August 20th, 2015
Of Mills and Metaphors
It was when I left behind the coast of Maine that I started thinking about George Orwell. Two years before 1984, which is to say, in 1946, he wrote an essay called “Politics and the English Language” which was (one of) his efforts to rescue the English language from relentless abuse and misuse. Admittedly, the decadent English that alarmed Orwell is an astonishingly pallid cousin to the computer-assisted hash we’ve made of it, but his point is still sharp and it’s this: there are times when an effect can also become a cause. That is, English becomes “ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”
I was thinking about all this because I was trading the charms of the islanded coastline for a landscape which was pleasant enough but had left its glory days long behind, all in a quest to visit a grist mill and — if I was honest with myself — I didn’t know exactly what a grist mill was.
Sure, it was a place where grain was milled into flour, and I’d heard the expression “grist for the mill,” but there was a vagueness behind what that meant, or even looked like. That’s where Orwell was lurking, because grist to the mill was in that essay, in the section about the “huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power.” Dying Metaphors, he called them and contrasted them against functioning metaphors, which make thought and language concrete by evoking an image. A dying metaphor works in the opposite way, obviating thought in both writer and reader by deploying a package of socially acceptable verbiage — but one which has no real meaning. So I was, I suppose, off to restore evocative power to my mill metaphors, but I wasn’t really prepared for what I got.
The Somerset Grist Mill lies at the heart of Skowhegan, Maine, right across the street from the dignified county court house and occupying a rather charming four stories of steel and brick that were once, no joke, the county jail. The building is easy to find, but the mill isn’t, because the repurposed jail presents a different face however you approach it. One side is a cafe, which doubles as a CSA hub, another is a cooperatively operated yarn shop. Find your way into the structure, and you’ll be confronted with the bulletproof glass of the old control room, but it now houses a computer services operation. In the cell blocks just beyond are the broadcasting offices of a community FM station, amusingly billing itself as Hooskow Radio.
It is within this encrustation of socially enlightened commerce that the mill lies, filling the old jail building from top to bottom and that was my first revelation; though this mill is electrically powered, its organizing principle is gravity.
Local farmers deliver grain to the mill in rather drolly named “totes” which are indeed bags, but bags which bulge with one ton of grain each. After each bag is logged and tested for moisture content, the grain is quite literally vacuumed up by an industrial “grain vacuum” and sent to hoppers in the very top of the mill. From there, a network of ducts, hoses and refreshingly low-tech valves operated by wooden pull handles allow the millers to funnel the chosen type of grain down through the mill to the different parts of the operation.
Directly at the center of everything, below the hoppers of grain in the attic, above the loading floor at the bottom, surrounded by a constellation of accessory machinery, lies the heart of the operation — the mill itself. There’s a rather puckish sense to the way the mill, an Austrian blonde wood objet d’art about five feet across and taller than a person, quietly presides over the reinforced concrete walls and steel doors that once restrained Somerset County’s malefactors.
Michael Scholz, a baker transformed into miller by the creation of this place, stopped the working of the mill so that he could open the enclosure and dispatch my unknowing — more rightly called ignorance — about how this most fundamental of human creations works. The mill, of course, is a wheel. But instead of a wheel enabling movement through space, this wheel that permits movement through time; without our daily bread, our journey in time would be short, indeed.
Mill stones lie flat and work in pairs. The upper one, called the runner, turns, while the lower one, the bed, remains stationary. The stones fit closely, but are concave enough to allow the grains to work their way into the middle. There’s a hopper above the stones, and grain flows from that into a kind of tray called a shoe. A rotating eccentric shaft (“the damsel”) rises up from the stones and it steadily taps the shoe, vibrating the grains over the edge, where they fall into a hole in the middle of the runner stone. Attached to the shoe and controlling its angle, there’s a thing called a crook string — two angled cords running through a sliding leather — and though it looks like Babylonian technology, it’s all you need to very finely adjust the force of gravity, and so the flow of grain to the stones.
The hole in the runner stone is now called the eye, but it was once called the bosom and in fact the mill is rich with a feminine vernacular. The runner stone turns on a spindle. The radiating zones of the millstones are called bosom, waist and skirt. The repeating patterns of cutting grooves on the stones are called harps. While the “lands and furrows” that comprise the harps are an agricultural metaphor, authors from Aristophanes to Shakespeare remind us that there’s a lustier way to attach a concrete image to those words, a notion reinforced by the fact that the spindle top is traditionally called the cockhead.
We could put the source of the terminology in the minds of lonely millers, but more likely it’s a reflection of the fact that the arduous work of hand grinding meal or flour had long been a womanly task. I’ve always imagined that the two processes were the same, just different scales of wheat seeds being ground to dust, but that’s not what happens. The stone mill was a genuine technological advance, because the furrows and lands of the millstones act as scissors, cutting and recutting the grains into infinitesimal particles but without the smashing.
This is pretty much the opposite of how nearly all flour is now produced. Massive midwest farms feed equally massive roller mills, where arrays of high speed drums do exactly what I’d always thought millstones did — smash the grains into flour. There’s a problem with this, namely that the mashing breaks apart the seed into components, separating bran, germ and endosperm. While that’s good for pumping out white flour, breaking apart the package of a grain — a food that is the bedrock of agricultural civilization because of its ability to endure over time — ruins the ability of it to endure. Separating the antioxidants in the bran from the oils and nutrients in the germ begins a process of decomposition that wrecks both flavor and nutrition — unless of course you throw away the germ, which contains most of that flavor and nutrition.
So a society depending on roller mills has fundamentally different values than one which uses stone mills. The roller mill produces more, faster, and what it produces lasts longer on the shelf and is easier to ship great distances. It’s a thoroughly industrial “product,” anonymous, interchangeable and, crucially, more dependent on machinery than people. A stone mill produces more, slowly, produces flour more attuned to nutrition and taste than ease of shipping, and requires a great deal of human attention, most particularly the miller’s hand.
As the flour sifts from the rim of the millstones, the miller can catch the freshly ground meal and take its measure. He rubs it between his fingertips, squeezes it in his fist, lets it fall between his fingers. It’s a dance of gesture familiar to anyone who’s ever played on a sandy beach, but this action is all the experienced miller needs to discover consistency, temperature, moisture. Just like Orwell’s ideal English, the mill speaks to the miller in a way that is tactile and immediate, understandable on the level of the body, which makes sense because the body damn well better have the ability to understand matter meant to sustain it.
The more time I spent in the orbit of the millstones, the more I saw how they generated this sort of intuitive coherence in all directions. The mill, I started to see, was a center of gravity. The old jail was now a kind of hourglass, the machinery and tons of grain above all funneling down into the stones, an inverted mountain of stuff, all balanced on a tip one grain wide. Below the mill, flour fans out, progressing through other machinery to sift and separate the meal before filling hoppers and sacks, which are sewn shut and stacked, ready for their journey into the world beyond.
That’s where the center of gravity changes from vertical to horizontal and the small circle of stone generates a ring of influence you can chart on a map. It radiates northward to the heartland of Maine’s grain farmers, Aroostook County and southward to bakers, some as close as Skowhegan itself and others hundreds of miles further afield.
There’s an implicit meaning to a “grist” mill as opposed to a grain mill, and it’s that a grist mill exists to serve its community. Traditionally, almost every town in farm country would have had a grist mill where farmers could bring their grain to be milled and receive back flour, minus the “miller’s toll.” If you have a little grain to mill, or a lot, it doesn’t matter, the doors of the grist mill will be open to you.
Before she knew much about the process of milling, the mill’s other founder, Amber Lambke, grasped the meaning of milling. She knew there were farmers trying to keep grain alive in Maine, and she knew there were bakers who wanted flour that was as rooted to place as they were, but all of it was faltering because it had no center. So together, she and Michael created that center. Now, after three years of operation, the Somerset Grist Mill has changed the lives of New England’s farmers and bakers, much to the delight of the lucky souls on the outermost ring touched by the millstones, those with the bread on their table.
* * *
Here’s a curious thing — it’s tough to live on grain alone, but you can live on bread. The mill’s transformation of seed into flour is the gateway which enables baking’s singular transformation of “meal” into a meal. It’s easy to forget in this gluten-free, low carb, meal-replacement, superfood era that bread has been, for all of our post-hunter-gatherer history, the literal stalk of life. We “break bread,” Christ demonstrated his divinity with bread miracles, and when food runs low there are bread (but never cheese or wine) riots. From Ancient Rome (“two things only, the people desire: bread and circus games”) to the Reformation (“With bread, all sorrows are less”) to the Industrial Revolution (“We want bread, and roses, too!”) the nutritional and symbolic center of the Western Diet has been our daily bread.
I’d come to Skowhegan because I wanted to know what a stone mill was like, to understand a little of the mostly-lost craft and technology that was central to the entire project of human civilization for almost all of its history and I got what I was looking for. But my deepest glimpse into time and experience turned out to have nothing to do with bread.
It was because I was using a camera, and the only way to get the shot was to essentially lie on top of the mill’s enclosure — so I did. I should have known (because everything about the stone mill is about its tangibility) that touching the mill wouldn’t be the same as standing beside it.
The wood was big and warm, emanating the soft scent of the grain, the runner stone breathing beneath me and the damsel rhythmically thumping. I forgot about the shot as a sense of profound peace settled, a kind of enveloping rightness that makes your eyes want to close and your thoughts drift. It’s a rare feeling, a primal feeling, and I had the uncanny experience of remembering something that I’d never done. In this moment, I was the most recent to discover what centuries of mill families had also discovered, that if they cradled their restless and colicky infants on the mill’s vat, the warm heartbeat of the stones would lull the child to sleep.
To be in the presence of circling millstone — and make no mistake, it is a presence — is to understand the rings of corporeality and ethereality that radiate endlessly from it, life and meaning inextricably interwoven, lives bound together. All is grist to the mill not only because the stones grind seeds to flour, but because the many and varied contributions of each are transformed into sustenance — for bellies, for souls — for all.
I’d like to think that George would be proud.
Millstones by Canadian Pacific
Images of Somerset Grist Mill/Maine Grains by Christian Ford