Winnowing

Last week I received a package in the mail from a faraway friend of my youth: a beautiful silver and amber ring that I remember from a long ago time in Montreal when she and I would meet on Saturday mornings at the Luxor Café on Ste. Catherine’s Street to talk about love and life and books. In the accompanying message she wrote that she was sending the ring because she was “winnowing” things, noting that it is a lovely word.

 

It is indeed a lovely word, one which has many meanings. When I mention it to elderly friends, they too claim to be in the process of winnowing. Their process that sounds something like Swedish death cleaning, i.e. chucking things out in order to diminish the workload that may be left for others after one dies.

 

Farmers speak of winnowing wheat, or winnowing rice, depending on their country. The dictionary definition refers to freeing grain from the lighter particles of chaff. When the grain is thrown into the air, the wind blows away the impurities. To winnow is to distinguish the valuable from worthless. To separate the wheat from the chaff.

 

Another dictionary definition for winnowing is “to pursue a course with flapping wings in flying,” Bird watchers sometimes refer to the winnowing flight of snipe, a delightful aural image.

Many poets spoke of “winnowing.” In his poem “Autumn,” Keats spoke of “the winnowing wind,” and a collection of WW I poetry is ominously titled “The Winnowing Fan.”

There are also references in the bible. Proverbs 20:8 states that when a king sits on his throne to judge he “winnows out all evil with his eyes,” a useful ability for a judge. A very large task as well, given all the evil in the world.

In Jeremiah, we read “I will send foreigners to Babylon to winnow her and to devastate her land” and “I will winnow them with a winnowing fork at the city gates of the land. I will bring bereavement and destruction on my people, for they have not changed their ways.”

I was thinking about winnowing when I read about the wealthy men in three-piece suits rioting at Ascot recently. A far cry from “My Fair Lady.” The papers demanded that something needed to be done to keep “these people” out, and a reader commented, “What people? Rich people?” Commenting on the behaviour of these privileged people, someone noted that one could be a future prime minister.

The images of high school shootings makes on think of the need for winnowing out the lawmakers who do not support gun control.

When I see the increasing number of homeless people, miserably curled up in doorways or ditches I know that we have to work at winnowing out city counselors who have dropped the ball on low-cost housing initiatives.

The world is in bad shape, globally and in my own small town.

I won’t resort to knives, but I do wonder where I can get one of those biblical winnowing forks.

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