It is true that you have to make hay when the sun shines, but beneath that welcoming veneer of azure skies and warm temperatures are unintended consequences, and many of us who cut hay would rather not talk about them. I will ease myself into that darkness by starting on the bright side.
Imagine the perfect forecast, three days of sunshine and warmth, low humidity and perhaps a nice dry breeze out of the northwest. Then imagine that all of the equipment is greased and tuned and unlikely to fail, and you have the auspicious beginning to a round of happy haymaking. The tractor is humming along on a textbook summer day, cutting row after row of knee-high clover in full view of the White Mountains. It is actually a field of winter-time yogurt and other dairy products, each cow needing 200 bales of hay to pass the winter.
After the field is mowed on day one, I’ll return the second day to flip it over and fluff it up with the tedder, an egg-beater-like implement that speeds the drying process. On day three the happy farmer is all smiles raking the now dry hay into windrows in preparation to bale. And when that amazingly complicated baler, built the year I was born, starts spitting out perfectly tied bales until 300 of them are evenly spaced where the clover used to be, farming might not get any better than that.
But it does. The field is now quiet, no tractor and clanking baler to break the silence. Friends, kind friends (is there any other kind?) show up to help load bales onto pick-up trucks. There is camaraderie built on easy conversation and a shared task, and that feeling of accomplishment facilitated by no broken equipment or unscheduled thunderstorms.
We head for the barn and stack that hay like bars of gold, knowing full well its value as currency in our own little economy. When the sweating is done, we might share a meal beneath the apple trees, pleased that the barn is one step closer toward another successful journey through winter.
That narrative, of course, is far from complete. Any hayfield should also be thought of as a little ecosystem with lots of life and death going on amidst the grass. When a farmer shows up with fast-working mechanical equipment, the death toll spikes. Sometimes you see what you’ve killed, mostly you don’t. It is impossible to drive across a field with sharp knives whirling like propellers, and avoid all of the life hidden in the grass. It’s not as though every hayfield is another Gettysburg, but I have killed mice, voles, frogs, snakes, bird eggs and even newly hatched turkeys. The unluckiest of farmers have collided with young fawns lying low in the tall grass.
Last year, for the first time, I noticed a fawn in the hayfield the day before I was going to cut. That night I was anxious about it so I called two friends to walk the hayfield that following morning. They found the fawn and marked its location so I could steer clear. But you are never certain that the grass ahead is simply grass.
All food systems have their ugly secrets, but there are winners here, too. The ravens, crows, and coyotes show up to take the dead and wounded from under the hay. Nature’s undertakers. The ravens and crows fly over-head within minutes of my beginning, and soon they are landing and taking off with an easy meal. Once a coyote came trotting behind the tractor, just ten feet away, leaping and pouncing on the newly exposed mice and voles running for their lives. When I stopped the tractor and stood up, the coyote bolted for the woods. When I started mowing again, he came right back and followed within ten feet, grateful for the new buffet of local meats. We could learn a lot from these masters of eating locally. No shopping. No cooking. No dishes.
But let me return to the bright side, to something all New Englanders love as much as apple cider, maple syrup, and brown eggs: a great view. Were it not for a little bit of agriculture here and there, New England would be a blanket of trees right up to the edge of every road. Hayfields give us a place where the breeze can get rolling, a place to clear our minds, to let in the light and show us the surrounding geology of gorgeousness. Hayfields are, indeed, places of darkness and light, sadness and inspiration, easy explanations and complex mysteries. As a New England farmer I will always love setting sail through the forest for those verdant little islands of poetry and purpose.