Sweating Under the High Arc of Midsummer

What is the hayfield in late afternoon
that it can fly in the face of time,

and light can be centuries old, and even
the rusted black truck I am driving

can seem to be an implement born
of some ancient harvest,

and the rhythmic baler, which spits out
massive bricks tied up in twine,

can seem part of a time before now
because light glitters on the hay dust,

because the sun is sinking and we sweat
under the high arc of mid-summer,

because our bodies cast such long shadows–
Rebecca, with the baby strapped to her back,

the men who throw impossible weight
to the top of the truck, the black and white

dog that races after mice or moles
whose lives have been suddenly exposed.

How does the taste of my sweat take me
down through the gate of childhood,

spinning backwards to land in a field
painted by Bruigel, where the taste of salt

is the same, and the same heat
rises in waves off a newly flattened field.

In the duskiness of slanted light, we laugh
just as we laughed then, because there is

joy in what the earth gives, allowing
our bodies to mingle with it, our voices

small on the field, our work assuring the goats
can give milk, the sheep can grow wool,

and we will have in our bones the taste
of something so old it travels in light.
~Susie Patlove “First Cutting” from Quickening

photo by Nate Gibson
photo by Nate Gibson
1994
2005
2011

There is a timelessness to mid-summer hay harvest that goes back generations on both sides of our family. The cutting, raking and gathering of hay has evolved from horse-drawn implements and gathering loose shocks of hay to 100+ horse power air-conditioned tractors and huge round bales wrapped and stored in plastic sheathing rather than in barns.

Our farm is happily stuck somewhere in-between: we still prefer filling the haybarn with bales that I can still lift and move myself to feed our animals. True hay harvest involves sweat and dust and a neighborhood coming together to preserve summer in tangible form.

I grew up on a farm with a hayfield – I still have the scar over my eyebrow where I collided with the handle of my father’s scythe when, as a toddler, I came too close behind him as he was taking a swing at cutting a field of grass one swath at a time. I remember the huge claws of the hay hook reaching down onto loose hay piled up on our wagon. The hook would gather up a huge load, lift it high in the air to be moved by pulley on a track into our spacious hay loft. It was the perfect place to play and jump freely into the fragrant memories of a summer day, even in the dark of winter.

But these days it is the slanted light of summer I remember most:
-the weightlessness of dust motes swirling down sun rays coming through the slats of the barn walls as the hay bales are stacked
-the long shadows and distant alpenglow in the mountains
-the dusk that goes on and on as owls and bats come out to hunt above us

Most of all, I will remember the sweaty days of mid-summer as I open the bales of hay in mid-winter – the light and fragrance of those grassy fields spilling forth into the chill and darkness, in communion of blessing for our animals.

photo by Tayler Rae
Pieter Bruegel “Hay Harvest”
My grandparents Leslie Polis and Kittie Lovelace standing in a hayfield with loose hay shocks — 1915

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To Dwell in Sovereign Barns

roundbarn

redbarn

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

The grass so little has to do,—    
A sphere of simple green,   
With only butterflies to brood,
And bees to entertain, 
    
And stir all day to pretty tunes        
The breezes fetch along,
And hold the sunshine in its lap   
And bow to everything; 
    
And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
And make itself so fine,—            
A duchess were too common 
For such a noticing.   
    
And even when it dies, to pass    
In odors so divine,    
As lowly spices gone to sleep,        
Or amulets of pine.    
    
And then to dwell in sovereign barns,    
And dream the days away,— 
The grass so little has to do,
I wish I were a hay!
~Emily Dickinson

florabarn

emptyhaybarn

This is the week of the year our barn is at its emptiest, right before it fills up again. There is something very lonely about a barn completely empty of its hay stores.

Its hollow interior echoes with a century of farmers’ voices:
soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking,
uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft,
shouting orders to a steady workhorse,
singing a soft hymn while cleaning stalls,
startling out loud as a barn owl or bat flies low overhead.

The dust motes lazily drift by in the twilight, seemingly forever suspended above the straw covered wood floor, floating protected from the cooling evening breezes.

There is no heart beat left in an empty barn. It is in full arrest, all life blood drained out, vital signs flat lined. I can hardly bear to go inside.

The weather is cooperating so the grass was cut two days ago.  Today it will be tossed about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding”, then tomorrow raked into windrows and baled for pick up by our “family and friends” hay crew.

Suddenly, the barn is shocked back to a pulse, with the throb of voices, music blaring, dust and pollen flying chaotically, the rattle of the electric “elevator” hauling bales from wagon to loft, the grunts and groans of the crew as they heft and heave the bales into place in the stack. This often goes on late into the night, the barn ablaze with lights, the barnyard buzzing with excitement and activity. It almost looks as if it is on fire.

Vital signs measurable, rhythm restored, volume depletion reversed, prognosis good for another year.

A healthy rhythm is elusive in this modern age of full time jobs off the farm, necessitating careful coordination with the schedule of the farmer who cuts and bales for many neighbors all within the same window of good weather. The farmer races his equipment from field to field, swooping around with a goliath tractor taking 12 foot swaths, raising dust clouds, and then on to the next job. It is so unlike the rhythm of a century ago when a horse drawn mower cut the tall grass in a gentle four foot swath, with a pulsing shh shh shh shh shh shh tempo that could be heard stretching across the fields. It is an unfamiliar sound today, the almost-silence of no motor at all, just the jingle of the harness and the mower blades slicing back and forth as the team pulls the equipment down the field. We’ve lost the peacefulness of a team of horses at work, necessitating a slower pace and the need to stop at the end of a row for a breather.

The old barn will be resuscitated once again. Its floor will creak with the weight of the hay bales, the walls will groan with the pressure of stacks. The missing shingles on the roof will be replaced and the doors locked tight against the winter winds. But it will be breathing on its own, having needed only a short rest these last few weeks.

Inside, once again, filled to the brim, life is held tight by twine, just waiting to be released.

mowingfield

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Photo of Aaron Janicki raking hay with his Oberlander team in Skagit County courtesy of Tayler Rae

tjoelkerbarn

sunbeambarn3

 

Hay Making

Hayfield at BriarCroft –photo by Nate Gibson

our hay field near the farm –photo by Nate Gibson

unloading bales into the hay barn– photo by Nate Gibson

stacking the wagon –photo by Nate Gibson


“Haymaking” [sonnet]
John Clare
(1793-1864).

Tis haytime & the red complexioned sun
Was scarcely up ere blackbirds had begun
Along the meadow hedges here & there
To sing loud songs to the sweet smelling air
Where breath of flowers & grass & happy cow
Fling oer ones senses streams of fragrance now
While in some pleasant nook the swain & maid
Lean oer their rakes & loiter in the shade
Or bend a minute oer the bridge & throw
Crumbs in their leisure to the fish below
—Hark at that happy shout—& song between
Tis pleasures birthday in her meadow scene
What joy seems half so rich from pleasure won
As the loud laugh of maidens in the sun.

photo by Nate Gibson

Stacking the Hay

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Every hay crew is the same
Though the names change;
Young men flexing their muscles,
A seasoned farmer defying his age
Tossing four bales high,
Determined girls bucking up on the wagon,
Young children rolling bales closer,
Add a school teacher, pastor,
Professor, lawyer and doctor
Getting sweaty and dusty
United in being farmers
If only for an evening.

Stacking
Basket weave
Interlocking
Cut side up
Steadying the load
Riding over hills
Through valleys
In slow motion
Eagles over head
Searching the bare fields
Evening alpen glow
Of snowbound
Eastern peaks

Friends and neighbors
Walking the dotted pastures,
Piling on the wagons,
Driving the truck,
Riding the top of hay stack
In the evening breeze,
Filling empty barn space to the rafters,
Making gallons of lemonade in the kitchen.
A hearty meal consumed
In celebration
Of summer baled, stored, preserved
For another year.

Hay crew
Remembered on
Frosty autumn mornings before dawn
When bales are broken for feed
And fragrant summer spills forth.
In the dead of winter