Summer Haying | Lessons from the Hayfield
So, sure, the round bale makes a certain kind of logical sense; this I must concede. And in full fairness to Haverdink and the technology as a whole, I should note that we feed a few to our cows every winter. It’s enormously convenient to simply fire up the tractor, plop the bale in the paddock, and leave the cows to their ruminating. But doing so always leaves me feeling a little hollow and confused, as though I’ve just gotten something for nothing, and I’m not quite sure whether I should be grateful for all the work I didn’t have to do, or cheated because I didn’t have to do it.
In recent years, I’ve come to understand that certain moments shape my life by a measure not consistent with their brevity and immediate imprint. These are not the big events, the births and deaths, the unions and separations, which for all their significance are the commonplace joys and tragedies of humanity. Rather, they’re the almost imperceptible splashes in the pool of my existence, as when I glance up at Martha perched on that big green tractor like a sprite riding the back of some great beast, 100 pounds soaking wet atop 12,000 pounds of machine, towing another 10,000 pounds or more of hay and baler and wagon, and I marvel at what it means to be human, to be of the species that for better or worse has invented all this stuff, this amazing, crazy, magical stuff. I mean, my God, to be towed through a field at the ass end of a 20,000-something-pound chain of steel and rubber and grass? And to have the master of that chain be a cigarette-smoking Olympian with the bones of a bird and the work ethic of an entire friggin’ anthill? It’s almost as though I can feel the small stone dropping through my surface. It’s almost as if I’m not just the pool, but also the shore, and I can see those waves rushing toward me.
The field we hay with Martha is at a high elevation, with 270-degree views of everything that makes Vermont the place where non-Vermonters wish they lived, if only it weren’t for blackflies, mud season, and, depending on their political leanings, Bernie Sanders. During the rare moments when bales aren’t popping out the chute, I like to look out across those views, and I remind myself to stop taking so damn much of my life for granted. This works for a day, maybe two, before I retreat back into my old jaded self. But every year, a little more of it sticks, and I remain hopeful that by the time I’m Martha’s age, and maybe even sooner, gratitude will have become habitual, an ever-present backdrop from which to greet the world.
I like to sing as I chuck bales, and there’s something about the brute physicality of the task that pushes me toward the juvenile, if not downright infantile, favorites of my youth. Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher,” for instance: Oh, wow, man … What do you think the teacher’s gonna look like this year? … Hey, I heard you missed us … We’re baaaack! … I don’t feel tardy … And then the chorus: Got it bad, got it bad, got it bad, I’m hot for teacher!
We hay as a family, and my boys have been part of the process for better than half their lives. “Pay attention, guys, because you’re going to be in charge of this operation before long,” Martha tells them, and she means it, although, frankly, the boys seem a little skeptical. And who can blame them? The intricacy of the baler, with its gears, knotters, and web of twine, all of which require frequent intervention, and the sheer mass of the Deere, its rear tires towering high above the boys’ heads, its exhaust snorting the rich black smoke of uncombusted diesel: My children have not yet arrived at the conquering age, when the default assumption is that such things can be bent to their will. But they’re only human; they’ll get there, and Martha knows it. She knows, too, of her own mortality, that even a creature that can fly hundreds of miles without food will eventually grow weary. She jokes that someday we’ll have to strap her rocking chair onto the wagon. We’ll stick a lit Camel in one hand and a megaphone in the other, and she can bellow orders as we make long, looping passes through the field. The real joke, of course, is that she’s not joking.
On haying days, Penny mixes thick milkshakes, and we drink them on the ride home, the four of us crammed into the cab of our old Chevy. We idle down the gravel road from the hayfield; the loaded wagon pushes us, and I ride the brakes. Oncoming traffic gives us a wide berth, and wisely so. Everyone waves in that two-fingers-off-the-steering-wheel way rural Vermonters wave, as if afraid to commit to even this brief, passing relationship. I can smell the warm hay, the hot brakes, and the chopped-up sprigs of mint that Penny puts into the sweet slurry of cream, egg, and maple syrup. I can smell the sweat that has risen, flowed, and is now drying on my skin. It’s not sour, or at least not yet. My teeth hurt from the cold, and I know that my day is nowhere near over. There’s this wagon to unload, and yet another to fill. There will be more tomorrow.
But for the seven or eight minutes it takes to get home, I’m afforded the simple luxury of the satisfaction only hard labor can provide, and I think ahead to the coming winter, when I’ll pull each of these bales out of our barn, one by one, extracts of summer in an iced-over world. And I’ll remember how it happens every year that I improbably recognize a bale or two–maybe a runt from an early pass, when we were still fiddling with the baler settings, or maybe one from the field’s edge, with an identifying stick woven in, shed from the old maples that line the northern fringe, overseers of more hay and toil than I can imagine. And I’ll stand in our snow-packed barnyard for a minute, holding the bale, wrenched back to the moment when I hauled it off the chute and passed it back to Penny or one of the boys as Martha guided the tractor down the long windrow, the smell of grease and diesel and drying hay riding softly on the summer air. It’s not a moment frozen in time, but rather just the opposite: a moment so fluid it can travel across weeks and even months to be with me at six o’clock on a January morning, to a point roughly equidistant from the haying season before and the haying season to come.
Then I walk up the short hill to the paddock, release the compressed hay from the confines of its twine, throw it over the fence, and leave the cows to their breakfast.