Thursday, July 05, 2007

Making hay while the sun shines

Tom and his wife made a whirlwind tour of the New York City art museums last week: the Met, MOMA and the Guggenheim. One of the works he particularly sought out at the Met was Pieter Bruegel the Elder's The Harvesters, painted in 1565. (You an click on pic to enlarge.)

When we came here to (what was then) a remote corner of Ireland 30 years ago, I helped my neighbors in the fields. We made hay and oats with the same tools and in the same way as the farmers in Bruegel's painting. I was not allowed to scythe -- an art beyond the skills of a boy from suburban America. But I used the rake and the pike. My hay cocks invariably leaned precariously. We also made the stooks you see in Bruegel's painting, another art I never quite mastered. I did do pretty well at what you see most of the farmers in the painting doing, resting under a tree with a flask of tea and a drop of whiskey.

In 400 years the technology of farming had not changed a whit here in West Kerry. Then, almost overnight, it was all gone. In twenty years Ireland became one of the richest countries in the world, with a higher standard of living than America. One generation of West Kerry farmers made hay and oats like Bruegel's farmers, the next generation was stocking their freezers at Tescos and taking holidays in Orlando.

I'm reading a just-published book of oral reminiscences by women of West Kerry, most of them my age (70) or older, women who grew up without electricity, cars, phones, or indoor plumbing, who believed in fairies, walked barefoot to school, and helped in the fields with the rake and the pike, who now find themselves in the land of the Celtic Tiger -- 400 years of technological progress squeezed into a couple of decades. Most of them have warm memories of the past -- for those enchanting moments you see in the Bruegel painting -- but none wishes to go back. As one of the women says, "I think the fairies disappeared with the electric light, so they were really never there at all."