You don’t often see them now, but the culmination of harvest this week and an article in NFU Countryside magazine on how to make them set me to reminiscing about the art of corn dolly creation.
In my early rural-school years we had a teacher who wove corn dollies as she taught. She sat in a battered armchair in the corner of the classroom and her hands rarely stilled as she counselled us in the ways of nature, with an old-country wisdom which resonates with me to this day.
I recall that the different dollies had meanings and potencies and that the spirit of the corn was encased in their form. Mrs Homewood crafted works of some intricacy whilst the class had a go at the simple, spiral ‘drop dollies’ (with mixed results!)
Some are traditional to an area, named after counties and places.
Plump, comfortably dressed and slightly dishevelled, Mrs Homewood made a greater impression on me than even gorgeous, blonde, Miss Ford from my city-infant class who let me brush her long hair and handed out sweets from the drawer of her desk. I thought Mrs Homewood was ancient, but she lived on for decades after I left so that must have been an illusion of youth. I wonder if she was actually a pagan goddess of nature, even the name fits!
Our classes were often conducted outside (whatever the weather) and we walked the length of the village river to study the life and nature of its twisting path. I certainly knew what a tributary was long before I could spell it. Our very own forest school (before forest schools re-emerged as a trendy ‘new’ idea) but do not be misled into thinking that Mrs Homewood was saintly. Oh no. She chased one of the boys with a bunch of stinging nettles (he was chasing us girls with the same) and when a classmate told her he’d been stung by a bee she offered no sympathy.
‘Poor bee. You do know that he’ll die now?’
The varieties of wheat we grow today have stalks too short for successful dolly making. It’s been cultured that way to prevent the crop falling and to accommodate combine harvesters. But maybe I should give it a try anyway…
The dolly should be kept over winter and laid in the first turned furrow of the plough to set the spirit of the corn free again. Bless Mrs Homewood, whose spirit is free now too, bless all the teachers who shaped us and the spirit of the corn which makes our bread.