same way during my first visit to Prague when I discovered the National Agricultural Museum and its exhibit on František Josef Thomayer, an influential early designer of urban parks and public gardens. My whole being thrilled as I was struck by the revelation that here was exactly what I needed! And not just for the novel. For my heart!

Clearly I need more and more of this material, especially if I can find the equivalent that is related to the interior of Europe. Translated: I can just about read the words to a children’s folksong, with a dictionary, in Czech, but not a centuries-old treatise on agricultural techniques written in Polish, German, or please preserve me, Russian with its maze of Cyrillic letters.

(I’m not really a blind-sentimentalist for “old country ways.” That’s why I need truthful information about the work my rural characters do, and their beliefs about and relationship to the land and all the stuff in it)

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