About six years ago, my wife, Penny, and I, along with our sons, Finlay and Rye, began haying with a neighbor.
Martha runs a small dairy farm with her sister Lynn on the ridgetop across the valley from our holding in Cabot, Vermont. She is 69, tousle-haired, and inhabits a body that seems to have been purpose-built for labor. When I see her arms emerging from the rolled-up sleeves of the flannel shirts she wears even in July, they’re all protruding vein and muscle, and I’m reminded of those hollow-boned migrating birds that can fly hundreds of miles without food or sleep. Martha even eats like a bird, subsisting on a sporadic ingestion of calories, along with less-sporadic doses of caffeine and nicotine. When we hay, she often forgets about food, and I’ve learned to put a sandwich into her hands, to say, “Here, Martha, eat this,” even if all she’s asked for is coffee or a Coke. Paradoxically, she was once an Olympian, and it occurs to me that the same genetics responsible for her athletic prowess also enable her to thrive on this substandard diet.
Our haying arrangement with our neighbor evolved out of mutual needs, in the manner of many rural working arrangements made across generations that came long before mine. In short, what Martha needed was muscle, enough to meet the demands of pulling a few thousand 50-pound bales from the long metal chute of her baler, before tossing them toward the rear of the wagon to whomever is stacking them, neatly in a crosshatched pattern for utmost stability. The stability is important, as her hayfield features numerous undulations, like ocean swells caught at the height of their unfurling. I ride the wagon with my feet spread wide and planted, feeling it pitch and heave beneath me, like some landlocked hillbilly version of surfing. The fact that the brakes on Martha’s old John Deere are barely operational dials up the excitement a notch or two, but still I stick the toes of my boots over the edge to hang ten. Then the wagon bucks, and it feels suddenly as if I might be tossed under the wheels, and I retreat.
What we needed was simpler: hay for our menagerie of ruminant animals, which generally include a half-dozen cows, an equivalent count of sheep, and, if the boys get their way, a couple of goats to launch Cabot’s first goat-sausage enterprise. So a deal was struck, although, truthfully, there never was a deal, per se. Rather, things sort of took on a life of their own, following a path of crude logic: We’d help Martha and Lynn fill their barn, and once that was full and their livestock were guaranteed another winter of sustenance, we’d fill ours. We’d kick in something for fuel and maintenance, but the bulk of our debt would be paid in sweat and the slightly nauseated feeling one gets at the end of a long day of tossing square bales.
That feeling has something–though not everything–to do with the fact that not many farmers put up large quantities of square bales these days. Speaking strictly in terms of haying technology, square bales are nearly two generations past their prime. The onset of the square bale’s decline can even be traced to a specific year: 1965, which is when the delightfully named Virgil Haverdink was casting about for a master’s thesis project at Iowa State University. After a winter of tinkering in the school’s machine shop, Haverdink had fabricated a loutish-looking contraption that would become the world’s first commercially successful round baler.
Haverdink cleverly designed the implement so that the finished bales–each of which contained roughly the equivalent of 15 square bales–would shed water. And, because air couldn’t penetrate the compacted mass of hay, any moisture encapsulated within would introduce fermentation, rather than mold. The former is entirely palatable to ruminants; the latter can be deadly.
This meant that farmers could bale before the forage was entirely dry, which in turn meant that they needn’t wait for a three-day window of sun to make hay. Indeed, many farmers now put up what’s known as “hay in a day.”
The modern round bale, then, confers numerous advantages. It turns the phrase “make hay while the sun shines” into a platitude rather than a truism, and by doing so, it extends a calloused middle finger to the vagaries of weather. And because the bales are too big to be handled by hand (depending on moisture content, a round bale can weigh upwards of 1,200 pounds), they must be handled by machine. Because they must be handled by machine, no more physical effort is required than what’s necessary to operate the tractor’s controls. The upshot? With round bales, an entire winter’s worth of hay for an entire farm can be put into round bales by one person, who needn’t touch even a single stem of grass in the process.
All of which is to say, putting hay into rounds is quicker, easier, and exponentially more forgiving than putting it into squares. Heck, if you wrap them in plastic, as is common practice in the Northeast, they don’t even require shelter. It’s not hard to understand why the technology gained widespread adoption in very short order and why you can’t drive through Vermont’s farmland in the early years of the 21st century without passing row upon row of big, white, plastic-wrapped marshmallows of hay.
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.