The crows live for this day.
The hayfield is an ocean of green foliage. A south wind causes waves to ripple across 80 acres of white clover, Bermuda grass, and fescue a little after noon in early June. An abundance of spring rains has been good for the grass and in this ocean it’s high tide.
The tractor rolls through the gate and lowers the freshly greased mowing machine to the ground. The grass is knee deep, dark green, and thicker than I’ve seen in years. The crows are the first to notice my presence. As I make some minor adjustments to the mower I notice a few of them starting to gather on the edge of the field. They’re watching me. They’re watching the tractor. They know what’s about to happen.
The day is warm and getting warmer. A conversation earlier in the day with a meteorologist told me what I needed to know. The forecast had changed overnight. A week of afternoon showers now promised dry, warm, and windy days. Five in a row. Exactly what I need to get the hay in. An unexpected rain in the middle of a cutting throws everything off. It extends drying time, increases the chances of mildew, and causes a loss of nutritional value to the hay. But, the weather guy gave me a green light, so at the last minute I changed my plans for the week and headed into the fields. Timing is everything.
I climbed up into the tractor, pushed the engine RPM’s up and engaged the PTO switch and listened to the rotary mower come to life. I drive a few feet; get out to check how well the mower is cutting. Everything satisfactory, I get back in and start my first pass around the field. The crows edge closer.
Hay season leans toward the ironic. Cutting hay during the hottest and driest time of the year so your animals will have something to eat during the coldest and wettest. So maybe it isn’t really ironic, but it leans toward a practical balance that you begin to notice over time. Spring and summer provide enough to get us through fall and winter. Balance is one word. Harmony is another. It’s the way of things.
In some form or another I’ve been working in the hay fields for over thirty years. As soon as I was old enough to pick up a bale of hay, I was on the back of a truck or walking along side them. It’s not easy work. I’ve seen high school football players who thought they were in perfect physical condition puke their guts out stacking hay in a hundred plus degree barn in late July. I’ve driven tractors since I was heavy enough to stomp the clutch down. It’s an existence most of my generation never experienced.
The days of square bales and hiring high school football players is over for us. Like most, we moved from small square bales to big round ones. Technology has improved. Old hay machines have been improved to cut, rake, and bale faster and more efficiently. And a handful of guys sweating on the back of a truck have been replaced with tractors and front-end loaders run by a single person in an air conditioned cab.
It’s the single person that makes this year unique. A recent surgery and a mother who can rival a prison warden in such times has left dad mostly confined to the house on the hill and watching from the window while he’s on the mend. So it’s all me this week. I feel him watching.
The hours go by in steady clockwise rectangles around the field. The first day always seems the slowest as the hay falls beneath the mower and the crows have descended for their feast. The turkey buzzards have also noticed and have begun circling.
There are always casualties from the hayfield. It’s unavoidable. The mower makes no distinction between clover or a young rabbit that didn’t get out of the way. This is what the crows have been waiting for. Death. They constantly follow the tractor looking for the next fatality. A rodent. A snake. Whatever has laid down its life to the blades, for them it’s food.
I find no fault with them in the same way I feel no remorse about being the chief executioner for this meal. This is the way of nature. Some things die and others live as a result. It isn’t clean. It isn’t pretty. But, nothing is wasted. The energy that allowed the rabbit to run now allows the crow to fly. The space left vacant by the rabbit allows for a new generation to take its place.
That being said, this isn’t a meal without a price. Redwing blackbirds give them unrelenting hell as they attempt to fly around the field. Territorial to an extreme and twice as agile, the small black birds attack the less maneuverable crows in the air with a barrage of mid-air floggings and pecks. While only half their size, the redwings make life misery for any bird audacious enough to enter their airspace. And so the crows make deliberate choices on what is and isn’t worth pursuing. On the ground the redwings stay a few feet away from the crows giving no fight. But the moment they take flight the onslaught begins.
The sun begins to set low on the horizon and the world fades to red and then grey. I idle the tractor down as the first of the stars begin to appear on the horizon and the first day is done.
Tonight, the coyotes will pick up where the crows left off.
It’s late morning and the dew has dried when I climb back onto the tractor. It’s supposed to be hotter today and my back is a little stiff from bouncing around in the tractor yesterday. The grass cut yesterday is already noticeably browner. I continue to circle the field. Tedium sets in a little early today. I turn on the radio in the tractor. The only station it picks up is a classic country station and so the day progresses, the grass falls, and the birds continue their dance, as I get lost in my thoughts to a country beat.
There is a hypnotic element that comes from fieldwork. You continually drift from the present to somewhere else. One pass around the field looks and feels pretty much the same as the last. It allows one to think and the mind to wander to everything from the weather, to a distant memory or puzzle your way around something that’s been on your mind. Mostly you’re uninterrupted. You see the day progress. You watch the shadows move. You see the clouds build and drift. Over time you learn to make predictions. You learn that there are certain patterns with the weather. Where the clouds are building, how the wind is blowing, whether or not rain is coming. I’ve been doing this long enough that I can pretty well tell by the point on the horizon that a thundercloud builds on whether or not it will pass overhead or I’ll watch the gray curtain of rain move to the north or south. It’s a skill that can only be developed by watching the clouds move for days on end.
It’s the ability to sit for hours and simply let the mind wander that may be the chief source of wisdom and genius of old farmers and ranchers. Their minds are allowed ponder as long or as little as something requires attention. Instead of constant interruptions of the life of a guy sitting at a computer or working in an office under an avalanche of small crises, a thought has time to be examined. To mature. To become complete.
Today a cloud starts to build late in the afternoon, but by the time it starts to reach rain sized, the setting sun takes the energy fueling it and it starts to come apart. As evening approaches a doe comes to the edge of the field to graze. She is unconcerned with the tractor.
Another day is done.
The last day of cutting. I’m amazed that with decades of country music behind us, this station still seems to play the same rotation of songs and artists day after day. I guess you get what you pay for.
The pace feels faster. The large laps around the field are getting exponentially smaller but, the path taken around small obstacles on the first day have been amplified the closer to center I move. In the same way ripples on a pond expand, big things become smaller and small things become larger.
The grass I cut on the first day is ready. Tomorrow I start raking and baling. Making sure the equipment is ready is essential to a quick transition from one to the other. Time is almost always tight and trying to fix something you’ve neglected to address since last year doesn’t help your cause.
The crows have eaten their fill and are starting to lose interest. I finish cutting by mid-afternoon and head up to the shop to clean, grease, and store the mower and then hook up the bailer and take it back down to the field and get some help to take the other tractor with the rake down as well.
Later, I sit in the yard drinking a Corona watching the sun set over a field of dying grass.
I eat an early lunch and head back out to the field. I don’t mind admitting that I’m tired before the day has begun. Today there will be no time to rest. I climb on my tractor, set the rake down, and take off pulling the hay together into windrows.
There’s something about raking a field that diminishes its size. What seemed a vast expanse the day before is somehow now manageable. Mostly it’s because a rake typically has a span of two to three times the width of a mower and you drive a little faster.
They hay is perfect for baling. It’s dry, but not too dry. There’s still a touch of chlorophyll left in the Bermuda that gives it a slight greenish blue hue. It’s a short window and I want to get it baled as soon as I can.
This tractor puts me back outside. There is no cab or air condition or radio and apart from a canopy overhead, I’m exposed to the elements. Which isn’t something I necessarily mind. Generally the movement of the tractor creates enough of a breeze to keep you comfortable as long as it isn’t too hot. However, on really hot days when you’re driving in the same direction of the breeze you very often find yourself within a suffocating cloud of dust with no hint of relief until you change directions.
The ride has gotten bumpy. Tractors don’t have shock absorbers. Just big tires and a spring in the seat that goes back to the chuck wagon era. When cutting the hay the ground was relatively soft, but now free from the shade of the grass, the dirt has also had a chance to dry out and bumps have become less forgiving.
But this year, like every year before, I suffer through the heat and the bumps. Suffer isn’t the right word, but I’m not sure I know what that word would be. It’s not terrible, but not necessarily comfortable either and you simply become accustomed to the discomfort. You acknowledge it and you put it behind you. There’s no sense in complaining, and after a while you notice it less and less.
But, the sun on my face and the smell of fresh hay is enough to compensate any physical inconvenience.
I rake for a couple of hours before swapping to the baler. A machine comprised of countless belts, gears, chains and magic that I don’t pretend to understand how it really functions. I just know that when it works life is good and when it doesn’t work life can become a frustrating existence quickly. This baler, only a couple of years old, works like a dream picking up the windrows rolling them tightly and depositing four foot by five foot cylinders of hay in its wake. From chaos comes tightly wrapped order.
And so it goes, raking for a couple of hours and baling for a couple of hours so as not to risk getting rain on the windrows. An Arkansas summer day just about always has some risk of rain. But in the end, the last bale is done and rolls lazily out of the baler and comes to a rest along 178 of its brothers. It’s late on Wednesday afternoon and the hard part is over. The rain can come now. The rolled construction of the bales causes water to run off them like a thatched roof.
Later on, dad breaks free and we spend a couple of days hauling all of it to the barn where it will wait until winter-feeding.
Two days later the sky opens up and rain begins to fall soaking into the earth. The grass stubble has already begun to regrow. In a week it will be emerald green and ankle deep. By August it will be ready to cut again.
A single crow caws from a distant pine.
To the Virgins, to make much of Time
GATHER ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying:
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun, 5
The higher he ‘s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he ‘s to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer; 10
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime, 15
You may for ever tarry.
– Robert Herrick