The last harvest of the year is upon us.
They are taking the maize.
It’s always with a touch of melancholy that I write that phrase each year – though this year it’s later than usual, due to the wonderful long Indian summer we’ve all been enjoying. The end of the maize is the signal to hunker down for winter, to make sure the woodpile is well stocked, the oil tank is filled and the velvet throws are back on the sofa.
The maize in this part of Normandy is for animal consumption only – we simply don’t get the sun and heat that would ripen it enough for humans to eat. All day long and all night the combines have been running for the past few days, as hunters gather around with shotguns in case of the wild boar or deer that hide within the maize fields. The farmers don’t own the behemoth machines, which cost hundreds of thousands of euros each: no one farmer can afford one, so the plant is hired out, hence the 24-hour work schedule.
The maize is beautiful when it’s standing, forming great tunnels 8ft high, turning country drives into something of an adventure (when lost, head uphill – at some point there’ll be a church and then you can find your way again). But the harvest brings consolations with it as the landscape opens out again and fills with light, restoring a view that was lost for months.
In normal progression, then will come the rain, which turns the stiffly stubbled fields into something resembling the paddies of South East Asia – on a bright day, the reflection from the water is like walking on a landscape of mirrors.
This autumn, though, it is particularly beautiful, with china blue skies above, the golden maize, and all the trees still in leaf, turning shades of gold, russet, ochre and saffron. Walking the dogs means crunching over acres of chestnuts – one of the biggest crops I’ve ever seen in our 18 years here. If only they weren’t so fiddly to cook… I always feel it’s such a waste that these trees, planted originally by the Romans that came this way as food for their troops, are so little harvested – and when we eat chestnuts, it’s usually the Italian bottled variety.
The apple crop is bumper too this year, at least for the late bloomers, and the whole district smells of apples and pineapple weed and camomile.
The maize is the last harvest of the year, barley being the first. Our land is entirely surrounded by the fields of one farmer and this year he planted barley for his chickens – my favourite crop because of the achingly sweet smell when it’s ripe, turning every day into a honey-dipped festival. Every other year he plants wheat, which takes the longest of all crops to grow – the farmers plant it in November or December and by Christmas, it’s coming up like a lime-green pelt clothing the furry landscape.
The barley is taken in early summer, the wheat in late, when cutting through a field smells like walking through a loaf of brown bread. Between may come oilseed rape with its insistently bright flowers and sickly honey smell when in bloom, followed by the rotting cabbage stench of its leaves, usually ploughed in for green manure when they shoot again after the seeds are taken. Occasionally the farmers plant oats – a tough grass that will grow almost anywhere and which I dread a little because the next year it will come up all over our courtyard.
So, just a few more weeks to enjoy nature’s bounty and then it will all be gone, the morning walk with the dogs will be in wellies over ploughed brown earth, the silhouettes of trees will be like black skeletons and the colour will drain from the landscape, leaving the eye to frantically seek out colour when it reappears again in spring.