“You’ll have a nice cut o’ hay here,” said George. The wizened little old man, long since retired from the land, stood beside me in the gateway of Garden Field. He has come to remove the debris that had fallen from the trees to prevent damage to the mower. Like most retired land-workers he is unable to keep the soil of the fields from his boots, and one can find him in every village throughout the British Isles hedging, ditching, clearing odd corners of scrub with scythe and sickle and caring for the vicar’s garden. To these men, there is an attraction so binding to the land, that to continue working thereon has become essential to their very existence. It seems they draw the very essence of life direct from the soil, just as the unborn infant draws its life direct from its mother, and if this contact, this life-line is broken, so also is his life. One has merely to talk with these old men for an hour to sense their affinity with and philosophy of the land, and I am convinced that it would quite literally kill many of them if they were to be taken from it. An acquaintance once questioned the economics of employing these old ‘jobbers’ and suggested that it was merely a charitable act that enables the old men to feel useful, and I thought of old George ambling around the perimeter of Garden Field picking up dead branches and stones. In the first instance the old man had given me half an hour of time to attend to other more pressing matters. Secondly, his action of clearing the land of obstructions was quite possibly instrumental in preventing a broken mower knife or con-rod, and when taking into account the precarious weather conditions under which hay is made in this country, any delay could mean the difference between a field of good hay and a field of bad or maybe even a complete loss, and with good hay sometimes fetching £15 per ton and more, this could result in a considerable saving. So what price an old man’s labour?
There is a great satisfaction in using a clean cutting tool, be it a pen-knife or a scythe. Now unfortunately, the less harmonious clatter of a power driven mower has long since dimmed the sweet song of a scythe and men in the hay meadows no longer sway to its rhythm. Nevertheless, there manifests within me a great sense of well-being each time I see the graceful stems fall into neat swathes as the mower encircles the ever diminishing island of standing green. The pollen lifts and the wagtail follows close behind feeding upon the moths and gnats that are started into flight upon a day sweet with a green aroma. Soon comes the last sweep of the mower in the centre of the field. It is an act full of purpose and symbolism that makes me hesitate before felling those last few stems. It is I think, that the finality of the last cut brings about a sense of completeness, a completeness that is magnified by the silence when the mower has ceased to clatter and the tractor engine is switched off, when the only sound to be heard is the song of a lark out of sight, high above the dust laden air.
The following day, when the June sun has lifted the dew from the fields, the grass can be shaken up to let in the drying breezes, and it is towards the end of a good drying day that the green harvest begins to ‘rustle’ and emanates that exhilarating aroma of ‘making’ hay. There are many jobs to be done on the farm some of which are dull and monotonous, and I must confess to a tendency of leaving such tasks to the very last minute. But hay-making is not one of these jobs. Even at the end of a hot, dry day of turning, tedding and windrowing, I reap a great deal of pleasure from strolling alone between the dry, fluffy rows, inhaling the richness, listening to the linnets, tits and chaffinches close at hand, and the distant echo of the cuckoo in the woods. Also in the woods the Blackcap, much mistaken for the nightingale, sings sweetly at this hour and is a welcomed guest upon my solitude. There are many such enchanting moments tucked away at odd intervals throughout the year, sandwiched between the bustle, toil and noise that nowadays fills most of our lives, and too often they pass unnoticed and without appreciation. The baler is the transgressor that ends these few hours of peace at hay-making. It is a great red monster that crashes into the calm, scaring the blackbirds and thrushes and littering the fields with bales of green, just as the child litters the nursery floor with his building blocks.
If there is one task on the farm nowadays that demands sweat and aching limbs, it is the pitching, carting and stacking of bales of hay. No time can be wasted in bringing them home for should the weather change, the feeding value could be washed right out and hay made fit for only bedding. Under a blazing July sun the throat becomes parched and the palms of the hands become calloused and shiny from gripping the pitch-fork. Hasty swigs from a brown bottle concealed in the cool shade of a hedge ooze forth seconds later as sweat. Hay particles stick to the body and gnats and flies buzz and bite. At times (if, for example, in a race against approaching storm clouds), the pace becomes so hectic that the sweat runs and blinds the eyes. Seeds and pieces of hay fall into the shirt and make their way down to the trouser belt where they stick and prick and scratch each time the body is bent to life another bale.
This work, weather permitting, continues day after day, and to those involved it seems like eternity, but sooner or later the very last bale is heaved upon the trailer, and the last, slow journey home is made with swaying load and creaking ropes.
Last year, Garden Field was put aside for the cows and old George was helping me move the electric fence. It was almost dinner time when we finished and we sat upon the headland whiling away the minutes in idle conversation. He had removed his jacket and was picking out the fluff from the corners of a pocket.
“It used to be my brother’s,” he said of the jacket, “he lived in Shropshire but passed on a few weeks back, and as I’m the only one of the family left, I had all his bits and pieces sent here.” He studied the jacket ruefully. “Didn’t find no pound notes in it though, just a bit o’ fluff and a few hay seeds,” he said flinging them into the wind. Now, as I stand staring at the bales stacked under the dutch barn, I find myself wondering how many stems of Shropshire grass there are within, and if left to ripen, how many seeds they would have produced. I often stand and stare, much to the annoyance of those around me, and think my little thoughts, for little thoughts quite often lead to bigger ones. This is, in fact, just how this essay came to be written.
read the collected work as it is published: here
blackbird wormhole: Plumstead – Woolwich – Plumstead 220211
branches & green wormhole: Sheffield Park Gardens
breeze wormhole: 1964
clouds wormhole: and ‘naerrgh’ a mention of a seagull’s call
echo wormhole: with all love released
silence wormhole: The Boats of Vallisneria by Michael J Redford – Working
smell wormhole: travelling // arrival
sun wormhole: tremule
talking wormhole: green and / luminant / to behold
trees wormhole: Lapping Reflections [Deep Within Waters] – reaping
work wormhole: next unexpected step