Vanishing Scarecrows

By Tugores, Mathias | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview

Vanishing Scarecrows


Tugores, Mathias, The World and I


The scarecrow, once a common sight, has virtually vanished from fields around the world, to the delight only of the birds it was intended to frighten away from lucrative and life-sustaining crops.

The scarecrow's decline began as a consequence of the intensive mechanization of agriculture. Gradually, more sophisticated means were employed to stand guard over crops. Today, the scarecrow has largely fallen into disuse, especially in the Western world. Still, there is hope for the scarecrow; vintners in a small town in Switzerland have dedicated themselves to preserving the memory and contributions to agriculture of the makeshift agrarian.

Deeply rooted

Scarecrows appeared some seven thousand years ago, shortly after agricultural practices are thought to have begun. As time passed, gods were called on and techniques developed to try to save crops from the voracity of the most pestilent species.

Yet a scarecrow is also a cultural device. It belongs to the field of popular art and also pertains to a world of deep-rooted ancient beliefs. It is more than what it purports to be. Like the doll, it is a double of the one who shapes it, a self-portrait in disguise.

In ancient Egypt, farmers along the banks of the Nile placed nets mounted on wooden frames in their fields. Then, draped in long strips of cloth that fluttered in the wind, they ran after the birds, shouting and gesticulating, to scare them into the meshy trap.

Priapus, the god of fertility, looked after Greek vineyards and orchards. Gardens were also protected by awesome wooden figures holding a stick and sickle.

Protective gods also guarded the Roman harvest. Their statues were set up in the fields, and offerings were made to the images when crops were bountiful.

In Japan, legend has it that each spring a scarecrow god known as Shohodo-na-kami would leave his mountain home to keep watch in the rice fields. Choosing a scarecrow as his abode, he dwelled there until autumn and the crop's safe harvest.

Toward the end of winter, German farmers built wooden witches, which were thought to hold winter's spirit captive and hasten spring's return. At planting time, these witches remained in the fields to scare away feathered undesirables.

To be effective, a scarecrow has to be mobile, shiny, and preferably noisy; it will do its job only until the birds get used to it. That can take anywhere from a few hours to several days, depending on the species and environmental factors. By altering the scarecrow and changing its location, one can prolong its period of efficiency. Still, it is not unusual for birds, once they have taken the measure of the scarecrow, to use it as a perch, all the more appreciated for being near the food.

Wherever they are and no matter how they are constructed, scarecrows are almost always male. Female scarecrows are few and far between and usually depict hideous witches.

Scarecrow capital

Winegrowers around Lake Geneva, Switzerland s largest wine-producing region, have, like everyone else, evolved ways of protecting their crops. …

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