Thursday, July 05, 2007

“The thicker the hay; the easier mowed.” Alaric, King of the Visigoths from 395 to 410AD.

Perhaps Alaric was a bit of an expert on hay, which is more than can be said for me. Yet again, I found myself with a necessary task to do but with no experience or idea of what to do or how to do it. “Make hay while the sun shines” is a saying I do know, yet applying a mid 16th century proverb to a real field of grass is another thing altogether. What’s needed are a few successive sunny days, dry at the very least. Not, you might think, too much of a problem in June in France (I’m a bit behind with my recounting of our permaculture life here in Brittany) but you’d be mistaken as we’ve received over twice the average expected rainfall in June and we’ve already had a third of July’s in the first four days of the month.

Someone who is an expert on both the weather and making hay is the veritable Annike, seen in the photo advising me on the relative dryness, and thus suitability for baling, of a small field of cut grass. The field adjoins one of ours (where we’ve put our sheep) and belongs to a Parisian gentleman who has a holiday home in our hamlet. He’s only here a couple of times a year, so it’s helpful to him to have it cut for hay, hay that’s useful to us now that we have animals. Paul, the pig farmer, kindly offered to help me cut the hay with the smallest and oldest of his tractors, an aged Massey Ferguson. He’d arrived one evening, just as Gabrielle and I were winding down and thinking of cooking dinner, to suggest that there was a window of opportunity (i.e., the promise a few successive dry days) to cut the hay. Hungry, I wondered whether this was something I could do tomorrow but I have come to interpret the subtle variations of his noncommittal shrug of his shoulders and realised that he meant right then. And then there was a dent in the panel, which meant it bound on the rubber drive-belt and necessitated a repair: unbolting the cover and beating it with a hammer over an anvil and so it went on. I finally got to eat dinner around ten o’clock in the evening … hay waits for no man.

Once cut, the hay needs tossing, turning over to allow it to dry. Paul doesn’t have an attachment to do that, as he doesn’t actually use hay for his pigs. So, two days after it was cut, I went into the field, alone with an ordinary garden fork. The frustrations of the persuasive ideas of permaculture and the simple instructions which trip off the pages of the manual compared to the reality of standing in front of the field of hay with a garden fork and no bloody idea what I’m meant to do. It was back breaking stuff and not the time to discover that I still have the vestiges of hay fever. It was not so much that I ran out of paper hankies, which I did, but rather that the sneezes became ever more forceful and frequent that I just gave up and carried on regardless, roaring and snorting away in succession of life-threatening sneezes with spittle all over my face and strings of snot hanging from my nose.

Two days later, I was again in the field, this time armed with an old hay fork that I’d found and re-handled. It’s rounded shoulders, wider tines and longer handle meant that the job took half the time and was actually quite pleasant (it’s this tool that Annike is holding in the photo). I then asked Annike to come and look at the field to see if it was ready, then made a coup de fil (telephone call) to Paul who had arranged for the retired, 72 year old, Robert to turn up with his baling machine. Nowadays, hay and straw are usually baled in huge round bales, only moveable with a large tractor and the small bales are therefore much more useful to us. We now have eighteen bales of hay but I’ve no idea what our animals will consume over the winter months and will buy some in, if necessary.

As for Alaric (see pic) he wasn’t the farming expert I suggested but was merely using “The thicker the hay; the easier mowed” as a metaphor for the ease with which he would slay the emerging citizens he was trying to starve out of Rome: pleasant fellows, these Visigoths.