Bloomfield, New Jersey, sits on the border of Newark, part of the urban fringe. No commercial farms exist here now, and if someone pursued such a quixotic venture, they would not grow wheat. We already have Kansas for that.
Still, given the rabid efforts of many Americans in these parts to grow lawn grass, it seemed a reasonable proposition to grow some wheat in a tiny patch of the backyard. Wheat is just grass all grown up.
One May afternoon, I scattered a handful or two worth of seeds over a 20 square foot patch, scritched the earth with a rake, and then went about my business. Three months later, I had my very own amber waves of grain fluttering in the warm August breeze.
I carefully cut down my wheat, tied it up into stooks and let it dry. A little pride crept in as I admired my stook, my connection to the past, smug as an urban Luddite can be. My smugness would soon be cured.
A quaint Biblical expression, easy enough to interpret. The wheat is the solid, good stuff. The chaff is the fluffy bad stuff. Throw the wheat in the air, and the heavier wheat berries fall straight down, while the chaff wafts away with the wind.
In the olden days, the collected chaff would be burned, not out of some symbolic representation of Hell, but just as a quick way to get rid of bulky waste.
So on Sabbath you head off to church, root for the the good guys (Yay, wheat!), tsk, tsk the bad guys (Boo, chaff!), pat yourself on the back for falling in with the wheat crowd, then go home and munch on some bagels made from, well, wheat.
Turns out it's not so simple. While today's pastor can glibly warn his flock to avoid the chaff types, any farmer back in Biblical times knew that wheat did not come in two parts. The chaff is an integral part of the wheat plant, the dry husk surrounding the wheat berry, the part used for food.
Before winnowing the chaff from the wheat berries, you need to thresh the wheat. Threshing is basically knocking the wheat kernels off the rest of the plant. Today this is done with a combination reaper/thresher (called combine for short), a machine that can cost well over a million dollars.
I was not going to invest a million dollars to harvest a tiny patch of wheat. I got to do it the old-fashioned way--beating the wheat until my arms were ready to fall off.
Initially I tried a Wiffle ball bat. Little success.
I made a flail--two sticks tied together end-to-end, allowing me to beat the heads of wheat much more efficiently. A flail looks like nunchaku, or nunchucks, for a good reason. Nunchaku were initially farming tools.
Flailing is very hard work. I pounded and pounded my small stook. I once shoveled scrap metal on ships in Port Newark. I'm not sure which is harder.
The chaff is an integral part of the plant, not some sinister fluff stalking the grain. Separating the wheat from the chaff is not about separating good folks from bad. That's too easy.
Before separating a part from itself, you need to break it. Threshing wheat requires violence. The wheat plant is broken. Separating the wheat from the chaff involves breaking one's lesser tendencies from the better.
Indeed, the actual separating part is easy. Once the grain is threshed, just wait for a breezy day and toss the threshed grain in the air. The wheat berries will bounce at your feet, the chaff blown away. People once knew this. Wheat and chaff were not distinct elements until after the threshing.
The parabolic statement about wheat and chaff reminds us not only that the community is mixed but also that each of us have our own good and bad elements. There is for each of us chaff that needs to be blown away and burned. There is a separation here of good and bad, useful and useless; but it is not like the difference between apples and oranges. Each of us individually is wheat and chaff.
The Very Rev. Dennis J.J. Schmidt, from The Wheat and the Chaff, December 9, 2001
I will not likely grow wheat again; I have too little land, and the work of threshing by hand is a bit much for a man in his
What do I have to show for it? Well, I have a half pint of homegrown wheat sitting in a Mason jar, enough for a couple of bagels should I grind it into flour.
More importantly, I have a better grasp of "separating the wheat from the chaff," and what a loaf of bread meant to my forebears, and still means to most of the people alive today.
The wheat stook photo form the National Archives.