Cut grass, the scent of summer – or at least of silaging. Diesel fumes linger in the air and the nitrogen-fertilised monochrome ryegrass to me has an unpleasant whiff of seaweed washed up after a bad storm. Silaging has been going on round here for the past fortnight. It’s bad news for ground nesting birds - curlews, oyster-catchers, skylarks - whose numbers have plummeted in the last two decades, but good news for the corvids and gulls which circle round for rich pickings of rodents, frogs and invertebrates.
My father made hay but his aim was the same as the silagers – to gather enough fodder to feed the livestock through the winter. On our smallholding the grass was cut later in the year and our fields yielded what conservationists would call a herb-rich mixture of grasses and wild flowers. My father reckoned that mixture made the best hay. The fields had not been ploughed within living memory and you could still see the pre-enclosure ridge and furrow lines. The smell was a wonderful mix of all those plants and grasses. He would leave a small square uncut in the middle of the field, get off the tractor and save the shrews, mice and voles.
Hay-making was a collaborative effort. When I was a student I would come home after the summer exams to join in. We needed several days of hot dry weather to cut, turn, dry and cart the hay. There was a fine ratio between how much grass could be cut and the time needed to gather it in safely. Long daylight hours meant exhausting hours of work. Sweat on our skin attracted grass seeds, thistle thorns, microscopic black insects and a general grey grime.
We were driven by fear – fear that the fickle Warwickshire heatwave would implode into a thunderstorm, fear that damp hay in the barn would spontaneously combust months later, fear of a hard winter to come – like 1963 – and having to buy in expensive and lower quality fodder. But there was satisfaction and relief and cold beer when the last trailor was safely unloaded.
So, while the forage harvesters drone on, I have been thinking of hay poems.
Gillian Clarke’s “Hay” begins “Seven hold their breath, / their full arms itch with gleanings”. You can feel the unyielding heat – “Not a cloud sails on, / not a leaf stirs”. There are horses (one of them flicks an ear) and their skin “shivers off the flies.” Only towards the end does the reader realise that the poem is describing a photograph of hay-making long ago.
Robert Wrigley “Hay Day” www.versedaily.org/2009/hayday.shtml and “Hay for the horses” by Gary Snyder (thanks, Mick, for this one) www.poemhunter.com › Poems › Gary Snyder: both describe a hay delivery for their horses. Robert Wrigley puts magic into an apparently ordinary day and captures the excitement of the horses eating their smooth brome hay from the new big bale while Gary Snyder ends his poem with the voice of the delivery driver.
Paul Muldoon has a whole volume called Hay and the title poem is an apparently unassuming sonnet, beginning “This much I know”. But surely there is more going on than bales of hay transported on beat up Volvos when a poet from Northern Ireland talks about “a right turn / off Province Line Road” and a bale exploding (though he doesn’t use that word). It is Muldoonianly enigmatic: “... when one bursts, as now, something takes flight / from those hot-and-heavy box pleats. This much, at least, I know.”
You can find “Hay” on www.hayinart.com – go to “Hay poems of the late twentieth century” and Paul Muldoon. On this site the poem is followed by “The Plot”, Muldoon’s witty concrete poem which shows the poet working a linguistic field.
* My title is a phrase from Robert Wrigley’s “Hay Day”