This essay will report on these two western hay-field-trips, made in the summer of 2004, one to the damp west of England and Wales, where hay has been made virtually obsolete by new technologies, and the other to the western United States, where the combination of semi-desert air and well-irrigated valleys still produces a magnificent variety of hay landscapes and hay shapes.
For centuries, the rolling summer patches of coastal Pembrokeshire were windrowed and cocked, as on the wide open fields depicted in the Dixton Manor painting described elsewhere on this site, and even today in the small fields on the peninsulas of western Ireland.
Marion Davies and her family don’t farm anymore. They can’t afford the big machines. Alun, her husband, turned to painting the wonderful Pembrokeshire scenery, and she runs a gallery of his work for the tourists who hike along the 180-mile coastal path or drive down the narrow lane from Llanrhian to the shore. Every June for centuries, the fields beside the lane would have been full of the scent of sweet Welsh hay. In June 2004, these smells and the grass that used to yield them are covered in airtight plastic.
Then, fifty or so years ago, the loose hay began to be replaced by little rectilinear bales that could still be manhandled. More recently, the fields were occupied by fewer, larger bales, rectangular or round, that needed a forklift to lift and move. Now the scenery has taken on the scale and texture of a Christo landscape (for example his Wrapped Trees, installed in Switzerland in 1997).
Huge plastic bundles, usually black and shiny as crows, occasionally white as snowdrifts, or more rarely a soft pastel green, dramatize and dominate the environment and seem to mock the mild, moist western weather which makes the grass so sweet and used to make its mowing and drying such a challenge.
These bundles have been a feature of the similarly damp New England summer landscape for more than a decade, prompting the painter Altoon Sultan to the following amibivalent observation: “this stuff - the silos, manure piles, plastic-wrapped hay, machinery - is exciting in its monumentality and sculptural presence. The ordinary ugliness of a tractor or a mound of old tires is weirdly beautiful.”
British farmers once used all their powers of observation to predict the arrival and duration of sunny dry spells between the almost relentless squalls that roll in from the Atlantic across the Irish Sea. But now they don’t need to. They used to hope for about a week of warm weather to make the hay. Now they can cut, bale and wrap on the same day. Or they can wait four days or so and wrap the half-dried grass into a hybrid called haylage, a tobacco-like material that even horses, if necessary, will digest.
Hay in the arid West.
But during a 3,000 mile journey through some of the western United States, two months later, we saw no silage, and thousands of tons of hay. Its production depended on irrigation water, usually pumped onto startlingly green alfalfa fields from streams and rivers flowing through an otherwise arid landscape.
Further north in Montana, round-bales are ubiquitous: near Townsend in the upper Missouri Valley, near Judith Gap east of the Little Belts, near Melville in the shadow of the Crazy Mountains, and pallisading the grand rolling country made famous by the novelist Ivan Doig, sout of Choteau near the Rocky Mountain Front.
Hay contributes strong formal elements to the scenic grandeur of the western landscape: as lumpy, fragrant hillocks in the Big Hole country; as staddled cottages near Jackson, Wyoming; as loaves baked under the semi-desert sun of Idaho and Oregon; or as powerful, simple squares and cylinders, assembled into battlements under the big, dry sky. In conclusion, here is a sampler of those multifarious shapes, free of the simplifying texture of plastic which protects the wetter hay of the old world west.
Posted by Alan Ritch at September 17, 2004 06:25 PM