November 06, 2003

Hay in art and literature: an outline of themes.

The Pencil, cover.In the introduction to his remarkable study of that small, humble object, the pencil, the engineering historian Henry Petroski noted that it “is so familiar as to be a virtually invisible part of our general culture and experience…” De Wint.  Haymaking.I am exploring a similar theme, equally hospitable to an eclectic and multidisciplinary approach. My subject, humble hay, has for millennia been a crucial part of human existence, an important catalyst in the transformation of humans from hunters to herders. Unlike other inventions which were part of the origin and dispersal of agriculture, hay was developed without requiring the patient, experimental domestication of specific plants. Unlike the noble grains, grass grew wherever livestock grazed. Cutting, sun-drying and storing herd animals’ native fodder helped save herder and herds from seasonal deprivation, slaughter or migration. The preserved surplus allowed animals and their dependents to survive cyclical duress, or seasons and years of insufficient rainfall or sunshine.

During the last few hundred years, while the content of hay has benefited from selective planting and crop cultivation, its form has been the object of increasingly frequent design innovations, each successfully substituting new efficiencies for traditional labor. From stone tools to metal, from hand tools to machines, first dragged by horses then driven by fossil-fueled horse-power, the artifacts associated with hay-making have changed its shape and its landscape. So hay serves as a mirror reflecting changes in ecology, economics and technology from the Stone Age, through the agricultural and industrial revolutions to the ongoing refinements of our own time.

Limbourg Bros. June detail.Like the pencil, hay is so much a part of our cultural environment that its ubiquity makes it virtually invisible except to those whose livelihood directly depends on it. If the pencil is the most basic tool of artists, hay has been one of their enduring subjects, a persistingly pleasing visual element from Limbourg’s dazzling illuminations to Lichtenstein’s dotted prints. Lichtenstein. Haystack #1 (Yellow).The hayfield is a picturesque arena of communal, seasonal work; the corduroy windrows provide texture and depth to the patchwork of summer fields; and haycocks, stacks and bales of various size and shape, have challenged generations of artists, diverse in style and philosophy, with their subtle sculpture, color and reflectivity. The soft, light-flickering impressionism of the traditional haystack, the more geometric cubism of early bales, and the gigantic, sculpted cylinders of modern, industrial hay, have attracted the aesthetic vision of hundreds of painters and photographers, yielding a specific genre somewhere between landscape and still life. Indeed, the French term for still life -- “nature morte” -- nicely captures the essence of hay art. Dead grass is given artistic life by its astonishingly diverse form, shape, color and representational style. And, if pencil and paper have long been the most basic media of the literate, hay has long been a potent and contradictory subject of literature, for example, as an evocation and environment of love-making and a symbol of death and evanescence.

Gauguin. Haystack near Arles.My continuing review of scholarship in a number of fields suggests that hay’s literary and artistic aspects have been largely neglected or ignored. A delightful exception is the Dutch website -- -- created by Wim Lanphen who focusses more closely on the architectural aspects of hay buildings, but also includes a sampling of art and literature. My own contribution will be an anthology of paintings and photographs, poetry and prose, accompanied by my own thematic essays. I shall quote gratefully from those academics whose more scholarly excursions have not prevented them from seeing the beauty and importance of hay at the sides of the roads they travel. Haymaking, Warwick, 1920s.While the geography, economy and technology of hay will inform these pieces, as will my own childhood memories of horse-drawn haymaking in the English Midlands, my primary focus will be on creative phenomenology: how hay has been perceived and employed by artists and writers, who were not directly engaged in or dependent on its production.

© Alan Ritch, Santa Cruz, California, 2003

Posted by Alan Ritch at November 6, 2003 09:20 AM