The Promise of Provision

TRUE story: A Manhattan executive attending an outdoor wedding reception at a New Hampshire farm looks past tables of linen, crystal, and arranged flowers to a field of freshly baled hay. ``This is gorgeous,'' she says. ``Who does your bales?''

She may be forgiven. Bales of hay in warm light look as if they must have been placed in the field by an artist.

Photographer Neal J. Menschel passes this field along Farmers Row in Groton, Mass., every day on his way to work. He saw the classic proportions of the composition (bales, trees, sky) immediately. All that was missing was the right light.

``I drove past that field maybe 20 times, until the light was right,'' he said.

The low angle of this early-morning light gives definition to the bales; shadows make them stand out from the rest of the field. Clouds moving in from the east add balance to what is happening on the ground. ``I didn't want puffy clouds,'' Mr. Menschel said. ``They would have distracted from the bales.''

This morning added one last gift: warm light - which is usually granted only after a long, hot day of intense sun, filtered by dust and pollen. Late-afternoon light in this field would have come straight at the camera.

There is also a romance to bales of hay. Binding up sweet grasses for winter is virtually a universal activity. As a boy in Coudersport, Pa., Menschel helped haul hay into ricks. New Englanders until the late 1960s favored square bails, bound with twine.

A snap thunderstorm could ruin a season of work, so the choice of the right two or three dry days to cut, bind, and store the hay could be the most important decision a farmer made in the year.

But anxious days are past in this photo. It evokes nothing but sweet smells, the promise of provision for winter, sturdy labor, and faith in the future.

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