Tuesday, March 15, 2011

From Mounds of Snow to Mounds of Hay

John James Wilson. Haymaking, 19th cent.

At this time of year, you can usually find me in one of two places.  I'm either in the basement staring at the sump pump or I'm in the barn counting bales of hay.

I'm in the basement fiddling obsessively with the sump pump because it's getting very close to mud season.  When you think of mud season in New Hampshire and Vermont, you might imagine cars and trucks stuck up to their axles on unpaved, backcountry roads.  Well, there is a lot of that.  But it's also the time of year when huge mounds of snow, that have been piling up around the house all winter, suddenly melt so that there are massive quantities of water everywhere, all seeking a path of least resistance.  And that path usually leads directly into your basement.

When I'm not in the basement, I'm in the big barn counting bales of hay because I'm worried that I didn't plan correctly and put up enough hay during the summer. Which would mean, of course, that either the animals will starve before the grass appears again, sometime around Memorial day, or I will have to buy more hay from one of the local haymongers who jack up the price at the end of the winter season and make a pretty good living off of poor planners like me. 

When we first moved to the farm, the whole haying thing seemed about as mysterious as the subtle differences between a flock and a herd.  Mercifully, I did know the difference between hay and straw which, if confused, can get you laughed right out of the village General Store.  But, all the subtleties involving the different cuts of hay, their wide-ranging nutritional values, and how much of the stuff you needed to store over the winter were little mysteries that we only solved over time, mostly by trial and error.  

This year, I'm hoping that we planned things just about right.  But, to make sure, I'm here in the barn counting bales of hay over and over again, and comparing those numbers to the winter days still left on the calendar.  

The inside of the barn is not the worst place to be right now, however.  Our barn is one of those giant, post and beam structures that was erected in the early 1800's by builders who knew what they were doing and didn't need many tools to do it. And right about now, toward the end of winter, the combination of all that aged and mellowed wood coupled with the still-fresh scent of the hay that's left in the loft, never fails to trigger memories of warm summer days.  And I could use a few memories of warm summer days right about now.

If there's a single piece of country wisdom that's based in fact, it is that... "you need to make hay while the sun shines."  Here at Juniper Hill, we don't have enough pasture for both haying and grazing and so we usually end up buying hay from local farmers.  And, because I'm cheap, we usually buy it "off the field," right after it's cut.  That means, on a hot summer day, we'll get a call that the hay is ready, and so we drive the pickup truck onto the field wherever the farmer is cutting, load it up, and make the return trip to the farm where we then have to sweat and strain unloading it into the loft.  We sweat because, as the saying goes, the sun is usually shining.  And, in the hayloft on an August day, it can feel hotter than a pizza oven.

Yet, as much as every farmer complains about the heat, the inevitable itchy hands and arms, the backaches, and the sweat that pours from you, haying time is a revered and celebrated event and most of us look forward to it.  Indeed, a farmer's summer season practically revolves around it.

Alexei Venetsianov. Peasant woman with scythe and rake, c 1825 
Right after we bought this place I was consumed by the history behind it and I wanted to get a little insight into what life might have been like in the late 1700's when this farm was established.  And so, I tried to do as much as I could by hand.  I used traditional old tools to restore the house, I pushed back the edges of the fields by cutting down trees with axes and hand-saws instead of chainsaws, and I even split my own rails for the fencing and hauled them out of the woods with oxen.  But, as for cutting hay the old fashioned way, with a scythe, what I got instead of insight, was mostly exhaustion.  Even with the large families they had back in the 18th century, and the teams of willing neighbors to help out, I don't see how they did it.  Plus, most of them were under the influence of hard cider while they were doing it!  In 1851, Henry David Thoreau likened the whole chore to a battle:  "Early and late the farmer has gone forth with his formidable scythe--weapon of time--and fought the ground inch by inch."

Well, I knew I had enough battles to fight in other arenas and so I sided with Thoreau and eventually shelved some of those otherwise eloquent pleas from writers like Wendell Berry who urged all of us to junk the weed-whackers and adopt the scythe.  And, I'm finding out now that,  just as age keeps creeping up on me, so are more and more power tools finding their way into my shop and garage. Which reminds me...I need to check that sump pump again.

For those of you with a strong will, and an even stronger back, who want to try your hand at scything, first read David Tresemer's, The Scythe Book, which will save you a few heartaches.  You can also read Wendell Berry's essay, 'A Good Scythe,' in The Gift of Good Land (North Point Press).

And, if you're into the whole haying thing, you've got to read Verlyn Klinkenborg's Making Hay, and make sure you check out Alan Ritch's fabulous website, Hay in Art, which contains close to 7000 images of hay, haying, and haymakers through the ages.


  1. Okay, rub it in. If you thought that sweating bullets in August was bad as you loaded the barn -- let me describe the frozen shame of someone who didn't do the math correctly. Try dragging bales on tarps over snow berms of the plowmen's making. I got my reality check the hard way.

  2. Exactly why I'm counting and planning, and counting again, Tovah!


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