There Was No One Else to Do it

IMG_2612.jpgThe rain came late in the night, a cloudburst, heavy to begin, then quickly fading, and I lay unmoving for a minute under the open window, feeling the wetness on my face, letting it keep me awake, even as I anticipated the moment I’d close the sash and drift back into sleep. So nice.

In three days we put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1800 square bales. The weather was perfect, the sun at its annual apex, the air hot and dry, a restless breeze. On Saturday I rode the wagon, 800 bales that day alone, and I pulled each of them off the baler chute and stacked them high as prudence dictated and then a little higher, prideful of my neat rows. A well-stacked hay wagon does not just happen, there is strategy and knowing in it. Maybe even art.

I love riding the wagon; it demands strength and endurance, which I am in deficit of and therefore always seeking the means to bolster. And, because the field we hay is hilled like an unfurling cloth, and the wagons we use do not have sides to halt a fall, it requires a certain high-stakes agility: Grab the bale off the chute and scamper to the rear of the wagon for stacking, even as the wagon tilts beneath you, maybe front to back or, worse yet, a sidehill lean, booted feet slipping on the loose hay atop the wagon’s deck (here’s a rural truism, one of those things you have to experience to believe: Loose hay on a wagon deck is at least as slippery as ice). And really, you almost have to run to get that bale stacked before the next one is poking its nose over the chute edge, there’s no time to fuck around, to congratulate yourself, or just mop the sweat from your brow. I guess that’s the other thing I like about riding the wagon: The bales do not stop, the hay just keeps coming in time to the metronomic clatter of the baler, and above it all the smell of cigarette smoke, Martha cupping a lit Camel in one hand, steering the Deere with the other. In any other setting, I abhor the smell of cigarette smoke. In the hayfield, strangely, it is a comfort.

I am reading Sebastian’s Junger’s new book, Tribe, handed down to me by my friend Brett. I’m not far in yet (every night my ambitions of reading thwarted by fatigue), but far enough to get the gist of it, which is that our society has largely lost its sense of tribalism, and with it, in many ways, our sense of meaningful community. Junger writes of the early days of our nation’s settlement, of how it was not uncommon for settlers to defect to live with native peoples, but nearly unheard of for the opposite to occur. The relative comfort and material abundance the settlers enjoyed were a poor substitute for tribalism, and even many of the settlers knew it.

In reading this book, I think also of that interview with Rebecca Solnit I linked a few posts back. A large part of that interview is Solnit talking about her experiences observing and reporting on the social ramifications of disaster, and how surprised she first was when she realized that people spoke of previous disasters longingly. Almost with pleasure. And she realized, finally, that what they longed for, what pleasured them, was not the disaster itself, but the ways in which the disaster compelled them to band together with others. To become, in essence, a tribe, in which one person’s well-being is dependent on the next. And so on down the line, until the inescapable truth is realized: Everyone is dependent on everyone else.

I think most of us long for something more meaningful than simple social community, if even we’re fortunate enough to have that (and plenty don’t). Don’t get me wrong: There’s much to be said for social community, for coming together around events and celebrations, or even just because. To share a meal, or see a show, or throw a party, or whatever. But I think that what Junger and Solnit are getting at is that there’s an entirely different level of connection when the stakes are higher, when our reliance upon one another becomes essential to our survival, and therefore we become essential. How amazing that must feel, and how unusual now, with almost everything we need to know at our fingertips, everything we need to survive available for convenient purchase, free second-day shipping included.

I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m pretty sure that later in his book, Junger writes about the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and theorizes that PTSD might not be so much about the horrors of the battlefield, as it is about reentry into a fragmented, tribal-less society after the intensely tribal camaraderie of war. Is it really so hard to imagine this might be true?

I guess that’s one of the reasons I love haying so much. It is almost like a mini self-created disaster, all that hay down, and no choice but to get off the field before the rain. It’s social, sure, and there is plenty of laughter and teasing and plain ole shooting the shit, but it’s also serious, serious business, and everyone has their role to play, and if one person screws up, doesn’t show up or just doesn’t do what’s been agreed upon, things fall apart real fast.

Last night as I rode the wagon for one final load, right at the leading cusp of the waning light, I watched as my boys drove our truck in laps around the field, gathering errant bales. It’s been nearly a decade they’ve been helping with haying, almost as long as our younger son’s been alive – I remember propping him a protective cocoon of stacked bales on the wagon – and truth be told, sometimes they’re more helpful than others. But last night they knew the chips were down, the rain was coming, and besides, I’d given them the keys to the truck, and what pair of 11 and 14 year old boys can resist the combination of truck and mown hayfield? Hell, I can barely resist it. They swapped places between driver and passenger seats every so often, according to some metric of negotiated fairness I could not decipher from the wagon, and I knew they were tired. As was I. But there was hay to be got, and there was no one else to do it, and so we all kept plugging along until the field was clean and we could go home to bed.



22 thoughts on “There Was No One Else to Do it”

  1. I think there are two aspects of human nature: the social fabric of tribes and a desire for hard work. Yet, we fool ourselves into believing that easy is what we want. Too often we try to find ‘pain points’ in people’s lives and create a business to eliminate these points. “Oh, you don’t like raising a steer for slaughter? Let me create a CAFO for you.”

    You’ve alluded to this, but there is a certain pleasure in hard work. Unfortunately, our society rewards those who try to thwart work that is hard. Yet those wealthy individuals miss a certain satisfaction in life that can only be gained through blister-forming, sunburned, muscle aching work.

    A friend of mine, one of the wealthy few, came to me after he sold his business (I used to think I wanted to be like my friend, I’ve since learned otherwise) and he said “Liam, I’ve got enough money for the rest of my life, yet it really wasn’t fun. I moved electrons online and made money. A lot of money, but I really want to feel something when I work.” He went on to offer to help me with my business of rehabbing homes “because he enjoyed sweating hard work.”

    1. “Unfortunately, our society rewards those who try to thwart work that is hard.” I wonder when hard work, working with your hands, manual labor, became something to be looked down upon. Seems lots of folks think of you and treat you like dirt if you work outside, work in a service industry (unless their a/c goes out!), or sweat for a living. Once upon a time, it (hard work) was thought of as an honorable vocation, a badge of honor to be worn, something folks valued. I try very hard to honor those who do the hard work for me that I can’t do.

      1. We recently watched a (very bad) movie on Netflix about an apocalyptic situation and there were a bunch of white guys escaped to the mountains from the city. They found the (Mexican) squatter living in the mountain house they escaped to (fill in the blank with redneck, rancher, farmer, etc, It could have been any one of those types who have skills). Some where along the plot line they decided to kick out the Mexican. Unfortunately everything went down hill from there because the white guys didn’t know how to do anything. If they ran out of water their solution was to go into the looted town to look for some. It was just an indictment of how we as a society – by in large – have left it to certain groups of people to know how to “do things” and then the rest of us are clueless.

        But it’s not entirely so. It’s just mostly so and that’s the sadness.

        “Once upon a time, it (hard work) was thought of as an honorable vocation, a badge of honor to be worn, something folks valued. I try very hard to honor those who do the hard work for me that I can’t do.”


  2. There is no doubt that we the people have an instinct for tribalism, and neither is there doubt that much existential good comes of it. The history of the world reflects this fact. But tribalism has an smelly underbelly. War, violence, xenophobia, racism, prejudice–the history of the world reflects this fact, too.

    1. Big day in Europe today as UK votes on leaving or staying in the EU. Some proponents of the “UK community” may say they have better community without all those immigrants ruining all the community values. Some proponents of the “EU community” may say we are all a community, moods here in Lithuania are gloom about UK leaving for almost every family has a member living and making a livelihood in some part of the UK.

      If we think of the ‘smelly underbelly’ as a certain psychosis that spreads, : http://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/seeing-wetiko-on-capitalism-mind-viruses-and-antidotes-for-a-world-in-transition/
      then it does appear that strong tribes would be a perfect ground for the flourishing of such psychosis.

  3. Nothing like knowing there is “hay to be got”, getting it before rain and looking at the field as it gets wet. That is satisfaction.

  4. You might want to look up an essay written many years ago by Wendell Berry, called “Does Community Have a Value?” These days it’s hard to have a thought about the state of the world that Wendell did not anticipate.

  5. This is a problem in our lives right now. We have no tribe and we feel it. Even though we live in a small city and are surrounded by some pretty cool people, there is something very lacking. We do alot of talking but very little ‘work’. I guess it would be easier if we were in the tribe that lives for the weekend, consumes for ‘fun’, and cares about clothes, cars and keeping up with whatever garbage the government spews….but we’re weirdos and that doesn’t work for us. It’s even more rough on my daughter, whose choices of kids to play with are a neighbor girl on the left side of us who sits in front of a TV all day with a steady diet of corn syrup and zero discipline, or the little boy on the right who is mentally abusive and violent. We’re pretty fucking lonely! So unfortunately (or fortunately?), my tribe is online….on these blogs that I read that keep me going. We are getting serious about finding land in the hills, where we have some family at least. If we have to be lonely, might as well do it with some resources around, and a place to be able to HEAR…all I can hear around here is that crappy music where it sounds like a robot trying to rap, blasted at all hours. Why in the hell do people like that crap? It’s a frickin’ robot singing!??!

  6. This is part of the reason why we left the ranch. We were never really welcomed there (except by our employers). We figured out 2 things: 1/ we took a job away from a local (never mind that none of them can pass a background check) and 2/ people out there are loners (for the most part, disgruntled with anything that reminds them of the outside world). So we never felt part of any group of people. No one to call on unless you forked over money.

    In the place we are now, the first day we get here and the well goes out the neighbor comes right over and volunteers a garden hose to get us water from his well. Our well is fixed but the helpfulness of the neighbor who didn’t even know us yet was so great.

    It’s still hard to develop real tribe.

    As PM notes there is a downside.

    As a kid we little girls screamed and yelled when our 18 yo cousin would come in from haying and he would let us hang off his outstretched arm of absolute steel.

  7. Ben, thanks for continuing to write, in or out of the groove. Your words are lyrical. This article brought back the funny, hand-hurting, straw stuck memories of working to get all the hay in before it gets lost to the weather.

  8. Thank you for mentioning that PTSD may be more about leaving the tribe rather than the trauma itself. I had not thought about it like that before. My nephew had a few very rough years of PTSD after coming back from his military time in the middle east. Now thinking about it, I think you are right- he came from a really tight knit group back to the reality of America where most people are busy with their cell phones and rarely make eye contact let alone bond with one another. Thank you for giving me some real food for thought.

    Also, thank you for reminding me of my childhood days of haying. I too loved driving the truck around the field at 13 years old-ever so careful not to lose a single bale.

  9. My 4-year old helped with first cut for the first time last week. He’s been begging for weeks. He gets it: the enjoyment we get from working hard with others in community.
    (And I gotta be honest with you, if you can stack that wagon over 3 high, it ain’t a hill. Our hills have rolled over a round baler…)

  10. Beyond this very knotty tribe question – and it appears to me the dissolution of tribe in our society is deeply woven into that almighty capitalism – my 11-year-old daughter drove my car home from the neighbors the other day with her teenage sister riding shotgun. It took me a good long moment, peering down from the garden, to realize what small person was laughing joyfully behind that steering wheel. Kids and keys….

  11. Oh I can just smell that hay. Perfect combination, the hay, the sweat, and the sun in the breeze, the long evenings, the physics of balancing, and the enthusiastic boys enjoying their ever expanding freedom.

    Community… Like they say of women, can’t live with them, can’t live without them. 🙂

  12. We’re still looking for a balance between just following our own path (which seems to come with a fair share of isolation) and seeking out a tribe (which the pull toward self-sufficiency seems to thwart at times.) I’m not sure if we’ll ever have it figured out satisfactorily. I have had a fascination with apocalyptic stories and books like “The World Without Us” for quite some time and I realized what Solnit astutely observed. I don’t wish for the disaster (if only because the things that are wrong with out society become even more wrong when such things happen) but for the pulling together aspect that can follow.
    Haying time is one of my favorites of the year. Can almost feel my arms itching looking at the beautiful photo – a good thing!

  13. When I was a kid, I humped square (rectangular) bales for farmer Churchill and Downs. LOVE the smell of cured, or curing, hay that been put into windrows and ready to bale. Out west, west of the Mississippi River that is, nobody makes bales that can be handled without a tractor/loader and the hay is cut with a windrower, rather than with a tractor and sickle bar. Heck, I’ve even seen some farmers who still stack loose hay in the Elkhorn River Valley, up around O’Neil, NE.

    1. That’s right. Why is that? (Frankly, I imagined Ben bucking our large western bales and I was impressed. Now I realize….)

      Oh wait. I know the answer. (at least I think I know the answer.) In part we do this to make it hard for thieves to steal. As a matter of fact the large round bales are nearly impossible to steal. Plus you can take one out to the field and basically roll it out along the ground instead of throwing individual bales. I think they don’t have the very large cattle herds back east.

      Maybe that’s why eastern bales are small.

      Churchill Downs?

      1. I can’t image a farmer or rancher stealing from another farmer or rancher, since they know how hard they and their peers work to make a living. My farmers were John Churchill and Lloyd Downs, two older gentlemen who cut their hay fields with sickle bars attached to old 8N Ford tractors and bailed with old I-H or M-F balers.

      2. You’re right. Ranchers don’t steal from each other. It’s poor people who can’t afford to buy or those that re-sell to their poor friends who also can’t afford to buy. And what a coincidence on those names.

  14. John and Lloyd were neighbors, in that their farms abutted, but their homes were at least a mile apart. I preferred to “help” farmer Churchill, as he would let me drive his Ford Model A haying truck from the fields to the barn. Neither of them raised livestock when I “helped” them, but the still cut hay two or three times each year, probably more out of habit than to make a profit.

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