SUBURBAN London is a wonderful place for autumn fruit. The large, untidy commons are full of blackberries, plums, damsons, sloes, crab apples. And surprisingly uncluttered with fellow harvesters; there seems to be enough for everyone. True, they are in the middle of a conurbation, but far from any roads.
Moving to a rural parish in the north, we were unprepared for the lack of such gifts from God. Do not blame the farmers. It is post-war governments’ transport and agriculture policies that give sheep and cars such overwhelming precedence. We have roads, fences and grass. Hedgerows, footpaths and vacant spaces, however, are luxuries the modern countryside can now rarely afford.
Instead, we have had to adapt to the local strategy (thanks to a sympathetic parishioner who generously shared the valuable secret) the curious piece of cunning known as ‘blackberrying by night’. It is a slight exaggeration, but after 6 pm (when the workers have gone home) you will see us and other furtive country folk getting into our cars to drive into the local towns, to certain key industrial estates, where on the waste ground behind the warehouses are luxuriant bramble bushes, growing undisturbed and offering a rich harvest. A world free of sheep and cars and interference; in neglect, God’s gifts abound.
A little later in the month, we have our harvest festivals. How does one have an arable festival in a non-arable farming community? By once again getting into our cars and going into the towns to acquire (this time from the supermarkets, less furtively and more expensively) the fruits of the harvest that ought, might, used to come from the countryside, with which to adorn our churches and express our thanks.
Are harvest festivals at the heart of the Faith? Hardly; but it would be churlish to dismiss them, as past their sell-by date. It is not a matter of modifying the Faith to accommodate a liberal age, but of sharing the change, discomfort and uncertainty. I wonder. Faith in the Holy Trinity and the Resurrection, no problem; but harvest festivals? I am never sure, as an ungenerous type, whether being nice and doing right are really the same thing.