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Make Hay While the Sun Shines

FOUR and three-quarter acres of mature grass confronted us when we moved into our new home in the country. We are city born and city bred, and our one mechanical garden tool is a 10-year-old hand mower that suited our needs and temperaments perfectly in our city home with its modest-size lawn. We've always preferred the quiet mower to a gas-powered one, much as we prefer our canoe to a motorboat, and our cross-country skis to downhill. The more subtle approach, though usually more strenuous, has always suited us.

Initially, hay, straw, grass, alfalfa, oats, were all blurred to our understanding. We couldn't distinguish one from the other in appearance, use, or value, but regardless of the botanical identification, our fields required immediate motorized attention. Since a scheduled vacation was already on our calendar for the following week, we took the advice of our real estate agent and contacted a neighbor to cut and bale the hay for us. We would sell it to a local farmer and make a slight profit, while removing the threat of fire from our property.

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Our neighbor with tractor and mower arrived midmorning and immediately set to the task at hand. Man and machine bounced on a spiraling trip round and round each of the two pastures. He seemed almost reckless, though intent, while mowing the grass, reversing directions to catch the corners, looking behind the mower more often than ahead to be sure he'd adequately overlapped his path.

The irregular ground, peppered with mole holes and mounds, challenged the stability of the tractor, and the closer he got to the center of his course, the more breathless seemed his mission, but he slouched in easy control on the lurching machine.

Within three hours the grass lay a conquered mat in the fields, to my thought ready to be raked and baled, but our taciturn friend said, `` back 'n rake it t'marra.''

The next morning the same jolting journey was taken around the pastures, as he raked the grass into a path circling ever inward. ``Bale it when it's dry'' was the communication of the day.

OUR holiday in an adjoining state was imminent, so we let him know we'd be gone for a week and he should bale the hay when it was right. Lacking a truck or a trailer and the practical know-how, we were left at this point with the unsolved problem of moving the bales into our barn. Into the loft seemed out of the question.

We returned the next week and saw the bales, all 282 of them, sitting picturesquely in our fields. Ready to muster our two grown sons from their distant apartments to help load the hay into a borrowed truck, we approached our first big country job with a few misgivings.

In addition to being nutritious and fragrant, hay is dusty and prickly and the bales are heavy. ``Hay bucking'' is exhausting labor best left to football players in training and retired sumo wrestlers.

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At this point we met some new friends at church who, when told where we lived, casually said, ``Oh, you're the folks with the spoiled hay.''

As this comment was repeated two or three times in the next few days, we learned the real meaning of the admonition to ``make hay while the sun shines.'' The bales had been rained on in our absence, and would soon sour and spoil. The hay was unfit for animal feed and we were stuck with it! A $250 lesson in working the land. Instant empathy with the plight of the farmer!

The hay, edible or not, salable or not, had to be moved out of the fields or the grass beneath it would be killed. The bales could not be stored in the barn because of the heat generated in the decomposition process, already begun.

NOW the actual weight of the harvest was impressed upon us. For four consecutive evenings, after full days of work, we loaded six or seven bales into our garden cart and pulled them to the edges of the fields, where we carefully constructed piles four bales high.

We tried not to think of the passing motorists, most of them farmers themselves, and what their impression of us newcomers might be - moving all that hay by cart and muscle. But, job completed, each night we relished that glorious feeling of accomplishment that can come only to a truly tired body.

Now the irony in the whole lesson is this. We've rented one of the pastures to the owner of two horses, Red and Nelly. There's ample green grass growing on the two acres for them, but what do they enjoy? They love pulling apart the baled hay; and we frequently see them standing, as though at a lunch counter, munching away at the inedible, unsalable, spoiled, and useless hay!

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