Taking a book up to friend W's yesterday I couldn't help but notice the fields - all either cut grass, yellow and waiting for rain so that the grass could begin to grow again for second-cut silage, or full of sheep with their fast-growing lambs - not that far off their short (but merry) lives ending as they reach the required weight for the butcher. How very different it would all look for our forefathers if they could but see it - and indeed how different it will look no doubt in another hundred years or so.
The grass was only cut once and cut for hay. Before it was cut the farmer would survey the scene, watching for signs from the dawns, the sunsets, all manner of things which foretold what the weather was likely to be like in the week or so ahead. The cutting day had to be right - it really was all or nothing for the winter feed.
The farmer was born in 1943 and at about that time I was going to spend the Summer with my
Aunt in The Dukeries and all the way there keeping my fingers crossed that they hadn't cut the hay. It was such fun to be there from the beginning. There from the day when one of the farm horses pulled the cutter into the field of dry grass and began to cut it down. Quite modern that cutter after years of just the long-handled scythe. Round and round the field he would go at a steady pace. The two or three collies would be there waiting, knowing all too well what would happen when the last couple of rows were cut. Out would race the rabbits and hares - the dogs so excited that usually they caught nothing - too much to choose from.
Then would come the days of waiting for it to dry.
Waiting for the grasses and the wild flowers first to wilt and then - if there was the hoped-for hot sun- to dry to a crisp. Us children used to search through the grass for the nodding grasses - the tottering johnnies we called them - they went so well in a jam jar with the ox eye daisies that usually grew round the edges of the fields. The farmer would watch the sky anxiously and then one day, if all went well, the horse would be back, pulling the hay cart. Everyone would muck in - all the women would come too. They would have hay rakes, picnic boxes, bottles with cold tea in them, all kinds of drinks. And they would get set in. When the cart was full us kids would pile on the top for the ride back to the hay stack.
And meadows they are mad with noise
Of laughing maids and shouting boys,
Making up the withering hay
With merry hearts as light as play.
So said John Clare in the early 19th century. Constable painted a picture The Hay Wain, equally idyllic. Perhaps it was not quite like this - everyone got sweaty, tired, dirty, hungry and few had baths and hot water to go home to without a lot more effort.
My old father in law could remember these days and lived to see a transformation. I know which he would prefer. Although having said that, even when we made silage instead and only kept a couple of fields for his sake and the sake of nostalgia he would watch the weather carefully and proclaim the choice of date for beginning and then once the tractor had cut and the hay had been laid out to dry he would be round the edge of the field 'piking' up the remnants for an extra bale when it was baled. My farmer used to complain that this was a nuisance and more trouble than it was worth but old habits die hard In his day even the bits that had blown on to the hedges would be a treat - for the horse pulling the hay cart. He would be allowed to go round and gently pull of the sweet smelling stalks of crisp golden hay. A treat for all his hard work. By the time I came along the milk herd would be allowed in the field once the bales had been gathered in and how they would enjoy galloping round piking in the hedge-bottom and pulling the strands off the hedges. Nothing went to waste.
There were always bits of the field that were left - any curlew's nest (my farmer knew where they were and noted them carefully) was roped off with sticks and binder twine - give them at least a chance to survive - and they usually did. And the same went for the nests of pheasants.
How different it all is now. The romance has gone - if it ever existed other than in poetry and painting - which I doubt. In its place - efficient one-man farming and a good crop of winter feed and you could almost say regardless of the weather except in the most extreme circumstances.
And that's called progress.