Sunday, July 24, 2011

Intimations of Disaster: Haying the Field

The field is half-hayed. Harm's tractors are parked where he quit at dusk; the little one pulls the tedder, while the big one does the cutting first, and then, after the tedding's done, pulls the bales and the haywagon behind that. Both of them are Farmalls, and both of them date to the late '40s or early '50s. The other equipment is that old or even older; the tedder looks to be a '30s or early '40s model.

Tedders aren't that common any more; they're the machines that flail the hay with their circular arms, spreading it across the field so it will dry more easily and the mold and mildew won't get into the bales. Small-time farmers still do it, and it's being pushed pretty hard by the state ag bureaus, too. Harm's dad has been at it for 70 years or so, and he's not about to change a routine that has served him well.

Yesterday it was 98 when I came out from the barn. Maureen was just back from Emanuel's and when she saw the old man running the tedder, in a flannel shirt and no hat, she ran to the spare fridge in the garage and brought him out a bottle of cold water. While we were waiting, he told me about the tractor. Good and small, he said, meaning both that it was pretty small, and that its smallness was good. About 15 horsepower; just right for the tedder-- couldn't pull the baler-- and you can pour a five-gallon can in her and she'll run a week, sometimes two. He was proud of that machine-- it wasn't as old as he, but it wasn't far off from that, either. Not as hot as I thought it was gonna be, he told Mo, thanking her for the water. I came out early 'cause it looked like it was gonna rain up by us.

Up by us. That's a phrase we didn't have along the coastline in Connecticut, where I grew up around boats and hurricanes and salt grass and the intense smell of the marshes at low tide, a smell that drove the summer people away, sometimes, they not having much experience with things that grow and decay and in their decaying, feed new growth. If you liked mussels, and clams, you were pretty much used to that smell, and the sting when you washed the mud off your feet after digging for them, and found you'd cut your heel pretty bad on something. Then you put some of that mud in the cut, and the bleeding would stop again.

Back there, our language was more about time than space, and when we talked space it was more about reach than rise. We talked about getting back before the tide shifts, or waiting for the flood before you pull the boat out.

Here, up by us and down by you means something. Unlike tidewater Connecticut, this land is up-and-down, and we are definitely down. We drain the ridge; Harm doesn't hay the bottom half of the field because it's too wet much of the time and even when it's not it's a rich collation of thistle, milkweed, Canada Lily, day lily, with some sawgrass mixed in just to guarantee that no livestock manager or horsefarm foreman will ever buy the bales off Harm, no matter how desperate the shortage or how low the price. Up at the top of the field, where the road is pocked with dead flattened chipmunks and squirrels, and we found the lone foreleg of a fawn, gnawed by coyotes, a couple of weeks ago, the hay is pretty good. But leaving the farm means you've got to go up, steeply, on any of the roads that boundary our property from Paul and Sara's, and from Harry and Sarah's. Harm hays up there first, holding us off till the last days of a long hot dry spell, when the grasses have the wet wrung out of them by the hot days and everyone wonders why the storms don't come, but they don't.

Harm doesn't keep the old Farmalls because he's some sort of collector of antique American farm machinery. You might think so from the cars that stop along Rest Plaus Road or King's Highway, often right in the middle of the road, while some weekender frames a cell phone picture of the old barn and the house set low, and the long expanse of hayfield with the tractors and the balers and the wagon parked up toward the top, where they make such a nice foreground for the shot that's going to go up on Facebook or flick'r in a little while, if the guy with the pale legs and the Izod shirt doesn't get clipped when Kurt Cross goes by in the truck, bringing the mini-Backhoe home from some building site.

Harm keeps the stuff because he got it cheap and, because it's so old, it's extremely simple to fix, and then to keep in good repair. In the '40s and '50s, this was prime dairy country, and every available field was dominated by pasture and hayfield. Now the milk comes from giant factory farms in the Midwest or the Central Valley or down in Mexico, where no one has to worry too much about regulators and pretty much anything can be labeled Organic and sold at the Safeway at a price so far from breakeven for a genuine organic dairy farm as to guarantee the death of an agricultural sector already reeling by the '60s. Most of the old barns up here have a tractor or two in them, unused for decades, and so you can pick one or two up for parts without too much trouble. Belts and hoses, the sort of things that die from age and not use-- those you can replace with aftermarket car parts, cut to adapt them to the tractor.

Harm isn't a full-time farmer. This is what he does when he gets off work, takes vacation time or switches shifts to get a block when the weather's hot and dry and the grasses are high and golden. He grew up in this; his father made a go of it, but just barely, all the way into the '70s. Most of the hay goes to the horse farms, and the boarding facilities for weekenders with pretensions to polo or English riding or steeplechase-- Virginia-bred women and men who went to the right schools and are now deep in the finance markets in New York City, for whom this area is as close as they can come to the places down there where their wealthy and privileged parents raised them on dance lessons and cotillion and the debutante coming-out rituals.

Harm hays with his shirt off-- I tell him he's crazy, hasn't he read about ozone layers and skin cancer? and he shrugs me off; I like it this way, he says. The tractors are slow and the rattle of the machinery behind them startles the flocks of smaller birds that seem to commute to whatever field Harm is haying that week, along with the turkey vultures who will appear a week later, snapping up the carcasses of the snakes and the few redwing blackbirds not quick enough to leave the nests as the mower bears down on them.

This year, though, the hawks aren't here-- or at least I haven't seen them yet. They used to ride the updraft where the hayfield meets the woodlot or the treeline along the road, diving down to take the voles and the field mice scampering in ill-directed panic from the machines.

Each year seems to carry its losses, if you're inclined to dwell on loss. Three years ago, sitting out in back of the house as the darkness loomed and the sky completed its slow melding with the ridge and the fields, just before the stars emerged to puncture the bowl of air, the bats would come out from the barn, scores of them, the whispering rustle of their wings just audible as they dipped and soared, clearing away the gnats and mosquitos. Now they are gone, casualties of an epidemic that decimated the bat population around here, and then spread across America. For the smaller organic farmers, this wasn't simply a matter for eco-nostalgia; those bats were essential to keeping pests at bay. That epidemic pushed out a lot of the smaller farmers, the ones who'd bought the dream while they were in college or afterward, when they walked the Appalachian Trail and talked the long talk with others like them, about what to do, and how to live. I don't know where they've gone since.

Last summer, it was the small fish in the creek. For years, we'd watched them darting in and out of the shadows, and then, suddenly, they weren't there any more. Once they left, so did the blue heron who had taken up residence in the wide spot where the creek cut back and forth before heading down to Harry's gristmill. Mornings, he was my first wakeup call, as he rose, his cry a groan of complaint, the sort you might make when you had to arise at 5am on a muggy summer morning. Now he's gone, as well.

This year, it's the albino hawk who is missing, and the two redtails who used to nest in the tall trees that ran the line between our place and Harry and Sarah's, their roots pushing the collapsed stone wall into ever-more complete disintegration. I could watch them as I read in the hot afternoons, or worked on a guitar part, sitting on the little rope-seat chair that had come down in Mo's family from the generation that left Germany and Poland at the turn of the last century to end up here, a little short for me, but good for my hand position when I was working on complex finger patterns and long reaches across the neck.

Everything's going. That's what it felt like. But the litany of losses is really just a matter of temperament. If you're gloomy, this is the hottest summer ever, and last winter the coldest and wettest and hardest, and the bats are gone and the small fish, and for all you know some blight has stricken the hawks. If you're dark enough, the chewed-up foreleg of the fawn is an intimation, an omen.

Last year, while we were looking for those small trout that weren't darting up and down the creek, we noticed instead the sudden explosions of mud in the stiller parts. One burst would sometimes stimulate an expanding row or even a field of underwater dust storms. The dog would stand right at the edge, quivering with excitement at this strange but endlessly entertaining sideshow.

The crayfish ranged in size from an inch to as much as four inches in length; mini-lobsters to my saltwater eyes; gigantic roaches to Maureen's grittier urban past. Where had they come from? They seemed some sort of invasive species, indications of a larger ecological shift that was killing off our treasured fellow-tenants on this land and air and water. These were Louisiana crayfish; bellwethers of the ominous trends of global warming and environmental depredation that would upend the country, leaving flood and drought, pestilence and famine.

Then, late last August, late in the afternoon, Georgie began her frenzied bark, the one that indicated someone was in the road. Usually it was Molly and the girls out from the brick house they rented from Harry, walking their little dog and pushing their doll-strollers. This time, though, it was a man, standing at the bridge, staring intently into the water below, his old Hyundai pulled all the way off the road in the ditch where the county mowers clear the weeds but leave the day lily patches. After a while, he came around the back of the house. He was a little strange, I thought, but I had been living alone here for a while, and knew most everyone around, and probably anyone not familiar but also not wearing a recognizable stereotype-- weekender, real-estate scout, Eurotourist -- would have looked a little suspicious.

I used to know the Pratt's, he said, without any introduction, as if that single statement made perfect sense. And it did. The Pratts owned this farm from the '40s to the '70s, when Mrs. Pratt died or went into the nursing home, and it began its cycle of owners till it came, finally, to rest with us. I was a kid; my father used to take me back here to the creek, he said. The Pratt's-- they didn't like crayfish. They let us net them. Oh, were they good, too. I offered him a seat but he didn't feel comfortable; he had something to request of me, but he wasn't sure it was right to do so. I asked him how old he was back then; ten, eleven, twelve; you know, just when that sort of thing really mattered, before it all changed. I knew what he meant. I remembered those years, before the fights began, and the dangerous wild adventures and the running-away, and the voice of my father raised in rage and impotence against me.

Tell me. He said. Do you think some time I could go back there for crayfish again? Would you mind it? If you want them, I'll give them to you. I just want to....

Of course, I said. Of course. I knew what he meant, what he was fishing for, what he was hoping he would net. And I wished it for him, too, just as I had wished it for myself, wished it till it brought me here, to the place where their ashes were now scattered, in the hayfield, and down by the creek, close to the places where the crayfish were, in a landscape they would have found familiar to them, even if there was no salt tang to the air.

I think he did come back, once or twice, maybe more. I'd pull into the driveway with the bag of groceries or the package from the post office, and I'd see a hint of his shirt down where the clearing of the hayfield just began to give way to the tall bramble. Once I thought I saw him wave, and once, though I'm not sure, I think I saw someone with him, a girl, maybe ten, maybe nine.

He's not come back this year; like the hawks and the heron, he has moved. But he gave us something in return. Now we know that the crayfish come and go; that the hawks will come and go; that, perhaps, even the bats will someday return to race across the deep blueblack of the last sky light.

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