We’ve celebrated the first of the old harvest festivals: Lammas, or The Loaf Mass. Living in an area that’s still mostly agricultural, I’m keenly aware of the seasons, though I’m also darn glad I don’t farm for a living. Our local Mother Nature hasn’t been kind. She started spring with a long stretch of uncharacteristic cold and rain, delaying planting. Then just about the time corn and other temperature sensitive crops began to grow, She sent what our Penn State Meteorologists are calling “a flash drought.” Wheat came in during the first heat, and those waving green vistas created an inland ocean, so this year’s harvest began well. Now sadly, in wide swatches east of us, where six mule teams still pull threshers and barefoot women and children hoe, the corn stands just knee high, leaves curled and blasted.
When I lived in England in the 60’s, I thrilled to walk into our neighborhood’s square stone Saxon church and see great loaves three and four feet high, baked in special lidded pans, some of which were shaped like sheaves of wheat and others like men—leaned against the altar among the floral offerings. When I asked who the men of bread were, I was told by an old sexton that they were “John Barleycorn, the life of the fields.” Here, I would later learn, was a living link to the Celtic Lugh, an ancient god of vegetation who resurrected every year to feed the British countryside.
My Uncle Richard used to give me a bucket of wheat that had come straight from his harvester. Cleaning out the residual dust and chaff and then grinding it took time, but the bread I made seemed to have an extra dimension of taste, a nutty sweetness that apparently gets lost, even from the finest brands of commercial flour. Every year the Loaf Mass reminds me, swaddled in a/c and distanced from my place in nature by man made things, of a time when my ancestors grubbed dirt and endured summer heat and rain in order to raise the food needed for survival. The impulse remains to say thank-you to the earth, for the gifts which sustain us. August, no matter how hot, always begins at my house with the baking of bread.