In autumn, our thoughts turn to 'doodling'

Cleo was a man of few words as he worked beside Charlie on the "old farm." We call it the old farm because those 30 acres just down the road from our present 80 acres supported Charlie's first agricultural enterprise, launched in the 1970s when he turned his back on the home-construction business. It was a small concern, even compared to the modest dairy operation we shared throughout the 1990s on the larger acreage.

But if the income was meager compared to the work, the living was fine, Charlie says. It was fueled by honey from his hives, cider from the apple trees, vegetables from the garden, and all the milk he could drink from his first cow, Elsie, purchased with the income from his cucumber patch.

But it was hard work, even with a team of horses shouldering their share of it, and that's where Cleo came in. He hired himself out as a farmhand for what Charlie could pay and helped out with the clearing, plowing, and haymaking.

It was Cleo - the man of few words - who introduced Charlie to a new word, and to the rural know-how behind it.

Charlie lacked a baler. Once the hay was cut and raked into windrows, it had to be stacked by hand into weather-resistant piles. Then it eventually was loaded onto wagons and lifted into the barn with a horse-powered grapple fork. Only they weren't piles - they were "doodles," Cleo had told him, showing how it was done. Hay doodle is a term once common to the rural populations of the Midwest. Its usage dates back several generations, and it might have faded from the vernacular but for the likes of Cleo.

By the time I'd met Charlie, he had moved to the larger farm and was single-handedly running a small commercial dairy. He had modernized to the point of owning a tractor and a baler. Putting hay into doodles and storing it loose in the mow was simple enough for wintering a few animals, but sustaining his 20-cow dairy herd required a full and efficiently stacked loft.

I learned to stack the wagon with the bales coming up the chute as he drove the big tractor and baler up and down the windrows. He taught me to rake. At the peak of our dairy business, we put up between 4,000 and 5,000 bales for our three draft horses and a herd that had been expanded to include my own animals. Doodles were simply too labor-intensive, and loose hay was too voluminous for this operation.

We now have just eight retired dairy cows and one draft horse, and no longer milk commercially. Cleo passed away a few years ago. Although we baled the first cutting of our hayfield this summer, we loaned the machine to a young couple just starting out. Rather than press them to return it, Charlie suggested we put the second cutting up loose, in homage to Cleo and as a kind of closure to our own farming careers. This meant I'd become the next in the thin line of succession along which the art of doodling survives in the Midwest - into the 21st century no less.

After I had raked the five-acre field into thick, bulging windrows, we hoisted our three-pronged forks, and began lifting and rolling the hay into domes. Each doodle stood roughly four feet high and about the same in diameter. Weatherproofing was a matter of combing the sides so that the outer layer of hay ran vertically and then capping the tops with the scrapings.

As I got the knack of it, we drifted apart, working our separate windrows in the strong September sun. Leaves fluttered from the trees along the fence lines, and the hours ticked by noiselessly, aside from the rustle of hay, the clicking and chirping of insects, and the flow of traffic along Bethel Lane.

More than one vehicle slowed along the field. Our neighbors are used to looking as they pass to see what we're up to, but this was something so old it was altogether new.

Once I'd found my rhythm, I found myself experimenting (doodling?) with the shape and orientation of my creations. It occurred to me as I combed the sides and capped the tops of my domes to thatch the uppermost hay rather than lay it all in one direction. Charlie raised his eyebrows at that, but didn't deny it was a good idea. Perhaps I've made my own unique contribution to the gentle craft of doodling.

By dusk, we had gathered all the hay in the field into some three dozen doodles. There was nothing to do but wait for the rain, predicted for that night - and hope we had done Cleo proud by building them to shed it.

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