IS THERE a better opening sentence to a book than Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood? “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’.” Capote goes on to describe “hard blue skies and desert-clear air”, and views that stretch for miles: “horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples”.

That description dates to the early 1960s, when Capote went in search of the story behind the murder of the Clutter family in their farmstead at Holcomb. That’s another and awful story, but the never-ending vista of wheatfields in which it took place had long since rolled across America. Some decades ago it reached this country too.

Hoolet is surrounded by fields of barley and wheat, and at this time of year almost vanishes beneath clouds of golden dust. Since the middle of August, harvest has been in full swing. Whenever the weather is fine, the farmers set out. You can picture them eyeing the forecasters, heedless of what’s happening in the Shetlands or Hebrides, focussed solely on their domain, and the likelihood of rain.

The same is going on across the globe, an ever-turning clock of weather-watching as crops ripen. The difference between a healthy bank balance and a lean year turns on a matter of days. In Italy, a friend shakes the olives from her trees as soon as they are ready, for fear the conditions change, or birds beat her to it. Here, the prospect of downpours flattening ripened crops or drenching hay before it can be baled, doesn’t bear contemplating. It takes a steely disposition and a steady nerve to be a farmer.

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One afternoon, I could see the combine harvester working the high field above the village. Wheels turning in a blur, it loomed above the rooftops as if it was about to eat them. If Breughel were still with us, it might have been the backdrop to The Fall of Icarus, farmers and fieldworkers going about their labours, unaware of what was happening beyond their sight.

By day in these parts, tractors and machines cross the horizon, generating such a miasma of smoke it’s as if they and the fields are on fire. All day long, late at night, and into the early hours, we hear the growl of rotating blades, and the rattle of trailers carting off the wheat. Heaped high, it’s so golden it could be sand from a Californian beach.

When the combine harvester rumbles through the village, its girth is so enormous its caterpillar tracks have to crawl over the green. Even half asleep, you sense the power of this monster.

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After midnight, I watch its orange top lights through the half-drawn shutters, on a level with our upstairs room. Often it is followed by other contraptions, one of them with an evil-looking drum that stretches so far behind the driver it makes cars look like toys. I’d like to see that trying to reverse park.

Last week we stood and stared as the ochre field beyond our garden was scythed with geometrical precision. A swathe of tall stalks disappeared into the combine harvester’s maw, emerging in its wake as stubble. It looked as effortless as a barber giving a shave. By the following morning it had been transformed from a rippling sea into a draughts board. Beautifully rolled and trussed bales were placed with as much care as checkers. It was a picture-postcard of rural Scotland, a vision of plenty beneath an Indian summer sky.

There can be few more satisfying sights. An assurance that we won’t go hungry this winter must tap into our ancient genetic memory. We are hard-wired to find it reassuring. Even though none of what we’re seeing will come our way any time soon, the sight of abundance is comforting. Of course, whether there will be delivery drivers when the crop is ready for consumption is another matter entirely. For the moment, it is enough to know that the barns will be filled.

Harvest was always the sign that a new school year was about to begin. For the same reason my father, a teacher, had mixed feeling about the banks of willowherb that brightened July, knowing they were a harbinger of the classroom. But many decades later, it remains a pivotal point on the calendar. Few seasons bring a more vivid reminder of how important the land is to our existence. Harvest is like the simplest sum, the agricultural equivalent of one and one makes two. The connection between sowing, growing and reaping and what ends up on our table could not be clearer.

Yet while the homely mood of harvest-time harks back centuries, today’s farms would be almost unrecognisable to our forebears. The size of the machines that strip the fields is evidence enough of the scale on which agriculture operates. Hedges have been removed to make fields bigger and easier to work, and the traditional patchwork or pointilliste landscape has in far too many places begun to resemble Capote’s Kansas.

Whether it’s crops or cattle, farm buildings are now built on industrial dimensions. A few miles from Hoolet is a steading of aluminium sheds, big as hangars. In the other direction the same sort of barns house dairy cows. All over the country the small is being usurped by the large.

The economics of it might make sense, in the short term, but nothing else does. To operate these acres requires military-strength equipment and fewer and fewer workers. In the past, small farms gave employment to dozens. In his memoir, English Pastoral, Cumbrian farmer James Rebanks recalls his grandfather bemoaning the advent of the tractor, which put his horse and plough out of action. What he would make of the space-age machinery now used must be imagined. Yet the cost and the environmental footprint of this technology is eye-watering.

In parts of the Borders it wouldn’t be possible to carve out huge swathes of farmland, but that’s not the case elsewhere. When Truman Capote set the scene for In Cold Blood, his depiction of a vast expanse of featureless wheat was not intended to be lyrical or nostalgic. It carried a hint of threat. As do the prairies on our doorstep.

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