‘If it only had a brain’
Jeff Hoover, a second-year Slippery Rock University graduate student from Niles, Ohio poses with a pair of scarecrows at the Salem, Ohio Quakerfest Celebration.
Oct. 29, 2015
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Whether it has a warm, welcoming smile as part of a Halloween display, a sinister sneer as the antagonist of a campy slasher film, or is dancing down the yellow brick road, Americans have more than a passing frame of reference when it comes to scarecrows.
For Jeff Hoover, a second-year Slippery Rock University graduate student from Niles, Ohio, his knowledge of the straw people comes from a more historic perspective - farming.
"As a master gardener, I've dealt with, and felt the pain of, having crops stolen by different creatures," said Hoover, a parks and recreation management major. "And when that happens, you'll do just about anything to get rid of the problem."
It is that historical angle that Hoover, who is also an intern with the Salem, Ohio Parks and Recreation Department, brought to a recent scarecrow-building contest he directed as part of that city's Quakerfest Celebration Oct. 9-10.
The contest, now in its second year, was open to individuals, businesses and schools, and saw the creation of more than 25 scarecrows. The finished works were displayed throughout the city's parks, the Salem Memorial Building and Salem Public Library.
"I tried to bring a different dynamic to the event ... something beyond just playing dress up with (the scarecrows)," said Hoover. "I wanted to present some facts beyond the general interest, and share with people some things they may not have known otherwise."
Including the fact that the first scarecrows on record weren't stuffed with straw, but were people.
"The use of scarecrows dates back almost 3,000 years," Hoover said. "The ancient Egyptians would stand in the fields and rattle bags of rocks and throw stones to frighten off pests, as well as chase and capture birds with nets."
Following the outbreak of the plaque in 1300s Europe, the population was so diminished that farmers were no longer able to have family members stand in the fields, bringing about the forbearers of the modern scarecrow.
"Faced with no one, or very few, to watch over the crops, farmers constructed representations of themselves to scare away pests," said Hoover. "Those began as simple silhouettes, before giving way to more human-like forms that we know today with faces and clothing."
Hoover added that some cultures would adorn the scarecrows with rotting meat, believing the stench would repel crop-stealing crows. However, the birds are not equipped with an advanced sense of smell and would either ignore the meat, or eat it in addition to the crops.
"Crows are very smart birds," said Hoover. "They have figured out how to use rocks for water displacement in order to raise levels high enough for them to drink. They are also able to recognize friendly and adversarial faces ... so a person made of straw isn't going to faze them."
And while modern farming has evolved to provide plenty of chemical options for chasing away pests, smaller, non-commercial, organic, and growers in developing nations, still relay on scarecrows.
"You can see them popping up again in the fields of organic farms that don't want to use pesticides," said Hoover. "There are even variations which use mylar tape that sunlight and creates a humming sound when tape is twisted in the breeze, which wards off the birds. The use of the scarecrow has really come full circle."
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