Column: Thankful for the bountiful harvest

• Originally published in the Kane County Chronicle on Sept. 30, 2011

Harvest time has always been a time for celebration. It’s a tradition that continues today.

Across the nation, cities and organizations host fall and harvest festivals in October in which people wander around, eat copious amounts of unhealthy food and go on whirling, twirling carnival rides – just as our ancestors would have wanted.

But as we move further away from our agricultural roots, we tend to forget the origins of October festivals.

In St. Charles, there is Scarecrow Fest – also known as “The Original Illinois Scarecrow Festival,” just in case, you know, some other city tries to hone in on its girl – which will be held from Oct. 7-9 in the downtown area.

It will host more than 150 scarecrows decorated in all kinds of crazy costumes. And, of course, there will be the usual festival fare such as a carnival, food and arts and crafts.

Scarecrows at least have a tie to farming. Historically, they have been used to either scare crows from eating up all the crops (hence the name) or to help guide Dorothy down the yellow brick road. Helpful creatures, those scarecrows.

Then we have Batfest in Batavia, which will be held on Oct. 22 on the Batavia Riverwalk.

While I understand why it’s called BatFest, I still don’t like the mental imagery of thousands of bats descending upon the city to wreak havoc.

There’s simply not much harvest symbolism in naming a festival after the winged, scary part of a city’s name (thought I suppose it’s better than AviaFest), but the best thing about it this year will be the zombie walk, which costs $10 to participate in, also known as money well spent.

A fall festival celebrating the undead? I love it! You want to make a name for yourself, Batavia? Next year, change the name from BatFest to ZombieFest and watch as people pour in. (This is probably why I don’t work in marketing.)

If you are looking for something a little more harvest-y, though, there is the appropriately named Harvest Days, which will be held from 10:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday at Garfield Farm Museum, 3N016 Garfield Road, Campton Hills.

“We’re reflecting when the harvest was a significant event among communities,” said Jerome Johnson, executive director of Garfield Farm. “What we show with various demonstrations is how it took a lot of work to produce your daily bread and everyone was very dependent on that system to work and work well.”

Harvest Days is all about learning the realities of rural life as seen through the eyes of an 1840s working farm. With many fall festivals focused on things such as scarecrows and zombies, it can be easy to forget what celebrating the harvest really is about.

Essentially, it’s about survival. (OK, celebrating zombies is about survival too, but more in a sawed-off shotgun kind of way.)

Our ancestors went nuts celebrating the harvest because it meant they had a better chance of surviving the winter.

That’s hard to comprehend in today’s America where grocery stores sometimes are located across the street from each other and food is omnipresent for most.

And while the harvest remains important to farmers, the average American simply doesn’t think about it.

But, if you’re looking for a reminder, watching wheat run through a fanning mill at Harvest Days isn’t a bad start. Sure, it’s not as fancy or probably as interesting as dressed-up scarecrows and zombies, but sometimes it’s important to remember our heritage and how thankful we should be that we aren’t so dependent on an individual harvest anymore.

“The good news is we’re able to produce large parts of food … in part due to science and technology,” Johnson said. “But it also means that the harvest doesn’t have the same role it once did when you could actually see the results of your hard work throughout the years.”

Kane County is on the edge of the rural/suburban divide and Garfield Farm lies as close to the current dividing line as you can get. Johnson grew up just a mile and a half from the museum and has seen the area transform each year from rural to suburban. But even he is two generations removed from farming. Today’s children, even more so.

I think it’s especially important for children to get a sense of the harvest – that is does not just mean putting a few quarters in a machine and having a Kit Kat bar pop out. There might be an ancient celebration for that type of harvest, but it would probably be terrifying.

“Any child growing up on a farm, when they bring an egg in from the hen house and place it on the kitchen table, they can see how they are contributing to the family’s welfare,” Johnson said. “Here, you have this opportunity to expose young people to things they might not see anymore. You have a lot of suburban children where their whole experience is a cookie-cutter suburban lifestyle.”

There’s nothing wrong with the suburban lifestyle. I have certainly enjoyed it. But it’s important to remember our agricultural past. So, this year, when you’re munching on fair food, hanging out at Garfield Farm, walking through costumed scarecrows or – maybe best yet – traipsing through Batavia dressed up as a zombie, take some time to reflect on and celebrate how thankful we should be that food is as plentiful as it is. While it’s no longer the 1840s – as the zombie parade surely can attest to – even in 2011 we remain thankful for the bountiful harvest around us.

Joe Grace is a former editor of the Kane County Chronicle who will occasionally drop in. You can write to him at joewriter81@gmail.com and follow his writings at http://www.joegrace.blogspot.com.

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