Nowadays when you say, “There is money in growing grass”, people immediately assume you are talking about growing marijuana, which seems sad to me, for in my experience marijuana rots character, while working in hay fields built character.
Now, in some neighborhoods, when the lawn grows too long in front of your house you can actually get a ticket, and a member of the town Parks and Recreation Department will show up and mow it and charge you more money. If you don’t have the time to cut it yourself you must hire a landscaper, which I once was, and I didn’t work for free. Growing grass is costly, for most people.
My grandfather was born in 1888, and at that time there were no cars. He was twenty years old before the first Model T rolled off the first assembly line in 1908. Before automobiles became affordable, gasoline was not the important fuel. Hay was. And, because you could not grow hay in big cities, it had to be imported from the country. Back then “teamsters” actually handled a team of horses or oxen, carrying loads of 12,000 pounds in various types of freight wagons. The above wagon was a big “Conestoga” wagon, but smaller versions were the typical “Covered” wagon of Wild West Movies. They were the U-haul Trucks of the time, and while the appearance of railways around 1860 reduced their importance, they were still common when my grandfather was a boy, and they were powered by hay.
Hay was important. Rather than Big Oil there was Big Hay, and rather than OPEC there was a local HPEC, and New Hampshire was a sort of Saudi Arabia. Profit was involved, and it is amazing the stones men will move for a profit. They will move stones to create hay fields, and move stones to create amazing stone bridges to transport the hay south to big cities. The physical labor involved is beyond the imagination of flabby modern men, and this includes the cutting of the hay, which was done by a long knife on a stick called a scythe. We call marathon runners “athletic”, but they only run for around three hours. When you look at the man swinging the scythe in the painting at the start of this post, you should understand he would keep working from the moment the dew was dry to sunset, which is often over twelve hours, in the summer.
I could write a book about this subject, and hopefully will, but for now I’ll just say that, back when I mowed lawns to feed a wife and five children, it used to exasperate me that I was cutting grass and not making use of it. One time I made up a song as I mowed, and a verse of it went:
I roll my eyes to God. What would the Good Lord say
To see me cutting grass, and never making hay?
Hay could feed some sheep that would feed and clothe the poor.
It makes me want to weep. What am I mowing for?
However I’m just a cantankerous anachronism. Where I can recall sweating under the hot sun, loading bales of hay into the back of a pick-up truck out on a farmer’s field, that sort of sweat is out of date. Now they create big rolls of hay that are moved by a sort of forklift attachment to a tractor, which shoves a pole into the center of the round bale, much like I once used a forklift to shove a pole into the center of huge rolls of carpet when I worked at a carpet warehouse. There is no need for muscles, farmhands, or the work ethic.
Fine with me. I’m too old to impress the babes with big biceps, and I thought that sort of strutting was stupid even when I was young enough to impress the babes with my big biceps. I wanted them to appreciate my mind, not my body, so I tended to strut my poetry, and sadly learned women are as bad as men are, when it comes to caring about the body before the mind. Or, I should say, they seemed to care more for my biceps than my poetry.
However a lot of the poetry was about the Yankee work ethic, and how I learned, (against my will, I confess, especially when I was younger), that there is a beauty in toil, in effort, in striving through the final mile of a marathon. There is a harvest. You do “make hay” before you “hit the hay”. (Not that anyone uses those expressions, these days). You do “reap what you sow”.
However I am pragmatic enough to see no sensible person is going to use a scythe when a mower works better. Sometimes it is hard enough to get the lawn mowed even using a mower, especially when your mower is 25 years old, like mine is, and breaks down a lot. I was having a hard enough time keeping the playground and front yard of our Farm-childcare mowed, and the back field accidentally turned into a hay field of lush clover, timothy and crown fetch, knee deep.
I didn’t mow it to make hay. I mowed it because if you don’t mow that field little trees invade with shocking speed, as do wild roses that smell nice in June but stab little children the rest of the year. Also a member of the staff has a phobia about ticks, and dislikes long grass. Also a little boy is a baseball fanatic, and it is hard to play ball in long grass. Lastly, if there is ever a national emegancy, that field may need to revert to a corn field, and it is much easier to plow a lawn than a young forest. So I mowed it, but hay was not a thing I was thinking about.
However I mowed it on a perfect day for haying, just after a front had passed with thunder muttering in the hills, and then the air became dry and Canadian. Nor was it the Canadian trajectory from the ice-choked waters of Hudson Bay. It was from the sun baked prairies. If there was any moisture in the air, it was squeezed out coming over the Adirondack and Green Mountains. Was it dry? Well, you could spit, and it wouldn’t hit the ground.
I couldn’t help but notice that all the Clover, Timothy and Vetch I’d cut was being parched into just about the most superb hay you could ever want. It has all the incidental stuff goats like, as well, (the trailing vines of bramble and occasional shoots of goldenrod). But I had so many other things to do that I couldn’t stop to make hay. Yet I kept walking through that field, over and over, and I couldn’t help see that superb hay, just laying there, green and crisp, like money in the bank, even though grass isn’t worth it any more.
Finally I just couldn’t stand it. I had to make hay. I don’t really understand my reasoning; maybe I’m some form of hay-addict; but I had to figure out some way to make haying practical even when it isn’t. I decided I would teach the little kids at our Farm-childcare “The History Of Haying In New England”.
Usually this sort if idea goes over like a lead balloon. This time the kids had a blast, though I’m not sure they believed me when I told them vehicles once ran on hay and not on gasoline. Mostly they just liked raking up the hay, stuffing it into empty grain bags, lugging the grain bags to the back of the pick up truck, and, (joy of joys), riding in the back of a pick up truck with the hay to the barn.
I didn’t over-do it. Modern children have short attention spans, (and lack the stoic ability to endure I have seen ingrained in Navajo girls only four years old, trudging uncomplaining across scorching desert), so at the first sign they were not finding it fun any more I ended the “lesson”. They surprised me by lasting over 90 minutes.
I think I did well, for later they were whining, “When can we go haying again?” This allowed me the chance to point out that you cannot hay in the rain, and must “make hay while the sun shines”.
It was amazing to me how, as soon as I decided that hay was worth gathering, I was hit by an anxiety it might rain and spoil my hay. My awareness of the weather instantly increased tenfold. I mean, who the heck cares if a hot and muggy wind shifts from southwest to south-southeast? Modern people don’t give a fig, but the old hay farmers broke into a sweat, because they started working twice as fast. As soon as the wind swings from southwest to southeast, Atlantic mist starts creeping north, and showers start to appear.
This was a big deal when your income could be considerably reduced by a mere sprinkle of rain. This made those old farmers super aware.
What does that mean about us, and what progress has done to us? Have we become super unaware?
Due to my efforts, a small bunch of kids are less unaware about the obscure subject of hay. We gathered perhaps $40.00 worth, before showers came north and spoiled the rest (though it will make good mulch for the garden). I mused how we had stopped after only 90 minutes whereas, in the old days, the entire family would have worked until they dropped to get every last blade of grass in. When I thought about it, I was sort of glad I didn’t have to work so hard. It isn’t all bad, being modern.
But that is no reason to become super unaware, or to forget the old ways, or the old expressions. What can replace, “Make hay while the sun shines”? Hmm. “Save your document before the Computer crashes”? Perhaps that works, but to me it doesn’t have the same charm.
The south-southeast winds from south of Cape Cod are about to be replaced by Canadian air, perhaps from ice-choked Hudson Bay. That ought give us some thunder, and then cool breezes and dry air and perfect haying weather.