July 31, 2005

Making Hay: A Summer Rhapsody

Before Tom and I were married and I moved here from Manhattan, I bought some books to help me understand my new life. One of them was Making Hay by Verlyn Klinkenborg, who splits his time at The New York Times and his small farm in upstate New York, and whose writing is equally split between the down-to-earth and the lyrical of rural life. Every summer, I'm reminded of passages from the book, which 11 years ago helped me understand what I was seeing and smelling (and why I was eternally running to town for parts).

Some of these passages have come to mind over the past few days, as I watch the the tractor make its rounds in the hay field -- as I watch the kids, who are trying, with much effort and even more difficulty and bicycles instead of tractors, to make their own big round bales in the front yard from the swathes of grass their father cut with the tractor the other evening -- as I watch Tom take off, to check the progress of the haylage crew, in his old 1978 Ford pick-up with the kids in the back, "gimmee" ball caps from John Deere and United Farmers of Alberta shading little brown faces, and little brown arms hanging over the side.
If farmers were at all disposed to rhapsody, they might get eloquent about the work itself, and particularly about the process of adaptation. There is a machine for every job on the farm, and yet much of the work, it seems, falls between machines. Figuring out what to do with a sickle blade that will not fit is the appointed labor of farming just as surely as it planting oats or combining soybeans. The Unexpected stalks a farm in big boots like a vagrant bent on havoc.

Not every farmer is an inventor, but the good ones have the seeds of invention within them. Economy and efficiency move their relentless tinkering, and yet the real motive often seems to be aesthetic. The mind that first designed a cutter bar is not far different from the mind that can take the intractable steel of an outsized sickle blade and make it hum in the end. The question is how to reduce the simplicity that constitutes a problem ("It's simple; it's broke.") to the greater simplicity that constitutes a solution. ...

The rain had let up, but if anything the wind had stiffened. The alfalfa seemed not to wave or billow in the breeze so much as to abase itself voluntarily against the earth. Plants on the rises flattened themselves like men under fire and then sprang erect again. Noise from the exhaust stack behind us blew away and left us in silence or flew into our backs and warmed us. Louie lowered the header, engaged the drives, and we moved forward, the wicked sickle sound muffled, its teeth full of alfalfa at last.

Hanging over the machine like the figurehead of the good ship "Urban Boy," I peered into the header below me. Stiff ranks of alfalfa shuddered slightly under the impact of the sickle blade and fell straight back onto the conveyor belts. They bounced toward the center gap like almonds on a sorting line and disappeared. I turned around and looked back over Louie's head. A narrow swath of crushed alfalfa emerged from the tail of the machine and pointed straight north to four persons standing in a clump at the edge of the feedlot. They all waved briskly. ...

Game in southwestern Minnesota, warned by the windrower's roar, is well accustomed to this species of interference and usually makes good its escape, though that night over coffee at Country Kitchen Elmore Jack told us about once having rescued a fawn lying in the path of his swather. Louie and I scared up no rabbits or pheasants or deer. Insects were not so lucky. As the windrower took to the field, the swallows that filled the barn eaves and the granary dormers took to the air ahead of us. For them the swather served as a huge mechanized beater on a driven insect shoot. They arched and plummeted in the breeze, taking moths and other winged insects right off the rotating reel. When the wind blew in our faces, the path behind us closed with swooping, diving birds, like the wake of a garbage scow being towed out to sea.

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