by Ryan Foxley of Arlington, WA
photos by Joe D. Finnerty and Laura Littlefield
All was silent as before —
All silent save the dripping rain.
– H.W. Longfellow
As I sit and watch rain fall on new mown hay I can’t help but think of the experiences of farmers of yore. I think in particular of the Hjorts, George and Kristina, who100 years ago lived in the house where I now live and mowed hay in the same river-bottom fields I now mow. I wonder that an accurate weather forecast was not available to them, a fact almost unbelievable to a culture grown accustomed to computer generated weather models, satellite images, 24-hour TV weather channels and hourly smart-phone updates.
Over the last couple of weeks I have almost obsessively checked the weather — waiting for five sun icons in a row to appear on the computer screen. That would be enough time early in the season to get a few acres of mixed meadow grass cured and stored in the haymow.
The 4th of July dawned sunny and beautiful and the next several days looked favorable. June tends to be gloomy, but July typically turns lovely in the Pacific Northwest and our farming forebears in this region made hay in that month. So I greased up the John Deere Big 4 and, in deference to tradition, celebrated the 4th with my family and friends and waited to mow until the 5th. As predicted the sun was shining and summer seemed to have finally arrived. We tedded the hay each day, aerating it with the old machine’s lifting and fluffing action, very nearly approximating a man working through the field with a pitchfork.
Incidentally, the term “ted” comes from the Old-English “tend.” Haying around here really does require a lot of tending. Grass simply won’t cure itself just laying there on the ground the way it does in arid climates. Despite the favorable forecasts and with only a 20% chance of rain called for, seemingly out of nowhere the clouds rolled in and the rain fell for two days.
Thinking of my forebears, I reasoned that George would also have cut his hay on the 5th. I imagined him, like me staring out the kitchen window at the pouring rain, coffee cup in hand shaking his head at his misfortune. Or would he? Perhaps he would have been more resigned than I? More accepting, more at peace with the unpredictable nature of the weather and the way his and his family’s life was bound up with its fickle disregard for human needs and desires. Would his lack of up-to-the-minute weather forecasts have affected his choice of tools and techniques?
I know from the jaunty old photo of George’s sons Torvald and Conrad that they made haycocks here on the farm, so I imagine they must have just expected it to rain — cut when you can, but expect rain and hope the sheltering effects of a properly made hay cock will get you through. I, however, am addicted to the labor saving action of the loose hay loader and so don’t build haycocks. I’d like to think that our modern forecasting tools can let me do my haying at opportune times and thus avoid the work of building hay cocks and in turn hand loading them on the wagon.