Leaving Spaces In Harvest and Hearts

'You can always tell the fields Charles cuts," our friend Bernard remarks, shaking his head and grinning. Standing beside him in the fresh-fallen grass at the field's edge, I nod in silence: The 15-acre expanse that Charlie has just finished mowing speaks for itself. Here and there an island of butterfly weed still stands in the sun, homage to the monarchs, sulphurs, and swallowtails attracted to its bright-orange blooms. A nesting meadowlark has been noticed and spared, accounting for another small island of unmown habitat. A smattering of sticks jut from the ground, marking fox- or sinkholes large enough to upset my tractor - or maybe the bare indentation of a rabbit's nest that one of my wheels could destroy in turn.

After the hay has cured in the sun, I attach the rake to my Farmall and sweep it into windrows. They pile like green-gold waves in my wake, curving around Charlie's island preserves as if yielding right of way.

Hay season is rough on meadow wildlife. Like all livestock farmers who harvest summer grasses for winter feeding, we take our toll on birds, snakes, turtles, small mammals, and countless insects. But Charlie and I share an impulse to minimize that toll, even at the expense of the best possible yields and use of our time. "Operational efficiency" is a concept with merit, but we keep it at arm's length, leaving room for the creatures whose uses of a meadow conflict with our own.

Our strong, slow-moving horses are kindest to the fields and their fauna, but we can only count on the team for cuttings close to home. Otherwise, Charlie drives to the hayfields and mows them with his large International Harvester. But he keeps a watchful eye, often stopping or standing as he moves through thick grass, to look for bedded fawns and all manner of nests. We both gear down if visible life lies in our path, giving it time to scurry, slither, or fly away. Some slow-movers are simply carried to the unmown edges.

One day, I rake around a corner to find a coyote watching me. We have taken his cover and shade, toppled the softly swaying walls of his secret grassy paths, and sent his prey fleeing for other cover. He waits until I am at the upper end of the field, then prances back and forth along the bottom, pausing to scent-mark each of the windrows I have swept up behind me. His point is eloquent and clear: He does not much like the new look, but however much transformed, the field is still his territory.

Red-winged blackbirds scold us from the edges of another newly shorn field of heavy, thick alfalfa. Some of the birds had surely been nesting before the mower moved through. Unhappily, Charlie acknowledges that it had been impossible to see through the growth to avoid casualties.

Next, I move around this field on my tractor, flinging apart the heavy green mats with the rotating spokes of a tedder, to speed drying. But before the hay can fully cure, it rains, leaving the alfalfa beaten back down and sodden. A dry day later Charlie rakes it, still too wet to bale, hoping the air moving through the windrows will help things along. But that night it rains again.

We have no choice but to fling open the windrows with the tedder, moving a fourth time around the small field. I have ceased to think about the birds and mammals that once lived here. The field is empty of life now, and all of my energy focuses on getting the ruined harvest ready for baling. We can use it as mulch, and new growth can begin. The hay is still heavy with moisture, but with another storm rolling in, it is now or never.

Rounding the first corner, I blink at the sight of a small tuft of gray fur on the bleached-out hay. The tell-tale cap of a rabbit's nest, it wrenches my heart. Surely the tiny creatures could not have survived our desperate workings over this field - cutting, tedding, raking, then tedding and raking again. Idling my tractor, I climb down to peel back the downy roof of the shallow nursery, bracing myself for a disheartening scene.

Instead I see, breathing steadily, four tiny gray bodies, each no bigger than my thumb. They are sleeping one atop another, the uppermost flush with the surface. I bend closer, and his ears flicker like the petals of early spring phlox. For all their diminutive size, they seem fat and sassy, as if a milk-bearing mom waited nearby. Perhaps she is watching as I carefully replace the fur cap and camouflage it from the hungering eyes of hawks and crows, as Charlie taught me to, with loose tufts of hay. Back aboard my tractor, I rake around the small survivors, my fingers aching with the decision not to touch them, however lightly.

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