Here in Vermont the grass wakes up during the first week of May. For grazing animals, like our donkey Abdul, life is transformed. For months Abdul has looked at me with irritation as I labor through the snow to toss hay within his reach. In fact, Abdul usually seems annoyed with me, although I show him nothing but kindness. But in this new season of green grass, I cease to have importance to Abdul. Still I am devoted to him, and I know he will need me again come fall.
Part of my fidelity to Abdul is expressed through my efforts to store hay for him and for the object of his admiration, his companion Amelia, an equally temperamental though graceful Morgan horse. The hay returns me to my innocence.
My love of hay starts with olfactory memory. A human’s modest sense of smell and its association with familiar things has a fundamental importance to survival. It starts with an infant’s knowing the smell of mother’s breast. In my case it takes the form of a powerful memory aroused by the scent of hay. As a young fellow earning $35 a week (plus room and board) on a Vermont dairy farm, my challenge was to keep an upright posture in the bed of a hay wagon as it was pulled by a tractor over a lumpy and steeply inclined field. This might have been hard enough if that were all there was to it, but the object of this sport was to keep up with a river of fresh hay pouring down from the top of a hay loader dragged behind the wagon. The hay was first cut and allowed to dry in the sun, then raked into wind-rows which, together with any stray bees nest or woodchuck hiding in the grass, was picked up by a hay loader and conveyed into the wagon at a speed determined by the speed of the tractor. (For those partial to mechanical matters: the hay loader was powered by the grip of large studded steel wheels turning as the contraption as it was pulled behind the wagon. This power was, in turn, transmitted by a chain to rotating armatures attached to long rods from which hung thin steel teeth that worked to push the hay up a steeply inclined metal surface until discharged into the wagon.)
Armed with a three-pronged hay-fork, my job was to pack the hay into the wagon as tight, dense and high as Newton’s laws would permit. To be acceptable upon return to the barn, the hay must have been persuaded to remain in place, without telltale bits falling along the roads on the way. When the wagon stopped below the open doors of the hay-loft, four long curved steel prongs would be thrust deep into the body of the hay. The triumphant conclusion would be the lifting of the entire content of the hay wagon, sliding the delicate pendant load along a track along the ceiling of the hayloft, and releasing it with a jerk on a trip line. The small hurricane of displaced air that blew from the loft carried the sweetest scent I know.
We are in the final phase (or one could say, our "first cut") before the release of our new nature apps, and are already looking ahead to the launch of our next program, the Fieldstone Guides to Gardening, through which we humans get a chance to sow the earth and watch things grow. Of course we will also discuss hay and the myriad grasses and wildflowers that grace the meadows around us. Stay tuned.
Yours from the field,