West of Woolwich: Making Hay

Posted Wednesday, July 27, 2011 in Opinion

West of Woolwich: Making Hay

by Fred Kahrl

Back when I was an impatient kid still in my single numbers, it took us two days to drive to Maine for the summer.

There were no “super” highways until we reached the short stretch of Maine Turnpike from Kittery to Portland, and even that could be grueling in our overloaded 1952 Ford “Woodie” station wagon if was at all hot. 

 

The color is right, but our second-hand wagon never looked this good, and NEVER had whitewall tires. The canvas top was painted original black, not color-coordinated like this lovingly restored beauty. And, tinted windows? You MUST be kidding!

Tires were still tender in those days, and we stopped often so that Father could let air out to avoid blowouts. Even so, we rarely made the trip without one flat, which we had to have repaired at the next gas station before continuing.

My brother Tom, who sang tenor in his school’s octet, memorialized this annual pilgrimage in a song he wrote … and even recorded on a 78 rpm record … titled “500 Miles to Maine With A Cat”. There was more than ample material to spice up the lyrics, and we could laugh in winter when we spun his record on the old Victrola.

But it wasn’t funny when the trek was underway, and its many perils were delaying our arrival in Georgetown.

The anticipation would climb as we crossed the Carlton Bridge in Bath, and as we turned down Rte. 127 and across the one-lane “Rickety-pan” Bridge onto Arrowsic.  Timmo the cat … a Maine native … would begin to pace atop the luggage. As the final miles rolled beneath the wheels, he would even speak a few impatient kitty sounds.

 

 

His anxious anticipation was no greater than mine as I fidgeted in the back seat.

The last ten minutes, however, were the most trying of the entire trip because, after we turned into the front yard, we had to stay in the car until Father went into the el and got out the scythe, the old wooden rake and the pitchfork.

(Actually, Timmo got out with Father because he wisely didn’t flatten the knee-deep grass all around us.)

Only after the area around the car and the path to the kitchen door had been scythed were Mother and I allowed to start carrying our baggage into the house. Father would continue to clear paths to the el and the front porch, and then would clear the circle made by the gravel drive in the front yard.

The rest of the yard could wait a bit, but woe unto anyone (other than Timmo) who bent a blade of the grass yet to be cut.

Despite being very professorial in most of his other habits, Father still carried a suite of farmer sensibilities from his Midwestern origins. Not least among these skills was his mastery of the scythe. He kept it very sharp, and had a carefully measured swing that left behind a sward nearly as kempt as if it been mowed with a machine.

When my mother later bought a dreadful second-hand push lawnmower to manage the lawn for the balance of the summer while Father was in Boston working on “The Book”, first my brother and then I developed a keen appreciation for Father’s skill with the scythe.

The mower was rusty and dull, and had a deformed striker plate where the blades were supposed to do the cutting. The iron wheels slid over the grass rather than driving the blades around, and the cog that was supposed to release the wheels from the blades when the mower was pulled backwards was so reluctant that the combined effect was to flatten the grass rather than shorten it.

We truly hated that machine. 

Father’s true prowess found its finest expressions later in the summer when he cut the little hayfield across the road from our house. It was about two acres and, like many coastal meadows of native grass, was attractive but sparse.

Father’s Midwest sensibilities reserved a special disdain for anyone who did not “maintain” a field or pasture … potentially productive land wrested by human toil sometime in the colonial past from the primordial forest. Hence, mowing the field was a righteous act of prudent care, whether we used the hay thus produced or not.

Actually, we usually burned the two resultant haypiles during an August rainstorm … especially exciting if the storm was actually the remnant of a hurricane that was still feisty as it blew through to Nova Scotia.

Watching a man in a straw hat, khaki pants and faded blue shirt swinging a scythe rhythmically back and forth across a small field under a perfect June sky is both evocative and nostalgic for me. I wish that Mother … the family documentarian … had thought to take a picture, though the one in my mind’s eye is still vivid.

 

This is NOT my father, The Professor, who would not have been caught dead in a Bowler hat … though he did wear fully brimmed hats of one sort another his whole life. The scythe, on the other hand, is exactly correct. It had a curved ash snaeth and handles with threaded clamps that could be easily adjusted to fit every user. Truth is, this could very well have been how Father appeared as a boy growing up back in Ohio.

The scene was even more prosaic when one of the local men came down to lend father a hand. These were the few summers when my grown brothers were spending their vacations elsewhere and I was still too small to pull the Bull Rake used to gather the hay.

Two men, skilled with their scythes, swinging in tandem down the field, one slightly behind the other … even at a tender age I could appreciate that I was seeing a form of husbandry that pre-dated the birth of Christ. I would sit for hours on the stone wall separating the field from the gravel road, watching this rhythmic ritual, endlessly fascinated.

The ritual included a break at the end of every other row or so when the men would pause to sharpen their blades with a “stone” they carried in their hip pockets. The “stone” looked like a long cigar made of grey grit, and it made a slippery, singing sound as it was passed back and forth over the long, curved blades.

Perhaps, too, a quaff of water, a bandana passed over a glistening brow, some light conversation, and then returning to swinging up the pasture, back toward the house.

Raking was usually done the next day after the resulting hay had dried a bit. Stack it too fresh and it might burst into flames from spontaneous combustion.

 

 

Drag or “Bull” Rake used to gather the hay on its way to being stacked in the field. If those cutting the hay were adept and cut clean and close to the ground, raking with one of these surprisingly light and well-balanced rakes was almost a pleasure. However, if the grass was cut unevenly and was tangled, raking was a brutal exercise, and there was an acute risk of breaking off one of the foot-long teeth.

The last step in the process for our little meadow was forking it up into two or three piles. Like so many things, an appreciation for a truly fine pitchfork has been lost. Father’s had three tines, and the ash handle had a supple curve at the lower end just before metal met the wood.  The tines were always clean and shiny … no rust here.

When I was old enough to handle the hay myself, I came to appreciate how this simple but fine instrument could be handled to both hold and release the hay as the worker wished. I have used cruder forks since then and regretted the loss of father’s fine instrument.

 

 

 

This American classic took on an added significance for me when I realized that it is almost impossible today to find a properly-made three-tine pitchfork … or even a picture of one, for that matter. This one has straight tines … Father’s fork had tines that curved along almost their entire length, allowing the user to form and hold more hay at a time.

The ritual of the scythe did not end for the season until we were packing to return to the industrial hinterlands of New York State. Father would have had several other uses for the scythe during the summer, even swapping in a heavy short blade called a “Brush Hook” for obvious purpose.

 

But in the final days, we would retire to the cellar where there was an old grindstone.

 

Ours didn’t have a seat like this one, but was foot-powered and did have a drip can. My earliest job was keep to keep the drip can full of water, and later … after my brothers grew up and away … I was enlisted to pump the pedal.

Father had gotten a very good deal on this grindstone because it had worn into an oval rather than round shape. Now, there were still men around then who had both the special tool and the skill to put a stone back into shape, but Father never sought them out.

Instead, he soldiered on with the scythe bladed rising and falling on the grindstone. Of course, then he would sit in the workshop in the el and carefully finish the blade with his pocket stone. Then he would carefully oil the blade, wrap it in oiled newspaper, tie it with string, and re-attach it to the snaeth.

It was then hung on the wall next to the workbench, ready for our summer arrival the following year.

Now I “maintain” the meadow for the new owner, my brother’s widow, with my riding mower. I do not own a scythe, the “bull” rake hangs forgotten in the widow’s barn, and I sincerely wish I had Father’s pitchfork every time I grasp the inferior successor I must now use instead.

But every summer day that a ride over that seaside meadow, the mower purring along effortlessly, I see those men in straw hats whose skills turned this annual task into a ageless waltz, and I am grateful again that I could be a witness.

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