Of hay days and nights

Charlie and I agreed long before we retired from dairy farming last fall not to pack the cows off to parts unknown. What sort of gratitude is that for all the milk and beneficent company they provided for us over the years?

Given the rapid disappearance of small family operations like this one, we've had to spend a good deal of time over the past year finding decent homes for more than a dozen still-productive animals that are accustomed to personalized treatment. We've done so, one or two cows at a time. There are still folks out there with a bit of land and a yen for milk and butter with brand names like Rosie, Hannah, and Juniper.

Now, with about half the herd we had last year, little anxiety attends the coming hay season. It won't take much to feed our remaining bovines, most of whom were born here more than a decade ago and have earned the right to refuse relocation.

There's no need to push ourselves for every bale we can harvest between closely spaced summer storms. Instead, we can wait out inconstant weather. No more frantic drives to parts and repair shops when equipment breaks down. This year, we can take our sweet time to cut and bale all we will need to winter our remaining animals. Somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 bales should do it, and over an entire summer that is no sweat - well, not much, anyway.

I should be relieved, but it's a bit more complicated than that. I already miss the edge of knowing that we have to fill two barns to overwinter our herd - a knowledge that often kept us in the fields until dusk, with evening milking still to come.

But during a lulling ride home atop the last wagonload, a sense of well-being rose almost tidally. I have done some of my best star-gazing flat on my back atop a rocking stack of hay as Charlie negotiated the dark rural roads on his tractor. The almost surreal state of relaxation this induced came, in my experience, only from haying hard, and then suddenly stopping - if not for darkness, then for rain.

In summers past, weather permitting, we'd cut, rake, and bale every day for a week, maybe two, becoming nut-brown under cloudless suns. When, finally, a rain fell, we'd sit on the porch swing under dripping eaves, dizzy with the sheer novelty of not lifting a finger, let alone 50-pound bales.

My teenage son can barely remember summers without hay on all his horizons. Early on, I would fashion nooks and nests for my tow-headed toddler, keeping him safely playpenned in alfalfa and orchard grass as I stacked ever more hay around him. The fragrant bales became his own special building blocks on a scale he could soon scramble over, straddle, and eventually help stack himself.

By now, he can toss bales over my head to add to the top of the stack; he still likes to sit astride that uppermost bale when the wagon is full.

But we're all moving on to other things: Tim to a smorgasbord of teenage interests that have little to do with hay, cows, or farming, bold new imperatives that carry me in their wake as he once rode in mine. Charlie to his woodworking and ever-expanding illustrated-book collection. All of us are busy restoring a 19th-century brick cottage.

Even so, there are Saturday nights when I still half hear the rhythmic chug of the milking machines as I tune in to my favorite radio folk programs. I can't look up at a starry night above the Wabash River without for a moment recalling the rides home on a laden wagon, my wealth both beneath and above me - bone weary and indescribably content to have hayed hard and stopped.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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