The View from Mary's Farm for August 2006
January 1, 1970Making Hay
On the wall inside the barn hangs an old scythe. It belonged to my husband, who knew how to sharpen the blade and how to wield the serpentine tool to cut grass neatly and sharply. He was not an old man but rather a young man who appreciated the ways of the old. The scythe handle is itself of wondrous design, contrived to pass straight along the curving contours of the land, to have mercy on the grass as well as the man who cradled it, an ancient dance between earth and man.
Haying quickens the pace and brightens awareness, as we watch the sky and smell the air for the sudden change of a summer’s afternoon. I try to imagine the fields here, all cut by hand. I know that the men came out in teams and cut together. I’ve heard the sound was like a great singing whisper.
Many years ago, I helped hay fields in the windy and cool climate of Iceland. The grass was not cut with a scythe but rather with sickle bar attached to the side of a small, squat Russian-made tractor. The cutter laid the grass in rows to dry in the cool Arctic sun. What Icelandic farmers do not have in intensity, they make up for in hours – the summer sun never sets so there’s more time for drying. When the hay was ready, we children of the farm were sent out to rake it into windrows. Later, when these rows had dried, we began the harder task of collecting the hay, using rake and pitchfork. We used the fork to stab the grass, bunching it tighter and tighter onto the sharp tines until we had tight bundles at the end of our forks. We’d heft these handmade bales onto a wagon until the overflowing load was pulled back to the barn where we would unload it, one bundle at a time, into the high loft, a precious harvest for the very long winter to come.
Hay is still made on this farm, though I don’t participate. Each year, it seems, the process becomes quicker, more synchronized, more efficient. Jay, a farmer who is also my neighbor, takes the hay from my fields as well as from the fields that adjoin. He and his son-in-law come in on fast tractors and sometimes sweep the fields in a majestic John Deere duet, the two tractors cutting, tedding and raking in tandem. The baler has a kick on it so that as the bales are made, they pop out of the hopper and fly up in a high arc, landing neatly in the wagon behind. On a summer evening, this can make for mesmerizing viewing as the field becomes the stage on which these tractors and bales become the performers. The sound is more a great clatter than a whisper. At last, sun setting, engines straining, gears grinding, the tired farmers pull the harvest home, wagons piled high as a house. The scent of drying grass lingers in the air and comes in my open windows at night. Within days, the fields green up, the beginning of another crop. Making hay, however it is cut and baled, is an eternal harvest, if we can keep the fields and the farmers that long.