“Unfathomable to mere mortals is the lore of fiends” ― Nathaniel Hawthorne
I most decidedly do not have a green thumb. I can kill a cactus, only partially through neglect. I try to keep a nice yard, but my house backs up to a forest preserve, and the deer eat all the good plants. They’re not even afraid of my dog. He’s a “ratter” par excellance, and has presented me with many a mouse, being part schnauzer and part toy poodle (a “schnoodle” if taxonomy is in order), but useless for anything bigger than he is. The deer come right down to the back door and munch away on the savory leaves and flowers of all my non-weed flora, completely ignoring the furious barking. This has been most disconcerting, and more than once I’ve have called on the Devil in vain to rid me of this Cervidaen pestilence. A guy I met in a bar in Ocean City, Maryland told me that there is a garlic spray you can buy at Home Depot that keeps them off your land, but what if they are Italian deer? And then again, advice over drinks at a bar must be taken with a grain of salt. I’m skeptical. Thus I need supernatural intervention, but it has not been forthcoming. Perhaps the problem in that I’m not a Satan worshiper. We’re just friends. Of course, the Devil’s never there when you’re expecting him. It’s how he rolls, or at least that’s what theology teaches us. As Robert Louis Stevenson said, “the Devil, can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing”, which is supported by the experience of a farmer in Hertfordshire, England around 1678.
It’s tough to be a farmer in Hertfordshire. Its’s tough to be a farmer anywhere, but in 17th Century England especially it was no cake walk. While an industrious fellow, the Hertfordshire farmer in question still found money was tight. Any modern farmer can sympathize. I worked on farms as a youth in Illinois. Farming sucks. Its hard work with dubious returns (Even in our enlightened 21st century, delinquency rates for commercial agricultural loans in both the real estate and non-real estate lending sectors are at a six-year high). Of course, it’s how we all avoid starvation in the modern world, so much like many other occupations related to our survival as a species, it is undervalued, and while you can grow a nice decorative flower bed, you should try a few acres of corn or soybean before you get all uppity.
Well, in August 1678, our Hertfordshire farmer had three acres of oats to harvest, ripe and fit for gathering, and contacted a poor neighbor known to contract out his labor in the summer to help with the harvest. Negotiations ensued. It’s tough being a farmer, but it’s even tougher being the poor neighbor of a farmer.
The poor man as it behooved him, endeavored to sell the sweat of his brow and marrow of his bones at as dear a rate as reason ably he might, and therefore asked a good round price for his labor, which the farmer taking some exceptions at, bid him much more under the usual rate than the poor man asked above it, so that some sharp words had past when the farmer told him he would discourse with him no more about it. Whereupon the honest mower recollecting with himself, that if he undertook not that little spot of work, he might thereby lose much more business which the Farmer had to employ him in beside, ran after him, and told him, that, rather than displease him, he would do it at what rate in reason he pleased; and as an instance of his willingness to serve him, proposed to him a lower price than he had mowed for any time this year before in. The irritated Farmer with a stern look, and hasty gesture, told the poor man, that the Devil himself should mow his oats before he should have anything to do with them, and upon this went his way, and left the sorrowful yeoman, not a little troubled that he had disobliged one in whose power it lay to do him many kindnesses (“Strange Newes out of Hartfordshire and Kent”, 1678).
Farmers can certainly be a cantankerous lot, but they’ve got to make a living, and the margins aren’t that great. We don’t know whether the price requested by the poor neighbor was fair or not, but clearly, our industrious farmer took exception. As it turns out, the devil was listening, and puzzlingly had some inclination towards agricultural efficiency, given the farmer’s expressed preference.
We will not attempt to fathom the cause, or reason of, Preternatural events; but certain we are, as the most Credible and General Relation can inform us, that that same night this poor Mower and Farmer parted, his Field of Oats was publicly beheld by several passengers to be all of a Flame, and continued for some space, to the great consternation of those that beheld it. Which strange news being by several carried to the Farmer next morning, could not but give him a great curiosity to go and see what was become of his Crop of Oats, which he could not imagine, but what was totally devoured by those ravenous Flames which were observed to be so long resident on his Acre and half of Ground…But not to keep the curious Reader any longer in suspense, the inquisitive Farmer no sooner arrived at the place where his Oats grew, but to his admiration he found the Crop was cut down ready to his hands ; and as if the Devil had a mind to shew his dexterity in the art of Husbandry, and scorned to mow them after the usual manner, he cut them in round circles, and placed every straw with that exactness that it would have taken up above an Age, for any Man to perform what he did that one night. And the man that owns them is as yet afraid to remove them (Gerish, 1902, p13-14).
In 1678, this was detailed in a rare pamphlet entitled “Strange Newes out of Hartfordshire and Kent: an Account of a Mowing-devil”, which was perhaps meant as a cautionary tale against calling upon his Satanic Majesty as a scab in a labor dispute, but maybe it was just weird enough to make the news. I’m not often given to biblical quotes, but as Galatians 6 says, “A man reaps what he sows”.
Gerish, W. B. (William Blyth). Hertfordshire Folklore. Bishop’s Stortford, 1902.
Strange Newes out of Hartfordshire and Kent: an Account of a Mowing-devil, Etc. London: Printed for R.S., 1679.
Strange Signes from Heaven: Seen and Heard In Cambridge, Suffolke, And Norfolke, In And Upon the 21 Day of May, 1648. Miraculous Wonders Seen At Barnstable, Kirkham, Cornwall and Little Britain, In London. London: Forcet, 1646.
Andrews, William, 1848-1908. Bygone Lincolnshire. Hull: A. Brown & sons, 1891.
Rees, William Lee, 1836-, and Lily Rees. The Life and Times of Sir George Grey, K.C.B. 2d ed. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1892.