The villagers knew which field would be harvested on a particular day. Adults and children turned up long before the last horse-drawn cart had left, lined up along the field edge, awaiting the signal to start, which was usually just a wave of the arm as the farmer and his helpers followed the carts off the field at the other end.
My parents lined up with the rest of the villagers, with me beside them. In retrospect, I feel that I enjoyed these "outings", particularly in the potato fields. The days were hot, the atmosphere was not exactly jolly but calm and friendly; everyone was in the same boat, intent on gathering as many stray potatoes as they could find. You stayed in your row, hoed and grubbed in the freshly turned soil and dragged a basket or potato sack behind you. As with stealing coal later on in the winter, the rule was that you did not help yourself to another person's loot.
On rare occasions only half the potato field had been harvested before the farmer gave the signal freeing the cleared half for gleaning. I was very small, to keep me safe and keep an eye on me while slowly traversing the field on their knees, my parents had me crawling between them and the edge of the field which was to be harvested the next day, a field still full of large, healthy potato plants, some of them taller than me. In my eagerness to help, my little hands strayed more than once into the lush growth next to me, coming up with clumps of potatoes.
"Look", I shouted, "I have found plenty here". "Come away from there"; my father was angry with me and I didn't understand why, after all, we were there to gather potatoes and I had just found a large supply of them.
It had happened before, somebody getting too close to a row of plants had been barred from gleaning. Father did not want this to happen to us. Farmers were very suspicious, they gave nothing away unless you had goods in exchange for food.
It was much harder to collect grain. The stubble was sharp and painful and you could easily tear and scratch your knees until they bled. Being very small, I managed to stay in the gap between two rows, but even then I often cried out when a vicious stalk dug into my leg. I can see puddles of grain lying between the rows of stubble even now, neat little heaps, or sometimes little streams of grain, ready to be scooped up with bare hands.
Gleaning was backbreaking work for the adults, for whom it would have been a matter of survival. The gravity of the situation went straight over the head of a child; for me it would have been a game, a game of hunting for food, being in a competition to see who could gather the most.
This is part of a post previously published in July 2009.
Few people read this blog then, as it is once again harvest time,
it might bear repeating.