Harvest: An Examination and Application of Definitions and Connotations


According to the Marriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the word harvest means:

(transitive verb)
1: (a) to gather in (a crop); (b) to gather, catch, hunt, or kill (as salmon, oysters, or deer) for human use, sport, or population control; (c) to remove or extract (as living cells, tissues, or organs) from culture or from a living or recently deceased body especially for transplanting.
2: (a) to accumulate a store of; (b) to win by achievement.
(intransitive verb)
to gather in a crop especially for food.

The Marriam-Webster Online Thesaurus provides a simpler definition: to catch or collect (a crop or natural resource) for human use. Synonyms include gather, pick, and reap. Near antonyms are plant, seed, and sow.

SommerAccording to Harvard, until around the 1700s, ‘Harvest’ was the commonly used word for the season now known as Fall or Autumn. About the time of the Industrial Revolution, as fewer people’s lives centered around farming, ‘harvest’ generally came to refer to the gathering of crops rather than the season itself.

The Online Etymology Dictionary states that the noun ‘Harvest’ comes from the Old English word ‘haerfest,’ meaning the period between August and November. The Old English word came from the Proto-Germanic word ‘harbitas,’ which originates from the Proto-Indo-European word ‘kerp-‘ meaning to gather or pluck. Other words which developed from ‘kerp-‘ include:

krpana- Sanskrit, meaning sword
krpani Sanskrit, meaning shears
karpos Greek, meaning fruit
karpisomai Greek, meaning make harvest of
carpere Latin meaning “to cut, divide, pluck”
carpe Latin meaning “to seize”
kerpu Lithuanian meaning “cut”

They note that from the mid- 13th century, ‘harvest’ began to refer specifically to “the time of gathering crops,” and later “to the action itself and the product of the action.”

But how exactly did the word ‘harbitas’ become the word ‘haerfest’ you may be wondering. For an answer, let us turn to Lectures of the English Language by George Perkins Marsh, the now-public-domain e-book available through Google. I refer to page 176.

Dr. Guest writes that in Breton (English) est or eost was a corruption of Augustus and signifies the harvest and the season of Autumn, which generally begins in the month of August. The verb eost-o meant ‘to reap.’ He also cites the compound debenn-eost, which also signifies the time of harvest and Autumn, as a compound of the verb debenn-o, meaning to lop, to top trees, and to reap, especially corn, and eost. He suggests that when the Celtics decided they needed a special name for the season, they borrowed from the Germanic harbitas and adjusted the compound. Debenn-eost became some sort of harb-eost or herf-eost, which evolved into the Old English haerfest.Farmers resting near a bail of hay

Back to the boys from Harvard, they note that the old German word harbistoz became the Dutch herfst, the Africaans herfs, the High German Herbst, and the Icelandic and Norwegian haust. The linguistic switch from the ‘b’ to the ‘f’ to the ‘v’ is not so hard to swallow.

Examining the history of the word, we understand its clear association with crops, but I think it is important to note the nature of farming and harvesting. The crops do not just plant themselves; they require the nurturing care and attention of the farmer. He invests in their growth: he plows the ground, he plants the seeds, he pulls the weeds, he irrigates. And, at the end of the growing season he is justly rewarded for his efforts. We should not underestimate the importance of the amount of effort the farmer makes when considering the connotations of the word harvest.

We should also not underestimate the cyclical nature of the process. Not only does the farmer reap the rewards, hoping to survive the winter, spring, and fall off of what he has grown, but he also intends to do the same the next year. He may be taking away from the system for a little while, but he will replenish it the next growing season.

But today, there are really two sides to the word harvest. One in which we remember the relationship of the farmer and his crops and one in which we forget. One in which the harvester is rewarded for his efforts and one in which the harvester takes that to which he has no right of possession because he did not invest in its creation.

Organ donation versus organ harvesting is an excellent example. When I think of organ donation, I think of the DMV, a tiny heart symbol on my driver’s license, hospitals, and saving lives. When I think of organ harvesting, I think of seedy hotels in Mexico, where drug lords hastily cut out the vital organs of an unsuspecting tourists, leaving them to die cold, lonely deaths in bathtubs. Technically speaking, however, when doctors in hospitals remove the organs of the recently deceased who choose to give them to someone else, the doctors are harvesting, meaning collecting for human use, the organs. In this case, the doctors have the right to collect the organs, because deceased who created them transferred that right. Without that consent, however, as in the case of organ theft, the so-called organ harvesters have no right to remove the organs. Yet, both cases are examples of harvesting. Two very different sides of the same concept.

It is this essential distinction which set me so against the recent bulletin from Rep. Scott Rigell regarding his plans to promote drilling for natural gas and oil off the coast of Virginia. His press release states,

“In an effort to address America’s unemployment and energy challenges, today Representative Scott Rigell (VA-2) introduced the Mid-Atlantic Energy and Jobs Act of 2012 (HR 3882) to open the Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) off the coast of Virginia for energy harvesting.”

He claims that the act will create jobs and reduce American dependence on foreign oil. I want to look at that claim a little more closely.

He says that “off Virginia’s coast… 3.8 billion barrels are known to exist.” According to the CIA World FactBook, the United States uses 19.15 million barrels of oil each day (according to estimates from 2010). That means that the US uses approximately 6.99 billion barrels of oil in one year. So, if they are able to extract every last drop of oil they think exists off the coast, that means that it would supply the US for a little over half a year.

To put it another way, all the oil they find off the coast of Virginia would only cover 54.4% of the oil the US consumes in just one year.

They will not be able to produce all of the oil in that amount of time, so for arguments’ sake, let’s say that it actually takes them 10 years to extract all of the oil. If American consumption remains steady (although it is expected to increase), then in 10 years the US will consume 69.9 billion barrels of oil. In those ten years, those 3.8 billion barrels will only account for 5.44% of total US consumption.

If the supply of 3.8 billion barrels instead takes 20 years to extract, then it will only account for 2.72% of US total consumption.

To me, neither 5.44 nor 2.77% seem like very high amounts. There is no argument that they could lead to American energy independence. The impact would be minimal and short-lived. It is a temporary ‘solution’ to long-term problems.

Now that I’ve shown how little impact the bill will actually have, let’s go back to that opening statement. There’s that word: harvest. Along with every negative connotation.

Rigell claims that “we have a moral obligation to leave our children and grandchildren with clean air, water and soil.” He thinks that we can meet that obligation by putting some of the money, earned by removing the natural resources that we made no effort to generate or replenish, towards environmental cleanup. His plan will put 25% of the $1.4 billion that VA is expected to make in revenue toward environmental cleanup. That’s $0.35 billion, or $350 million.

With the total expected cost of cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay now estimated to be $7.5 billion over the next five years, according to the DelMarVaNow article “Bay cleanup getting costly,” that $350 million would account for just 4.67% of that hefty price tag. That’s not a very stunning commitment to the next generations, if you ask me. And that is not even considering the cost of any potential environmental damage done by the act of drilling itself! With estimated costs associated with cleaning up the BP oil spill ranging from $6 to $14 billion, just how far will that 25% really go? You can hardly consider it doing your part to replenish and replace what you remove. Hardly in keeping with the original conception of harvesting at all.

Obviously Rigell invested nothing in the formation of the large oil reserves off the coast of VA, and clearly he has no intention of restoring what is removed. He seems to have no sense of what it means to have a morale obligation to the environment of the future.

On behalf of all the good things ‘harvest’ stands for, I resent Rigell’s using it and offer another word he can use instead. According to Dictionary.com, the archaic meaning is “the act of seizing or carrying off by force.” It also is “an act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation.” The word is rape. Plunder and pillage are accurate descriptions, but they capture neither the innocence of the violated nor the degree of violence as succinctly. The idea of rape is both emotional and powerful. There are no positive connotations or justifications. It is understood to be simply wrong.

But I do not wish to leave you hopeless and distressed. To solve America’s energy problems, I offer another word: harness. Rather than invest ourselves in temporary solutions, we need to focus our efforts on using the world’s energy sources to our advantage without destroying them in the process. These are things we cannot hope to replace, so we should not view our energy needs in terms of harvesting. Instead, we should think about re-focusing and re-directing what already exists. We need to harness the energy of the wind without stopping it from blowing. We need to harness the energy of the tides without stopping them from flowing. We need to harness the energy of the sun without stopping it from glowing.

If we properly invest in these technologies, they will create jobs, they will make money, they will solve our energy needs, and they will help us fulfill our moral obligation to the future, to leave the earth better off than how we found it. To leave our children and grandchildren and generations to follow a planet that will support them and a system that will sustain them. Considering how much damage we and the generations before us have done, it is the very least we can do.


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