If you were listening to Hugh Hewitt last night, you heard him and James Lileks broadcasting from the Minnesota State Fair in full Johnstown, Pennsylvania-telegraph-operator mode, sounding like the last survivors clicking away at their post as the mighty waters swept all away.
I was not there. I was at home in my basement office, working on my novel. But I can verify that it did indeed rain and storm quite hard. It got pretty dark and my electricity flickered once.
Not good baling weather.
I was thinking about baling on Monday, during my walk. Monday was a good baling day. I looked at the bright sun. I felt the heat. I thought, “This is baling weather.”
Let me explain to you about hay and straw.
Hay is what you bale at this time of the year. Or rather, what you used to bale. I don’t think farmers bale much anymore. They have new, arcane methods of putting forage up. I think they do it digitally now, since Dell Computer acquired International Harvester or something.
I still remember an old commercial for the Yellow Pages from back in the Sixties. It drove me nuts. It featured a stereotypical movie cowboy in a Roy Rogers costume singing to his horse. The final lines went, “…and the pages are yellow, like hay.”
No. No, they’re not.
Hay is not yellow. Hay is green. Hay is any grass (we used alfalfa) that you allow to grow tall, then cut and dry for storage over the winter, so you can feed it to the livestock. The bales are heavy, and they smell musty and organic, a little like scum on a pond.
Straw is yellow. There are various kinds of straw too, but we used oat straw. After the oats have been harvested, you cut down the stalks and bale them. They’re light to handle. You use straw for animal bedding. It is not eaten, unless the animals are really, really hungry.
Part of the confusion comes from “Away In a Manger,” I think. There’s that line that goes, “The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay.” People sing that and think that sleeping on hay is normal. It’s not. Jesus was sleeping in a manger, a feed trough. Hay belongs there. Babies (usually) don’t.
Once hay has been cut, it’s raked into windrows in the field. If God wills, the hay will lie there and dry, giving you time to turn it over once with pitchforks, to expose both sides. If it rains at any point in this process, you can still use the hay but it won’t be as good, and it’s likely to rot or get moldy.
Then you take the baler out and bale it. Your baling equipment (ours anyway) begins (began) with a tractor pulling a baler, a long, low box on wheels with a conveyor thing on the front to scoop up the hay. The hay passed through the guts and got compressed and tied with twine. The bales were then extruded from the machine’s anus to one or two guys waiting on the wagon that followed. This job was generally mine and my brother Moloch’s, though our grandfather often came out to help.
The bales had to be stacked on the wagon. It was a flat wagon with no sides or front, but a tall back. The first level of bales would be laid down perpendicular to the length of the wagon. The next layer would go parallel (or vice versa. I forget). This was supposed to lock the bales, like staggering bricks in a wall. In fact, the bales always swayed, and the kid on top of the pile was never sure when the whole thing would tumble, sending him to the ground with a lot of heavy hay bales falling on top of him. But the stacker below had his own risks. When the hay was all stacked he would generally be left with about six inches of free space to stand on, as the whole assembly bumped back over farm lanes to the farmyard. It was an operation that would give an O.S.H.A. inspector nightmares, but we never complained. It was good enough for our parents and grandparents; who were we to be sissies?
People with big barns could generally just run their bales up a conveyor into the loft and dump them. Our barn was small. We didn’t use a conveyor but a contraption on a pulley called a “hay fork” (if I remember correctly, which I probably don’t). Eight bales at a time were clamped into the grip of the hay fork, then when the hay had been hoisted up into the barn, a trip rope would be pulled, releasing them. In theory. In fact, the fork either dropped the bales too soon or wouldn’t let them go at all a fair amount of the time.
At the end of the day’s baling, when all the hay was up in the loft, Moloch and I would climb up there and start stacking. Because of our lack of space, we had to organize all our hay in the loft, to get as much in as possible (what didn’t fit would get stacked in the farmyard under tarps, a less than ideal environment). It would be hot as a potter’s kiln up under that roof on a summer afternoon, hot not only from the air temperature but from the chemical action of the drying hay. It was the hardest, sweatiest work I’ve ever done in my life.
And that’s what I think of every year at this time.