Monday, July 19, 2010

The Hay Bales of Jefferson County

Driving home through the idyllic dairy farming country of St. Lawrence and Jefferson counties today, I realized how fortunate my family is to have access to a rural property and the unchanging landscape that accompanies it. Oops. Did I say unchanging? Oh, well, what I really meant was almost-always-changing-landscape. Whether it's the new Walmart that popped up in Lowville or the closing of the entire downtown of the village of Hammond there really is always something new to observe, like it or not.
My favorite time of year is the spring. Once May hits, I can drive northward and look around, eagerly anticipating some new sight. Now is the time to check out my maple syrup supplier just outside Boonville and see how the season treated him and what the new prices are. June and July are when I crawl down the back roads of St. Lawrence county like a back alley user, eyeing the various farm stands; seeking out the special red onions, the delicate green beans, the deeply grooved and wonderfully orange squashes, the pinky-red potatoes. August is when I watch the Wide Load trucks snake through the villages ferrying their cargo of turbines, blades and pedestals for the wind farm that seems to be continually in progress.
Although I love seeing all of these things and feeling, however inaccurate it may be, a part of the scene, in the last several years my favorite new sights have often been the new Amish farms that are springing up in certain sections of the North Country. Gorgeous, pastoral and utterly picturesque in their anachronistic way, they are instantly recognizable by their square, white farm houses, fantastic hand-hewn barns and black buggies parked in the yard. The scene is nearly identical from house to house; horses swishing their tails under a stand of trees, waiting for the ten or twelve year old boy who is responsible for tedding the hay that day to hook them up to the tedder and drive them, four abreast, over the field. Chicken coops fashioned from old silo roofs sit near the barns, accessible to the small hands that gather the eggs each day. Laundry hangs on the line, cows graze over acres of grass and always, always there are children. Playing on the porches, in the yards, near the barns, on the wood-piles, under the laundry hanging on the line. The reproductive abundance of an Amish family is limited only by the age of its parents and the little ones are evidence of their deep love for one another and their adherence to a natural order that has been discarded by our culture.
As I drove through Jefferson county today, I realized that I was seeing, through the hay in the fields, a time-line of farming. At first I saw huge, rounded tubes of hay, shrink-wrapped in white plastic. They lay on the fields, buttressing a barn or corn field, like giant plastic worms. They were hideous and huge and so white and they looked terrifically alien on the land. Next I saw round bales, laying hither and thither on fields. None of these were wrapped in white plastic but they did have some sort of outer layer wrapped around them in order to contain their bulk. They looked much more comfortable in their surroundings than the wormy tubes of hay but still looked larger than life. Next came the massive, square bales stacked in giant towers at the edges of fields. Each of these looked monumental and exceedingly dangerous if the right wind came along. These pyramids of hay were much more familiar to my eye, being of a certain age, and I didn't immediately discount them as new-fangled as I did the plastic wrapped bales. Finally, I observed a stack of hay that I had never seen before. I realized that what I was seeing was the product of medieval agriculture. The centrally stacked hay; gorgeously symmetrical and placed perfectly across a field for as far as the eye could see, hundreds of stacks all harvested and placed by horse and human, working together to create the feed that would warm the barns over the winter. It was interesting to suddenly realize that I had done a historical study of the gathering and stacking of hay in about twenty minutes, in the same county by people who were quite literally neighbors of each other. Amish farmer living peaceably in an 18th century fashion next to the guy with the humongous round baler and combine who lived right next door to the guy who was square baling his hay and having his crew chuck the bales onto the back of a moving hay wagon. A very cool way to reinforce the idea that there are so many different ways to do the same task and that each one works. I must admit to a soft-spot for the Amish stacking methodology and think that, eventually, we will return to that very method. You can't make massive round bales of hay wrapped in plastic without lots of cheap energy and we don't have much more of that.

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