Middle Field Mask
By Anne-Marie Culhane
Our feelings of attachment for the natural world are for nonhuman creatures and for places. The anxiety we feel is not merely for the destruction of human lives but also for those other creatures and places, and for a world in which we would be at home. Not only are these other beings and life forms not human, they are without human language. This means that our relation to the natural world is in some important way nonverbal and unspoken. We may speak to other human beings or to ourselves about our encounter with the natural world, but the encounter itself does not transpire in the medium of human language. Does this mean that to speak about that encounter is to objectify it rather than to express our experience directly? How indeed do I express and live my relatedness to the nonhuman? …
The Love of Nature and the End of the World, p19, Shierry Weber Nicholsen
In my practice I am feeling around for new forms and structures for performance that are on the edges of ritual, ceremony, improvised movement & happenings. My experience is that there is a hunger for meaningful ritual and ceremony and this is about (re)discovering or finding symbols, patterns and imagery that resonate for people now.
Since 2005 I have been making work with corn masks. This includes performance, protest and exhibition. The Masks are inspired by Corn Dolly making and traditional harvest rituals from the UK. Corn Dollies are the English version of a worldwide phenomenon of weaving stems and heads of ‘grasses’ into decorations which had various manifestations from small human-based forms to more varied plaited and woven decorative shapes. No one knows when people started weaving straw or relating this to harvest time.
In an essay first published in 1860 Gottfied Semper argued that the threading, twisting and knotting of fibres were among the most ancient of human arts. (quoted from Lines – a brief history, Tim Ingold).
I learnt corn weaving and plaiting from Dorothy Horsfall, a corn dolly and straw craft ‘veteran’ (now deceased) and a member of the Guild of Strawcraftsmen. More recently I have been guided by Gillian Nott from Cornwall who has a extensive collection of woven objects from around the world. Interestingly Gillian has very few masks in her collection and my research shows most evidence of straw masks being from Africa, parts of Eastern Europe & Spain. In the last two years I found an exciting connection between my wheat straw masks the Mummers of Fermanagh in Northern Ireland who weave rude masks from barley straw as part of their community play-making and May day rituals.
Corn Dollies are symbolic objects mostly made by agricultural workers, usually males, that are hung in people’s houses at the end of the harvest. They are traditionally made from the wheat grain although rye, oats and barley are also used. There are a huge number of regional variations in the customs and stories that surround Corn Dollies. Traditional Corn Dollies are made with older strains of wheat straw that have longer hollow stems. Maris Widgeon & Squarehead Master are two such varieties. Modern varieties of wheat such as our JB Diego have shorter, pithy stems and large ears that can be seen in the mask. This is to reduce the risk of lodging (the wheat falling over through excessive moisture & wind) which can damage the crop and also means that the energy of the plant is focused on the ear (where the financial value is focused). In the past the stems had value for thatching which was widespread in rural areas up until late 19th century.
There are accounts that Corn Dollies were buried or ploughed back into the earth in the Spring or fed to animals to ensure a good, new crop. Sometimes Corn Dollies are made from the last sheaf harvested which some people thought contained ‘the spirit’ of the crop (see Crying the Neck below). Corn Dollies represent the journey from one year to the next through the farmer’s close relationship to the seeds and soil. They also symbolize our connection and dependence on the cycles of the season and the weather for a successful harvest.
Mask II Middle Field Mask
The Middle Field mask was created from wheat harvested on our field. It was really interesting feeling the difference in the quality of the stems and the ears in contrast to older varieties. Our JB Diego wheat ears were bent over rather than erect (See Ruth’s image Ears for Listening 8). The stems were much shorter and therefore harder to work with as you can only plait down to the first nodule (which in modern wheat’s is a much shorter distance). Also, I noticed that the straws were weaker and more brittle. I decided to thread the main stems through a willow framework to show their form and difference more clearly and plait the waste straw (ie the outer layers of the straw which more closely resembles a wild grass stem). You can compare the Middle Field Mask with Mask II made for Castlefield Gallery (see above) which is made using the older Maris Widgeon straw. The performance on Middle Field also included a mask made from a swan’s wing that I had found on a cold February day on one of the first visits to the field in early 2015. I offered the feathers to Shelley Castle, an artist & collective member to craft into a wearable piece for performance. We had a three-way dialogue with local historian and collective member Tom Lane to explore performative frameworks linked to the story of the landscape. The swan connected us back to the land’s deeper history as a watery landscape of creeks and tributaries of the River Witham (see Farm Visit One – Tom Lane presentation) and its current status as drained fenland. Tom informed us of a nearby Iron Age excavation at Fiskerton where a timber trackway had been unearthed heading out into the fen. At the side were various finds that suggested the ritual/ceremonial deposition of artefacts, in the water/wetland. The wheat bound us to the present day, our variety of JB Diego, bred in Germany, a feed wheat, one of the most widely grown winter wheat varieties in the UK in 2016. We decided that the two performers would not meet – the corn masked performer on a fixed path and the swan masked performer taking a meandering journey around the margins of the field.
A harvest ritual that I’ve explored in some depth is Crying the Neck which involves the last sheaf of corn to be harvested. The last sheaf cut was believed to contain the spirit of the corn god or goddess and people were often afraid of its power. There are accounts of people throwing their sickles at the sheaf to cut it and keep a distance. Crying the Neck is still performed in parts of the country particularly across Cornwall by the Old Cornwall Society where I have experienced the ritual (a call and response from audience and reaper) performed in Cornish. In the Cornish context its easy to imagine the cries of the farm labourers ringing across the landscape from field to field as each group of workers completed the harvest. Once harvested, it was this corn that formed the Corn Dolly.
In this event I wanted the Corn Mask performer to connect to the last square metres of standing wheat which Peter had left in the corner of the field. She did this by walking across the stubble field, lying amongst it and offering her mask up to be taken in procession to a fire burning back at the bale house.
We stood in silence watching the mask burn. I reflected on memories of stubble burning which took place across the country until, controversially, prohibited in the UK in 1993 and Peter’s stories about the peaty land beneath our feet becoming so dry at times that it would self-combust. As we watched the last stems turned to ash, Tom Lane started singing the Stixwould Harvest Song (1852) connecting us to the local agricultural past. We joined in the refrain as he led us into the bale house. Two long tables were spread with bread & biscuits made by collective members from our wheat which had been milled in a local windmill, jams & jelly’s made from hedgerow fruits gleaned from the field edges and beer with which to toast the farmer for bringing in the harvest.