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

Country Life Every Week - - Highland Fling -

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

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