Introduction: making a dream landscape real.
[Note: captions to the illustrations can be viewed by holding the cursor arrow over the image. Except where noted, the photographs were taken by Alan Ritch in September 2006.]
I’d already added about 200 Maramureş images to my own hayinart database, thanks to the vision and talent of such photographers as Kathleen McLaughlin , Davin Ellicson , Dan Dinescu (his autumnal hay is shown at left above), Dan Tataru (one of his magical winter scenes is at right above), Kosei Miya , Anamaria Iuga , and many others. I’d gained useful insights into the region’s historical, artistic, and anthropological context from art historian, Blue Guide author and intrepid tour leader Caroline Juler, the French architectural scholar Jean Soum (whose pictorial essay on Maramureş rightly considers its haystacks a form of vernacular architecture), a favorite Romanian ex-patriate Andrei Codrescu , and several illustrated emails from ethnographer Anamaria Iuga. And I’d been infected with enthusiasm for the place, its people and their hay-making practices by my first Romanian hay-mate, Anamaria Iuga.
One name appears in all three of the preceding acknowledgments. Anamaria had been virtually introduced to me by Caroline Juler, in a friendly comment to hayinart in April 2006: “It's fantastic to come across this website after returning from north-west Romania where a friend of mine is studying the ethnography of hay in one particular Maramureş village. She has already written some great articles about it and is keen to make contacts with other people who know about traditions connected with haymaking around the world. My friend's name is Anamaria Iuga and both she and her parents are ethnographers with a particular interest in that region.”
Geographic variations on a common theme.
The vernacular diversity of the Maramureş hayscape.
What makes the Maramureş hayscape so remarkable is the survival not just of one vernacular style but the juxtaposition of several. Paradoxically, for millennia, this area has been both crossroads and frontier, accessible enough to armies from the west and south and hordes from the east to push its boundaries and beleaguered occupants back and forth, to leave alien words on its maps and in its dialects, and diverse customs and beliefs in its folklore and its churches. Somehow, the Maramureş cultural core has persisted at the remote fringes of many empires: Roman, Ottoman, Hapsburg, Magyar, Russian, Soviet, and Ceausescuan. Before the end of the first world war, it was part of Hungary; soon after joining Romania, it lost its lands north of the Tisza to that part of Ruthenian Czechoslovakia which now belongs to Ukraine. Clearly visible across the river, more heavily forested Ukrainian Maramureş appears to lack the delightful patchwork quality of what remains south of the border and what we celebrate here.
From a single vantage point, overlooking the rolling hills between the Cosau and Mara valleys, we can still witness the polyglot vernacular of medieval haymaking in its charming diversity. If the artifacts are, as Caroline Juler eloquently describes them, “humanoid,” they range from ectomorphs to endomorphs, grown on wooden skeletons that range from skinny ragged stakes to tall, robust poles. Heavier grass draped on racks and hurdles has a more zoomorphic quality; and when the hurdles lean together the result resembles a primitive thatched hut, the drying hay pressing its claim irresistibly as a species of vernacular architecture.
Wooden structures: poles and racks.
Wooden tools: rakes and forks.
As deeply satisfying as the landscape of hay structures are the hand-made wooden tools which shape it. The rakes and forks of Maramureş are wonderfully similar to those in medieval illuminations; the simple poles used to carry mounds of hay towards the larger stacks can be seen in Pissarro’s paintings of Eragny , a nineteenth century sheet music illustration, and Emerson’s photographs of East Anglia; the make-shift log platforms that raise the stacks from the damp ground recall the nineteenth century staddles of Quebec and New England; the metal blades, an Iron Age invention, although reflecting alien manufacture and material, sustain the scythe’s centuries-old utility, reflected in its ancient iconic significance as a symbol of death. Of all the wooden tools the one which epitomizes for me the simplicity and strength of local haymaking traditions is the “furcoi” – the long fork which can reach to the top of the highest stack, far above the range of the shorter “furca.” It is selected from a straight sapling divided at its end into two or three sturdy branches, which, when stripped, cured and polished, become primitive but effective tines, capable of holding as large a bundle of hay as a strong man can lift.
Scythes and stones.
A sunny September’s second cut.
Most of the hay in this region, as in most of the northern hemisphere, is made in June and July, after the melted snow and spring rains have grown grass and flowers to a suitable height. In some years, given enough summer rains and September sun, there is time for a second cut. Fortunately for us, in 2006, August was very wet, and our visit the following month coincided with brilliant sunshine. So we were able not simply to gaze on grand scenery of serenely static stacks, but to participate in the activity of haymaking, witnessing the prehistoric process in all its phases, the shaping of an ephemeral landscape and its temporary structures, and the application of ancient tools by people who seemed not just to tolerate our enthusiasm but to welcome it.
Stick figures in the hayscape: what Romanians call germans.
Ana informed us that the skinny humanoid stacks that seem to march across the fields are called "germans." My Romanian dictionary indicates that the Romanian for German is indeed German!
The sun rose, crossing a clear blue sky in its autumnal arc, casting a golden light, enough warmth to dry the grass, and enough shadows to give definition to the drama of the work. Our stay coincided perfectly with this brilliant haying weather, and clouds did not return until the day we left.
But on two of our days in Maramureş, in spite of this persistent optimal opportunity to dry and stack the hay and in spite of the apparently tireless energy of those who did the work, the fields were abandoned, first to observe the feast day of Santa Cruz (Sfânta Cruce) and then for the usual Sunday of rest. Piety trumped the practical imperative to make hay while the sun shone. Ana told us a local legend on the price of non-observance. A farmer who made hay on Saint Peter’s Day saw his stacks turned to stone, and Ana showed us the proof: two cottage-sized rock formations on a hillside above Şurdeşti . So we too observed the feast of Santa Cruz, our own home town. And on Sunday we went to an Orthodox mass in an unorthodox, open-sided chapel above the Biserica of Sârbi. From here, during the moving but interminable and incomprehensible service, I could watch and worship, for several hours, the sun continuing its work alone in the half-cut hayfields across the valley.
We used the days of rest to make pilgrimages to several of the magnificent wooden churches for which this region is justifiably famous. Indeed the few foreign tourists we saw, while evidently indifferent to the holy hay, traveled from one biserica to another, admiring the remarkable carpentry and carving: soaring spires; delicately interwoven shingles on steeply graceful roofs; massively interlocked beams and tiny windows; and sculpted gateways profusely decorated with Christian and pagan elements.
The interiors were equally astonishing: rich in local rugs and tapestries; icons on glass; walls covered with narrative paintings on Biblical themes, often including lurid Last Judgment murals, with devils harrowing the damned, usually with scythes, sometimes with hay-rakes.
For further reading on the wooden churches of Maramureş:
Ana Barca and Dan Dinescu. The wooden architecture of Maramureş. Bucharest: Humanitas, 1997. Many of the images in this handsomely designed book on the vernacular church and farm architecture of Maramures deliberately pose the less durable but equally iconic hay structures nearby, either as hill-covering patterns or as ephemeral shapes in graveyards and farmyards. Regrettably the captions rarely identify the locations and dates of the photographs, and so the reader can only assume that the stacks are everywhere during every season. Hard to find and expensive to buy. Fortunately, selections of text and illustration are online. Joby Patterson's Wooden churches of the Carpathians: a comparative study. Boulder, CO: East European Monographs, 2001, is more modest in scope and size than David Buxton’s magisterial The wooden churches of eastern Europe (Cambridge, 1981), but her monograph is nevertheless very valuable, especially since it covers the Maramureş region on both the Romanian and Ukrainian sides of the River Tisza boundary.
Crosses and carvings.
Here are some examples of the crosses and the carved wooden porches and gateways which mark the entrances to every churchyard and traditional farmyard.
Woodcarving, carpet weaving: Toader Barsan, Barsana and Roxie the priest's daughter of Botiza.
Making hay in graveyards: Sighet.
The graveyards of Maramureş, crowded with ancient, indecipherable headstones, often had enough space for small hayfields, and the stones and stacks, so different in their functions, seemed companionable and complementary in form. Two cemeteries were particularly striking. Close to the center of Sighet, a large field surrounded by high walls is the site of an ancient Jewish graveyard. Only half of it is occupied by headstones. Thousands of Sighet Jews expected to use the rest died elsewhere in the 1940s. Hay, of course, is grown on the ground they would have occupied.
Making hay in the Merry Cemetery of Săpânţa.
A few miles to the west, along the River Tisza, we visited the more famous and much more cheerful cemetery at Săpânţa, where each grave is marked by an elaborately carved and brightly painted monument, illustrating the lives of those who lie there with light-hearted verses and a picture of their favorite activities. Not surprisingly, the various stages of hay-making were well represented in these paintings, the men usually with scythes and the women with rakes, often with descriptive backgrounds of windrows, cocks, or stacks. One depicted a sopron, the local hayshed, clearly enough to show peg-holes in the posts. At the edge of the picture gallery of this so-called Merry Cemetery, a real woman was raking real hay.
Making and stacking hay.
Around these holy intermissions, we watched the classic, secular narrative unfold. After the early morning scything, the flattened grass and flowers were left for several hours until the dew had left them. Then the tedders, women with rakes and men with forks, came to turn and toss the half-dried hay into loose windrows. By the end of the first day, if the air had been warm enough, these rows were consolidated into waist-high mounds. Damper weather or a denser crop, rich in broad-leafed herbs, would limit the rate of the mounding or the size of the mounds. Where the incipient hay was especially heavy, it was hung on the stakes and racks, raised from the moist ground, protected from the next night’s dew and shaped to shed unexpected showers. Drying strategies varied, in their details, from valley to valley, village to village, and meadow to meadow, according to subtle custom and conditions. When the hay was dry enough, the mounds were poled towards a platform made of logs and twigs, the imminent stack’s protective foundation, surrounding a tall pole, its supportive spine. The stacks took two or three hours to build.
The Făt Family of Daneşti.
We watched the Făt family build one of theirs on a hillside between their village of Daneşti and Ana’s Şurdeşti. Grandpa Vicentiu whom we’d seen working with his scythe earlier in the week, used a wooden fork to lift large clumps of still green plants meshed together by their hours in the rows and mounds, onto the staddle until the growing stack was shoulder high.
Then Grandma Olga climbed on top with a fork which she used to guide successive blocks of hay into their appointed places, dexterously maintaining her own balance and that of the symmetrical pile, stamping it into a consistent density, more compressed than the component forkfuls thrust up to her.
Vicentiu kept her busy and was himself kept busy by his daughters, Măriuca and Florica, repeatedly poling mounds to the base of the stack, and raking together residual mounds of the strands that were left. His grandsons, Andrei and Razvan, dressed in identical red and blue shirts with the “19” and “ Messi” on their backs, also helped, though with less consistent energy.
After a couple of hours, when the stack was about ten feet tall, Vicentiu was joined in his heavy lifting by his son, Gheorghe, coming from his day job as a driving instructor, but evidently a strong and skillful user of the long furcoi, the best tool for lifting hay up to his mother, who by then was using a traditional rake to shape the dome as it began to taper in towards the central pole. When the stack had reached the furcoi’s limit and there was barely room for Olga to stand and stamp, Gheorghe lifted a large bundle of inferior hay, which had been left standing too long to maintain its sappy nutritive potential but long enough to create a straw-like texture, perfect for a rough, thatch-like roof. When this had been packed meticulously so that the stems sloped downwards, Vicentiu wove a tight wreath the size of a crown.
The architecture and husbandry of Maramures hay.
We saw parts of this process repeated, with minor variations, weather-proofing domes of hay throughout Maramureş. In some fields the stacks were clustered like affectionate families; elsewhere they were scattered equidistantly.
The soprons of Maramureş.
In the valleys of the Mara and Cosau, they were sheltered by adjustable wooden structures, hay-sheds with roofs that can be raised and lowered, known locally as soprons, in Hungary as aboras, and in the Netherlands, where our friend Wim Lanphen is tirelessly collecting every surviving example, as hooibergs. The Dutch brought them to Manhattan in the seventeenth century, and they were common in New England and as far south as Pennsylvania until the early twentieth century. They survive in Maramures both in the fields and near the farmyards, where they serve as fodder storage structures, from which the insatiable cows, confined in the milking sheds for most of the year, can be conveniently supplied.
Moving the Maramureş hay.
Anamaria Iuga estimates that three haystacks are enough to feed a single cow through the winter months. The rest are shared among the other livestock: the horses, oxen and buffalo that pull the summer wagons and winter sleds; the pigs that also convert squash and slops to protein; and the sheep that migrate with the seasons from the high pastures of summer to the winter valleys.
Middens to mechanization: technology and culture.
The medieval hay landscapes of Maramureş are glorious relics, preserved and annually renewed by the hands and muscles of local farm families. The repetitive intensity of the work required, mowing, drying and stacking the hay with wooden tools, and transferring it successively with poles and wagons and sleds from fields to stacks and farmsteads, is unlikely to survive the temptations of labor-saving technology. Already the signs of cultural transition are evident: satellite dishes share wooden balconies with drying vegetables; washing machines save women from bitter visits to the traditional wooden whirl-pools in icy winter rivers; in-house plumbing may soon subvert the ubiquitous out-houses near the cowsheds; and middens in which human and animal waste are mixed may not survive international regulations, if and when Romania joins Europe.
Haysleds and middens.
Maramureş farm food.
Cultural transitions: bodies on wagons and on the ground.
Hay dolls and uncut grass around the plum-trees.
In the field surrounding the the country headquarters of the IUGA Foundation, dedicated to the preservation of rural traditions and decorated with dolls of twisted hay, we saw and heard the successor to the scythe cut down the grass and flowers far more rapidly and far more noisily than the latter ancient tool. Labor is saved, and the sweet song of the scythe drowned out by the new device. Above its racket, serving us hay-tea on the balcony of the wooden house, Anamaria observed that it was incapable of mowing around the plum trees’ trunks, where a fringe of uncut, wasted grass would reveal the evidence of progress.
Maramureş hay in art: the Baia Mare (Nagybanya) School.
Once the metropolis of Maramureş, Budapest is now of course in another country. But the Hungarian National Gallery preserves several paintings of Maramures hay from a century ago when several post-impressionists moved from the capital to the ancient mining town known as Nagybanya or Baia Mare. This art colony in the provinces had many 19th century precedents in western Europe and New England: the Barbizon school; Pissarro and Cezanne in Pontoise, Gauguin and Bernard in Brittany; the Hudson River School ; I Macchiaioli in rural Tuscany; and others. Each of these schools was inspired by nostalgia for a rural landscape that was already disappearing; many of their members found in the traditional haystack, a perfect symbol for agricultural ephemera. Those who took their easels into the villages and hayfields of Maramureş would have been pleased to see how much of the scenery would remain unchanged for another hundred years, continuing to inspire artists, craftspeople and photographers in the twenty-first century.
Bela Ivanyi Grunwald (1867-1940).
Simon Hollosy (1857-1918).
Sandor Ziffer (1880-1962).
Samu Bortsok (1881-1931), Janos Mattis Teutsch (1884-1960), Istvan Reti (1872-1945).
David Jandi and Imre Szobotka (1890-1961).
Twenty-first century continuity: Mariana Ionaitescu (1952- ), Silvia Boar, a Botiza rug.
An Open Air Museum and an open air museum?
In modern Hungary, the vernacular variety of a century ago now survives only in its magnificent Open Air Museum, Skanzen , near the Budapest suburb of Szentendre, itself once an active artists’ colony. There you can find reconstructed villages and farmsteads from every region, as they were before their disruption of the Great War and homogenization during the following decades. Hay barns of wood and reeds, with roofs of thatch or shakes or tiles, illustrate the delightful diversity of the pre-industrial past. Beehives evoked in miniature the graceful domes of hay we had seen in their thousands.
Haystacks are too seasonally ephemeral and their landscapes too extensive to be preserved as museum artifacts. Sentimentally, we yearn for Maramures to be protected as a regional monument to pre-medieval life and work. More modestly, perhaps the farms and fields of Ana’s beloved Şurdeşti could be deemed worthy of the international reverence and protection already given by UNESCO to that village’s famous church. A precedent for this might be found in the Kaunergrat Naturpark in Austria which integrates traditional haymaking into Alpine scenery. Unless an unlikely alliance of imagination, politics, and funding is forged, the Romanian rural landscape may soon be transformed by EU regulation and investment into the ubiquitously humdrum international style of mega-bales. If you’ve read this far, I urge you to go to the real Maramureş and see the regionally distinctive remains of vernacular hay, before it becomes fodder for the all-too-common market.
Maramureş ephemera: to Ana Iuga, with thanks.
The objects in this landscape have their own half-lives.
Mowed wilting flowers will drop their seeds and live again.
The damp windrows will be shaken free of dew,
heaped in mounds or mini-spires to lose more sap,
then piled and stamped into the bee-hive towers.
The haystacks in their hundreds will decorate the hills,
awaiting sleds of winter and transfer to the steaming cows,
behind the ropey wooden gates of yards and barns.
Those who scythe the flowers and wield the rakes,
fork high the hay and shape the summer domes,
then break them down to pile the horse-drawn sleds,
and raise the roofs of sheds to fit the fodder
for animals that work and make the milk and meat,
survive a while themselves then gravely settle down,
clustered in the shadows of the shingled spires,
under stones that eventually forget their names.
Mysteriously, through lore and love, they all live on.
Although the cherished hay may cede to baleful change,
and abandoned thatch uncured by smoke decays,
and the weather tears apart the shingle scales,
and blunts the edgy details of the gates,
and fades and cracks the color of the painted signs,
and erodes the words from the stone-stacked graves,
we shall always see them in each other’s eyes.