A hands-on lesson in separating the wheat from the chaff

Students in a class on "Ecology and Russian Literature" learn firsthand what life was like for peasants working on a farm during Tolstoy's time.

Leo Tolstoy, his long beard white, stood beside a horse in a photograph on a screen under the Yale Farm’s Lazarus Pavilion. A second image showed an aerial photograph of the author’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana. A bungee cord tied to a cinderblock anchored the screen against gusty wind. Rain pattered against leaves.

It was not the nicest day for a wheat-threshing lesson, but 19th-century Russian peasants never got to take a rain check. Fifteen students were seated on wooden benches around two large tables. One of the tables bore four bunches of wheat and a skep hive of coiled straw.

The class, “Ecology and Russian Culture,” is co-led by Molly Brunson, associate professor of Slavic languages and literatures, and Isabel Lane, a doctoral candidate and teaching fellow in the same department. The course covers Russian literature, art, and film from the 19th century onward. Several class sessions are held at the farm and involve hands-on activities led by Jeremy Oldfield, manager of field academics for the Yale Sustainable Food Program (YSFP). In this session, based on the theme “The Estate and the Landowner,” the students threshed and winnowed wheat.

A student tosses the contents of a bowl to separate wheat from chaff.
Winnowing produced clouds of chaff fluttering through the air.

Lane began by describing what inspired her to utilize the farm, which occupies an acre on Edwards Street. She was a teaching fellow for “Masterpieces of Russian Literature 1,” and the class was reading Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which contains detailed sections on Russian agriculture, particularly on agricultural reform and applying technology to wheat production.

People don’t generally like these sections of the book,” Lane said, adding that the sections’ main character, Konstantin Levin, has been cut from film adaptations of the novel.

She wanted to reinvigorate the novel’s agricultural sections and, more broadly, make literary works touching on ecology and agriculture more comprehensible and interesting to her students. She enlisted support from YSFP, which routinely collaborates with Yale faculty and graduate students to incorporate food and agriculture into courses of study. Each semester, classes from across disciplines utilize the Yale Farm for “hands-on” learning in the same way they would the university’s museum galleries and libraries.

For this course, the farm provides Lane and Brunson a setting for offering their students a fresh perspective on the works of Tolstoy, Chekhov, and other Russian writers and artists. Lane urged the students to think of the peasants and serfs depicted in short stories by Tolstoy and Nikolai Gogol — the day’s assigned reading — as they participated in the day’s activity.

The 10,000-year history of wheat

Oldfield provided a concise summation of the 10,000-year history of wheat. He presented four examples of wheat — all grown on the farm — beginning with einkorn wheat, which was one of the first grains humans cultivated domestically. Einkorn represented the moment when people began to breed agricultural grasses and base a substantial portion of their nutrition, trade, and power on grain, Oldfield said, though that specific variety produced a low yield.

Oldfield, who manages the farm, explained that people began to breed desirable traits into wheat. He presented a variety popular in Eastern Europe in the 1800s that produced larger berries than einkorn and seed heads that come apart more easily. He noted that the variety grew on tall stalks and that its non-edible structures were used to thatch roofs or craft useful things, like the skep hive — a dome-shaped basket that attracts honeybees and other pollinators — built by a Yale Farm intern from straw grown onsite.

He concluded the talk with examples of two modern “dwarf” varieties, which were bred to grow to a lower and uniform height to facilitate harvesting with a combine. Then it was time for the students to work like 19th-century Russian peasants.

Oldfield directed the class to two metal washtubs set on a table piled with bunches of wheat — a variety called “Red Russian,” developed in the mid-19th century by European immigrants in the Pacific Northwest of the United States.

As we go, you’ll see why threshing became a figure of speech for expending a lot of energy to produce very little,” Oldfield said.

He instructed the students to “thwack” the wheat bunches against the sides of the tubs to knock loose a slurry of wheat berries and chaff.

Get a little bit crazy with it,” Oldfield said.

The students assaulted the wheat with a will, thwacking it against the tubs, producing a cacophony but yielding few wheat berries. Some students, frustrated, started plucking the berries loose with their fingers.

It would probably take us until 9:30 tonight to finish this,” Oldfield said before moving on to winnowing, the process of separating the berries from the chaff.

Each student had a turn tossing the slurry in a wicker basket before a small fan — a slight modern touch. Chaff started swirling in clouds like dandelion spores.

This hands-on element is revelatory,” Brunson said. “To know how much labor goes into this process is important. It opens up an argument that the artists and writers we’re studying aren’t necessarily depicting reality. They’re providing an interpretation, perhaps a wistful interpretation, of reality.”

The class discussed “The Threshing Barn,” a painting by 19th-century artist Grigory Soroka.
The class discussed “The Threshing Barn,” a painting by 19th-century artist Grigory Soroka.

Following the activity, students — some with bits of chaff in their hair — returned to the benches and engaged in a discussion with Brunson and Lane.

They discussed “The Threshing Floor,” a painting by 19th-century artist Alexei Venetsianov that depicts serfs in a barn containing a heaping pile of wheat berries.

This is the work you’ve just done,” Brunson said. “So what do you think of Venetsianov’s representation?”

The students pointed out that the barn is strangely clean given the amount of work it would have taken to produce the large mound of grain and that the serfs lack personality and appear listless.

The discussion eventually moved to the short stories, “The Old-World Landowners” by Gogol, and “Master and Man” by Tolstoy, which portray life on Russian estates in the 1830s and 1890s, respectively. They discussed the roles of food and ecology in the stories and the relationship of the serfs and peasants to the nobles.

At the end of class, Brunson reminded the students that they would meet the next week in a traditional classroom, provoking a collective plea of “No!”
“The students have been on board since day one,” Brunson said. “I think they recognize the experimental nature of the course and they are excited to be the part of it. It’s wonderful to have that.”

Enhancing understanding of class material

Lane and Brunson have worked closely with Oldfield to provide the students meaningful experiences that enhance their understanding of the class material. A workshop on identifying tree species supplemented readings on hiking through the forest. A discussion of artificial interventions that trigger tomato blight complemented a story of a little girl who creates unnatural physical environments. A talk in the farm’s orchard augmented a discussion of Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”

They also had a session at the Landscape on Yale’s West Campus in which Justin Freiberg, the farm manager, led a foraging session, showing the students how to identify edible plants. Later this semester, the class will visit the Peabody Museum of Natural History where exhibition preparator Michael Anderson will discuss his work creating lifelike bird models with a 3-D printer.

Honestly, this is one of my favorite classes,” said first-year student Chayton Pabich.  “Every week we’re doing something new; every week it’s something more exciting. I had never considered threshing wheat before. Doing that for hours and hours every day would explain why the serfs were unhappy.”

Pabich said the hands-on component provides him a deeper understanding of the material being covered.

The class discussions always involve some new interpretation of whatever we’re reading,” he said. “Most people probably don’t read Tolstoy and ask about the trees. It’s interesting and I love it.”

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Mike Cummings: michael.cummings@yale.edu, 203-432-9548