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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The Headed Grass

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Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

It will soon be haying time, as soon as another stretch of clear days appears on the horizon.  We missed a haying window last week, and now are staring at 10 days of forecast rain and clouds.

The headed grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut, with the undulations of moist breezes flowing over the hill.   It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand.  It is melting, pulled back to the soil.  We must work fast to save it.

The light and wind works its magic on our hill.  The blades of the mower will come soon to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn, no longer bending but bent, no longer flowing but flown, no longer growing but grown and salvaged.

It becomes fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors.   It melts in their mouths, as it was meant to, as we are meant to melt and flow.

Truly.

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My Hands are Torn

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My hands are torn
by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance.
~Hayden Carruth from “Emergency Haying”

 

Miles of twine bind up
tons of hay inside our barn,
daily loosed free of grasses
to feed the hungry,
the strings saved to bind again
in myriad ways:

tightening a sagging fence
replacing a broken bucket handle
snugging a horse blanket belt.

It has become the duct tape of the barn
when duct tape isn’t enough;
a binding substitute made beautiful
by morning fog’s weeping.

hayjobdone

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne,
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our aims are one,
Our comforts, and our cares.

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear;
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.
~John Fawcett

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Torn By Twine

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My hands are torn
by baling twine, not nails, and my side is pierced
by my ulcer, not a lance.
~Hayden Carruth from “Emergency Haying”

Miles of twine encircle
tons of hay in our barn,
daily loosed free of grasses
and hung up to use again
in myriad ways:

tightening a sagging fence
replacing a broken bucket handle
snugging a horse blanket belt.

It is the duct tape of the barn
when duct tape won’t work;
a substitute made beautiful
by a morning fog’s weeping.

Melt and Flow

meltingfieldlodge1

Light and wind are running
over the headed grass
as though the hill had
melted and now flowed.
~Wendell Berry “June Wind”

It will soon be haying time, as soon as a stretch of clear days appear on the horizon.  Today was to be cloudless but ended up drizzly and windy, not good hay cutting weather.

The headed grass is growing heavier, falling over, lodged before it can be cut, with the undulations of moist breezes flowing over the hill.   It has matured too fast, rising up too lush, too overcome with itself so that it can no longer stand.  It is melting, pulled back to the soil.  We must work fast to save it.

The light and wind works its magic on our hill.  The blades of the mower will come soon to lay it to the ground in green streams that flow up and down the slopes.  It will lie comfortless in its stoneless cemetery rows, until tossed about by the tedder into random piles to dry, then raked back into a semblance of order in mounded lines flowing over the landscape.

It will be crushed and bound together for transport to the barn, no longer bending but bent, no longer flowing but flown, no longer growing but grown and salvaged.

It becomes fodder for the beasts of the farm during the cold nights when the wind beats at the doors.   It melts in their mouths, as it was meant to.

Truly.

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The Scent of Work

Fireflies are daughters to the stars
And go in the countryside to catch the scent of hay
Which is the scent of God
Because it smells of work–Giovanni Cerri

Our horses are now officially pulled off the pastures for winter, relegated to smaller dirt paddocks until the fields have rested, recovered and dried sufficiently in April to bear their hooves and teeth again.

So I climb the ladder to the hay loft daily to toss down carefully stacked bales of hay placed there by our hay crew four months ago.   I release the dried stems from their bondage by twine.  The scent of July work hits me full force; I’m transported back to the sweaty days of hay mowing, tedding, raking and baling.   It was just yesterday, so it seems, that my children and their friends were picking up these heavy bales and tossing them onto the trailer, and then bringing them into the barn.

The scent of work on the earth, like fireflies to the stars, is the perfume of heaven.

Last Sweet Exhalations

photo by Josh Scholten

These things happen…the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses….

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.
~Jane Kenyon from Twilight–After Haying

 

So bound together–the sweetness and the suffering.
I have seen it in others and known it myself.

Renewal and rebirth come from ravage.

Already I am emptying out, not yet filling full from the lungs of eternity.
Breathing will be easy one day, so fresh, so cleansing, so infinite.

Until then,
I’m holding my breath tightly,
blessed by that last, sweet gasp.

photo by Josh Scholten

Resuscitating the Hay Barn

photo by Nate Gibson

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, whether soothing an upset cow during a difficult milking, or uncovering a litter of kittens high in a hay loft, possibly shouting orders to a steady workhorse, even startling out loud as a barn owl flies low overhead, or grumbling over a dead tractor battery.    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.

If the weather cooperates before July 4, we’ll be cutting the grass the first day, strewing it about on the field to dry in a process called “tedding” the next, raking it into windrows the third,  and then baling it 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, plus adding in the high cost of fuel and labor.   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.

Benjamin Janicki of Sedro Woolley raking hay with his team of Oberlanders

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.

photo by Nate Gibson

September Hay Field

By now the fields have survived
A first, and even second cutting
Mowed and tedded
Raked and baled, scalped clean then
Rained upon in spurts and spells.

The grass blades rise again, reluctant-
Certain of the cuts to come;
No longer brazen, reaching to the sky
With the blinding bright enthusiasm of May and June endless days,
But shorter, gentle growth of late summer golden sunsets.

The third cutting sparse and short as thinning hair
Tender baby soft forage, light in the hands and on the wagon
Precious cargo carried back to the barn;
Fragrant treasure for vesper manger meals
A special Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve gift.

Once again the fields are bare, aching for cover
Which comes as leaves rain and swirl in release,
Winds buffet, offering respite of deepening winter
Snowdrifts, blanketing in silent relief and rest
Until patiently stirred by melting soaking warmth

To rouse again, reaching toward the light.

Hayfield--oil painting by Scott Prior www.scottpriorart.com
Hayfield–oil painting by Scott Prior http://www.scottpriorart.com

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