The small farm outside the village of East Stanwood, Washington on which I spent my first four years had three milking guernsey cows and a large crippled paint horse. In addition to ten acres of woodlot, we had about 6 acres of pasture, some of which was used to grow our winter hay supply.
My father was a small town high school agriculture teacher, supervising FFA kids and working far more hours than he was paid for. He was determined to help make ends meet for his growing family by being as self-sufficient as possible on our few acres. Our own milk was pasteurized on our wood stove, we raised our own beef, pork and chicken/eggs, and grew and stored as much forage as possible. We had a large hay barn, but could not afford much more than the old tractor that my father kept patched together with gum and baling wire. We certainly didn’t have baling equipment so our hay had to be put up loose, usually cut by a sickle bar attached to the tractor.
For reasons known only to him, my father often preferred to cut our hay with his hand held scythe. Perhaps it was out of necessity, or more likely he enjoyed the rhythm of the physical work. I can still see and hear him slashing through the grass, laying it neatly in a pile as he moved through the field. In fact, I was so interested in watching him that I came up behind him one sunny day, wanting to follow his path in my own dreamy three year old way, and he reached back with the scythe handle to cut his next big swath, not aware I was behind him and the handle bumped right into my face, slicing my eyebrow open and laying me down neatly right along aside the nice pile of grass. I must have wailed hard and bled profusely as I remember him scooping me up, his face a mask of worry, and rushed me into the house, and then downtown to the kindly old lady doctor who butterflied my face back together. I still can find that spot in my eyebrow when I look closely–a testament to the dangers of being too curious and too quiet.
The work of putting up loose hay is significantly different than baled hay. It is much slower and deliberate, not nearly the frenetic activity of today’s hay crew. When the hay is ready to be brought in, it must be scooped by the pitchfork load onto the hay wagon, piled high as possible without much toppling off, and then slowly brought to the hay barn where the large hay fork would be let down on its pulley, opened and closed over the pile, hauled back up inside the hay mow to be released into a big pile. There it would be in a fragrant mound waiting to be forked down into the mangers every morning and night as the cows were milked. It never gets packed tight, it remains loose and fluffy and often not as musty as the baled hay can be. However, there is more loss in the harvesting process, it blows in the slightest breeze and has a life of its own while bales sit where you put them and stay there until retrieved. Predictable, efficient, easy to store and move but without give or flexibility.
Jumping into loose hay is a feeling of being enveloped and cushioned. The occasional broken bale I find in the loft softens in my hands as I scoop it up–what a delight. One of the joys of doing chores is breaking the twine on the bales and freeing the hay into flakes as the portions are distributed to each stall. Would I find carrying pitchforks of loose hay as gratifying? Perhaps, but harder work indeed and much more lost along the way.
Is each day lived in tightly bound bales or as free-spirit loose hay? I experience both, stretching against the cords that bind me at times, but needing the ties that keep me from blowing away at the slightest puff of wind. Life stacks us up, builds us and grows us, but too soon pulls us apart and we are dust again. We must thrive with our covenant “ties” –the twines that keep together our faith, our relationships, our children. But we can overdo, sometimes binding too tightly, and not unlike our children who must eventually be free, we must loosen our ties, let them breathe and avoid the “mustiness” that can develop over time if they never are opened up.
It is time to celebrate the hay stack and know that we belong, bound or loose, to the dust from which we arose.