Haying season is here, and memory brings me back to those days when my husband, Jim, and I were farming in Bristol. This is an activity critical to weather, and all our attention was focused on forecasts and all the folklore we knew. Following is a typical day of hay harvest.
Hoping to avoid the problems of rain and fog, we had been looking for the right three-day window. Then the weatherman came through with his glorious forecast: three or four consecutive days of sun and near perfection for haying. Wonderful! Out came the hay mower, rake, tedder, and baler.
It was all a snare and a delusion.
In full faith of the forecast, the field was mowed on the first sunny day, and the very next was cloudy with rain prophesied for the afternoon. So much for the “three or four days.” When the hay is mowed, we are committed. So, as we had often done in the past, we all scrambled: gathered a crew; Jim tedded, raked, and baled for the entire day. There had been little dew the night before and the crop was dry enough to save if it didn’t get wet with rain.
On every trip around the field, we glanced often at the sky, clouds darkening more by the hour, wind smelling of rain, with Jim never getting off the tractor, me watching for the ominous raindrops on the windshield of the hay truck I was driving, the crew bending, lifting, throwing bales, which “thunk” onto the truck to be carefully stacked by the stacker on the truck. The diesel tractor hums, the baler pounds the hay into the chamber, knotters clang as they tie and cut the twine — sound and motion smoothly executed in the ballet and symphony of the harvest.
There was no stopping in that long day, and we got every last wisp of hay off our hayfield and stuffed into the barn just as the rain began. The satisfaction was like winning a contest. Mowing a big area of good hay, then losing it to the rain is a hardship. Hay is a unique product. Our field hay was a wild natural growth full of nutrients, especially if cut and dried quickly. Each of the variety of grasses provides qualities of its own — Timothy, Red Top, clovers, and the cow vetch, its purple-blue blossoms and those of the rosy clovers perfectly preserved in sun-dried color. Cows and horses love the coarser stems; sheep nuzzle around in the hay racks for the finer fibers, particularly relishing the vetches.
A barn filled with fresh, sweet-scented hay is to farm people as a bank full of gold would be to a miser. The crisp bales are eagerly awaited and relished by the animals.
Things that are hidden in the windrows can’t be sorted out by the baler as it picks up and packs the grasses tightly in the the baling chamber.
I remember one winter morning reaching into the hay pile for a bale and thinking, “How nice! This one even has a handle!” It was a snake perfectly curved on top in a handle shape, its head and tail secured by hay twine. Not my kind of handle, even though it was well-dried.
As we traveled around the field with tractor, trucks, and mechanical equipment, I thought back to how my father harvested his hayfield bounded by saltwater. He used a huge scythe, which constantly needed to be sharpened with a whetstone. Then we raked with big wooden-toothed rakes, heavy to wield, followed by pitchforking the hay into a long, high hay rick. It was pulled by a team of draft horses, the hay off-loaded by pitchfork into the hay mow of the barn. Heavy, hot, hard work — and time-consuming.
A “saltwater farm” hayfield is the worst to deal with weather-wise because of its proximity to fog and sea air. Satellites, radar, and informed weathermen didn’t exist when my father hayed. Those who farmed, fished, and spent the better part of their time outdoors developed a weather sense as well as some “weather sayings” to help their expectancy of coming weather, such as:
“Clearing skies never come from the east.”
“Blue sky in the north generally means clearing will occur that day.”
“If there is a ring around the moon, however many stars are within the ring is the number of days before rain or storm.”
“When (what I call) ‘dew webs’ appear on the grass in the morning it will nearly always be a clear day.”
“If the wind blows so that the undersides of tree leaves are showing plainly, it will rain within 24 hours.”
Also, a “sun dog” – a rainbow-colored appearance a short distance from the sun – means a storm within a day or two, as does a “mackerel” sky.
I have found many of these to be quite accurate.
On our farm, when the right wind brings the sound to the farm of the New Harbor bell buoy ringing strongly, we know a storm is coming soon. This rarely fails. This folklore is not infallible, but it can come amazingly close to the truth.
We are now in a time when the grain and grocery stores will make up for the failed harvest of a family farm, But “way back when” we all survived only on what hard work and “weather savvy” could produce!
After the first cutting, the field becomes emerald velvet again, and by September it will provide a second crop of tender, leafy hay. To the sheep and cows, this crop is “dessert.” The haying equipment will come out again; we’ll listen to the NOAA, scan the sky, keen the wind, and hope not to hear the New Harbor bell buoy ringing or the thick sob of the Manana Island foghorn.
(May B. Davidson lives in Whitefield. She is a longtime columnist for The Lincoln County News and the author of the newly released book “Whatever It Takes: Seven Decades of True Love, Hard Work, and No Regrets,” from Islandport Press.)