Outstanding in their fields
Known variously around the country as mommets, wayzgooses and deadmen, old-fashioned scarecrows, especially of the female gender, are still effective when it comes to scaring birds–and children–says John Lewis-stempel
They are the sentinels of the fields. Silent and ancient, they are the unliving who stand over the living crop. In Berkshire, they’re the hodmedods, in Somerset, the mommets, in Devon, the murmets and in Suffolk, the mawhini. The Scots know them as bodach- rocais, the Welsh as bwbach and the Cornish as wayzgooses. In herefordshire, they are, simply, the deadmen.
Silent and ancient, they are the unliving who stand over the living crop
They are all scarecrows, of course. Scarecrows: those human approximations the farmer installs on the newly sown earth to deter hungry beaks from eating the seed and, later, from gobbling the green shoots— our useful wooden friends.
We like scarecrows, hence their popculture immortality as the nice-butbrainless sidekick in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and as Worzel Gummidge in Barbara euphan Todd’s eponymous stories. Todd’s tales were televised in the late 1970s with Jon Pertwee as old turnip head from Scatterbrook Farm, making the scarecrow the childhood companion to millions from generation TV.
however, we dislike scarecrows, too. They are the inhuman humans who haunt the landscape. even under bright sun, one catches sight of the figure in the rye, tattered by yesterday’s wind and rain, and comes, always, that little flicker of doubt: mannequin or man? No wonder makers of hollywood horror films find the scarecrow a failsafe scare-human.
Such is our ambivalence about the scarecrow and it is long, long standing. As bird-frightener, the scarecrow is as old as farming. There were scarecrows in the fertile wheat fields along the Nile in the time of the boy king Tutankhamun. In Ancient Greece,
farmers made wooden carvings of Priapus, who, despite being the son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, was not a looker and whose unfeasibly large todger (as in ‘priapic’) added to his grotesqueness. The Greeks painted their wooden Priapuses purple and put a club in one hand to frighten off the birds, a sickle in the other to augur a good harvest.
The Romans copied the Greek scarecrow custom and, when the SPQR ( Senatus Populusque Romanus) legions marched up Europe, they introduced the Priapus scarecrow to the conquered, us included. Of course, it was hardly beyond the wit of the native woad-daubed Celts to have invented a scarecrow. Julius Caesar himself, in his Commentaries on the Gallic War, noted that the druids built ‘wicker men’ out of sticks and set them afire to please the pagan gods.
One catches sight of the figure in the rye and comes, always, that flicker of doubt: mannequin or man?
So, back in the proverbial mists of time, scarecrows two-timed; they deterred birds and they propitiated the vast, unseen forces behind the harvest. As the centuries turned in Britain, the scarecrow came, by some unknown process, to embody the greatest of all sacrifices to power on high, that at Calvary. The scarecrow, hung on a wooden cross with his arms outstretched, is a corrupted representation of Christ at the Crucifixion. There is no inherent need for the cross-shape; one arm could be raised higher than the other, altogether a more threatening pose.
In Dark Age Britain, the scarecrow had competition as guardian of the crop. With no labour laws for minors, small children with stones were tasked as bird frighteners. Live scarecrows, if you will. Then came the Black Death, which killed off half the people of the isles, and landowners resorted to technology, making clappers of three pieces of wood joined together, with which device a single child could drive off whole flocks of birds. The other technological development was to hastily stuff a sack with straw and top it with
a turnip or a gourd, into which was carved a face, and lean the whole against a cross-frame— the rustic, dedicated bird-deterring scarecrow as we know it.
Was the traditional scarecrow any good at its job? Take it from one who knows—no, but yes. I’ll explain. A few years ago, I had my own personal peasant’s revolt against chemical farming and re-created a Victorian-era wheatfield, complete with all the arable flowers that are going, going from the countryside, such as poppies, cornflowers, corn marigolds, corn cockles, corn chamomile and the like. Britain’s farmland in summer used to spangle with colour and I wanted it back.
In my temple to Nature, a modern propane noise-gun seemed a sacrilege, so I fashioned a scarecrow, from a fence post and wooden rail, and dressed it in an old school mac. To make my scarecrow the cozy sort, Worzel rather than the warlock in Dark Night of the Scarecrow, I drew pleasant facial features on its pillow head with a marker pen. A fail. I never liked it; the rooks, the crows, the sparrows and woodpigeons merely found it a useful place to rest in between gorging.
The following year, I raised my scarecrow game, making the upright out of a broom handle, which was inserted into a pipe in the ground, in the manner of a rotary washing line. Said scarecrow was dressed in a floral frock and from each of ‘her’ hands dangled a CD. (Stolen from the children, thus finally and deliciously emancipating us from Mcfly.)
Whether it was girl power or, more likely, the motions from the rotating figurine, the flapping frock and the spinning CDS, Madame Scarecrow worked a treat. Some neighbours were churlish. ‘Grayson Perry?’ asked one. I confess to feeling sorry for my scarecrow. She’s the only one for miles.
The scarecrow is passing from the rural scene to join the plough horse, the sickle and the cider jug in the museum of things that were. Or, rather, the scarecrow is leaving the field and entering the village. The less we employ scarecrows to do their job, the more we fête
The scarecrow is passing from the rural scene to join the plough horse, the sickle and the cider jug in the museum of things that were
them. Since the 1990s, there has been Topsy-like growth of parish scarecrow festivals across Britain, some pulling in visitors by the thousands. It would be fair to say that most such ‘scarecrows’ are stuffed figures inspired by music, TV, nursery rhymes and Hollywood, but, then again, fashioning a scarecrow was always an outlet for creativity out in the sticks.
In future, I have decided, I shall blend old- and new-style scarecrows and erect an effigy of Lady Gaga in my wheatfield. If that doesn’t scare off the avians, nothing will.
Stone the crows: after farmers stopped using children with stones as bird frighteners, they turned to stuffed figures such as these in the Apprentice House garden at Quarry Bank, Cheshire
If I only had a brain: Worzel Gummidge ( above) and Dorothy’s sidekick in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz ( right) made scarecrows a familiar sight to millions of TV viewers
Love them or loathe them, there are increasing numbers of scarecrows on display in villages throughout Britain