Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Making Hay the Russian Peasant Way

Anna Karenina is one of my favorite novels. Actually, Tolstoy is one of my favorite novelists. I can read his books over and over again. Throughout Anna Karenina is the story of Levin, one of the main characters, and the tension between him and the old way of agriculture and modernization. Funny how pertinent and contemporary his struggle seemed to me.

He tries to get the peasants to use the expensive machinery he purchases to make their work more efficient. The machinery breaks down. Or the peasants cause it to break down. Why use this noisy machine when they can work as a village and get the job done more beautifully?

One of the chapters describes Levin's day making hay with the villagers. It is a lovely piece of literature. I can taste the sweat, feel the muscles tire, smell the grass, see the golden sun move across the sky. Levin "gets it" as he finds the rhythm of the scythe.

We aren't Russian. Neither do we own vast estates nor have we an army of serfs. But we do have fields of hay and animals that seem to get hungry come winter. The tractor we bought with the farm sputters and spurts and with a lot of attention will do most of what we want it to do. But haymaking equipment is expensive. Haymakers are busy. A look at the farmer's almanac last week indicated that Thursday and Friday were good days for making hay. Apparently all the farmer's in the area read their almanac because tractors purred (growled) all across the vally as grass was cut and efficiently rolled into bales.

As per usual, I found myself online, researching alternate ways of making hay. Quite a few old timers used their brush hog to cut the hay then raked it up by hand, loading onto wagons for storage in the barn. Hmmmm. We have a brush hog. I had always heard that the brush hog would ruin the hay. Well. We don't have a bunch of sharpened scythes tucked in the tool shed so Philip got the tractor hooked up to the brush hog and showed me how to drive it.

By the middle of the week I was a frustrated irritated mom. Seemed like I was having to nag and bark to get anybody to do anything. More than anything I was a tired farmer, mother, teacher, gardener. Weary with the sound of my nagging voice. Tired of my critical attitude. Wishing I was a nice person. Wishing that weeds pulled themselves, supper fixed itself and laundry jumped into the washer, out onto the line and right into our drawers, ready to wear. Seemed like every 8 hours or so I was having to apologize to Philip or the kids for being rude, or disrespectful or bad-mouthed.

I haven't driven a tractor since I was eleven years old or so. Philip would have been glad to mow, but frankly, I wanted to have the satisfaction of seeing something done on a larger scale than the regular household activities. So he showed me fast gear, slow gear, brake and clutch, first, second and third, and off I went. First Patrick gathered up guinea eggs from a nest he found in the middle of the hay field and took them to the barn to go under a broody hen. Bump, bump, bump. Whizz, whizz, whizz. Grinding of gears. Loosening of joints. Tractor went round and round the field.

As I drove and mowed, I prayed. "Lord, I am so exasperated with myself. I don't want to be so fussy with everyone. Why can't I be more nice?" Bump, bump, bump. Whizz, whizz, whizz. Grinding of gears. Turn another corner. Still small voice speaks to me, loudly enough to get through tractor noise. "Don't worry about it. You are still learning. So is everyone else. It's a process. I love you. You're doing a great job. You are tired."

As the tractor made its way round the field I could see areas that were thick and lush. The areas we threw manure last spring. It was amazing the difference. "You see?" asked the still small voice. "Look, if you want better production, you have to put something back into the soil. You can't take and take and take without eventually suffering for it. You need a break."

A day before Philip had suggested that I take Maggie and go visit a friend for a day or two. I told him there was no way I could be gone right now. Too much to do. I gave it a second thought.

When the sun hit the edge of the horizon the tractor died. I could not resurrect it. Walking back to the house I inhaled sweet smell of freshly mown hay. Listened to the gurgling creek. Headed to bed.

Next morning was baking day. Thomas and I got up at 4am to start the days' work. Late afternoon the kids took their rakes out to the field to start the gathering. After 7pm I finished inside and headed out to join them. We lined up. We raked the hay into mounds. We talked about how much fun it is to work together as a family. Nora bounded in front and behind, begging the others to play in the stream. The stars came out. The lightening bugs came out. We found our rhythm. We swung and tossed, walked forward. Swing. Toss. Walk. It was hard to find a stopping place. We wondered if we could find a few friends who would want to join us for the fun next week. The work was invigorating. By the time we reached the end of the field it was pretty dark. Time to bring it in.

We all got up early to go to the markets. Afterwards, Maggie and I went to visit some friends. They feasted us with sashimi and dumplings and waffles and artichokes and steaks. Maggie swam. I read. We didn't milk or pull weeds or make hay. Back at the ranch, Philip and Patrick and Thomas raked some more and loaded up the trailer with our mounds and figured some way to get that loose hay up into the loft of the barn, fragrant and green.

The rains came. The tractor is still dead in the middle of the field. But we have hope. A friend is coming by today to take a look at the tractor. Some other friends would like to join us for raking when the sun comes out and dries the hay. I think we will get some beverages, some fried chicken or beans and rice and make a party out of it. Use our bodies as machines. Make some hay when the sun goes back to shining. Grateful that life is ebb and flow. Rhythm. Wonder if Levin would come lend a hand? If he could come over and bring a few of his peasant friends to show us how to do it we might make even more "progress."


Tom Atkins said...

As a boy, I spent part of my summers at my grandfathers, often hoeing peanuts with the laborers who helped him each summer. It was killer work then, but now I remember the easy camaraderie of those men who worked the long rows of peanuts in the hot sun. I hope, if you manage to find some help, that beyond the sweat, and bales of hay, you find some of that same closeness in your work. You ought to get SOMETHING for the headache! said...

Camaraderie is wonderful fruit of shared physical labor. What a great experience from your youth!

Beth said...

I love the idea of a hay-raking party. Many hands do make light work. :-) So glad you took a bit of time off to restore your body and spirit. That is so important.

Wonderful writing, as always, Ginger. said...

Thanks Beth! I hope Asheville is treating you well!

CountryDew said...

What a lovely thing. You are learning so much, and doing so much, too. Total inspiration.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I can I will be over there to help do some raking! I need to get back out and see everyone. I am back in Roanoke tomorrow and start summer school on monday -- I will try to come on over quickly! Thank goodness there is some work to do,
sean said...

SEAN!!! We have been thinking about you and feeling like you had to be coming back soon. We are butchering chickens with the DepretG's on Tues. Wanna come? Definitely will love having you rake hay. Have missed you so much. Can't wait to hear about your recent adventures.

Jeff said...

It strikes me that you are part of a vanguard that is "re-inventing" the past and applying it to the future. You are doing the Lord's work and that will become increasingly clear in the years to come as this mess that we are in wends its' course. I love reading your well-written essays describing the ups and downs of your experiences on the farm. said...

Thank you so much for your kind words, Jeff. Most days we feel very lucky to be able to live this life. Even with the ups and downs. Seems like this life of trying to make the old new is good for the body, mind, soul and economy! Thanks for reading.