My grown children had taken off in three directions--canoe camping, weekending at the cottage, and traveling to Cape Cod. I went on a bike ride in the countryside with eyes-wide-open. I noticed stacks of hay, which triggered my own imaginary video that took me back a half-century in time.
I love old barns, but nowadays I noticed they are seldom used, and most are dreadfully dilapidated. The rusted tin roofs sag over gray weather-beaten barn boards which have shrivelled with age, leaving wide gaps for sunlight, rain and snow to filter through. Barn doors remain open, hang askew on rusty hinges, or have fallen off. Some barns have collapsed to ground level because of heavy snow or wind. Others are shored up by log buttresses. A rare sight is an ancient log barn in a fallow field. Usually the chinking has fallen out and one can see right through its ribs.
I notice how times have changed since I was a kid. The old method of stacking hay to dry is gone, this was followed by the rectangular bales of hay, and now it’s the round bales. I noticed how farmers store this cylindrical fodder. Some round bales are stacked neatly under an open-sided structure with a simple roof to keep the rain off. Other farmers shrink-wrap each round bale like a giant marshmallow, and store these in a row, like giant white caterpillars. Others stuff these bales into one long white sausage. I was solo cycling on Ramsayville Road, and noticed a very different method of storage. The round bales were stored six deep, and stacked on top of each other in rows five-wide tapering to a single row. A silver insulating plastic tarp was thrown over this triangular pile and held in place with ropes weighted down by old tires. These silver tents looked so simple and functional.
The haystacks started my mind going. I began thinking of fresh hay of my childhood, something I had not thought of since I was a young girl in Rawdon. I thought of the fun I had with the farmer, his son, and friends. Today’s farmer’s family would never know that experience.
From far away, we could hear Farmer Charlie Roarke cutting hay. Sound seemed to travel so far in the quiet countryside. We knew if it stayed hot and dry for a period of time, the hay would dry quickly and we would be able to help Charlie by being “Tampers” (I insisted on saying “Trampers”.) Usually at an evening milking, he would tell us when he would need our help. It was usually a hot sunny day. We would rush down the hill to the hay barn, and watch as he hitched the two old mares, Lady and Birdie, to the hay wagon. This wagon normally stayed idle in the hay barn, during the rest of the year.
Getting the hay wagon ready had its special sounds, clinking and jangling of harnesses, hitches, and chains; Charlie’s orders to the horses, clomping of horses’ hooves on wooden floor, squeaking of wooden wheels, rusty hubs, buzzing of flies, swishing of tails, and snorting of horses. When Charlie was finally ready, we were allowed to sit on the huge empty hay wagon, and he’d ride us to the hayfield. Usually his son and a few bigger boys from the nearby cottages would pitch in to help. The wagon ride was always bumpy on the old rutted road with green grass in the raised centre. There was no such thing as a road grader to smooth out the rough road surface—just start another road a foot or two to the left or right.
I must have been 11 or 12. I knew enough to wear jeans, to prevent the hay from scratching my legs; I remember wearing a straw hat, but no sunscreen, no UV sunglasses, nor a water bottle. These latter items didn’t exist. One of the older boys drove the horses. The old mares listened to Charlie’s orders of Whoa to stop, and a click of his tongue to start them moving. Charlie thrust his lethal pitchfork into a huge pile of hay and heaved it onto the hay wagon. That’s when we jumped on the hay and tamped it down. Fresh hay had a very special sweet smell. It was often mixed with other wild plants; there were no herbicides in those days. Naturally we chewed on a piece of dry hay. Sounds of crickets or flying black and white winged grasshoppers filled the air, and the ever-present crows. The hay pile kept growing, we kept jumping, and falling, to tamp the hay, it was glorious happy fun. I don’t know where Charlie had the strength to pitch the loose hay so high on the wagon. He seemed dwarfed under an enormous umbrella of hay. Sometimes the wagon would lurch. Did we worry about toppling to the ground—no. Did we worry about runaway horses—no. Did we worry about seat belts, or crash helmets—no. Did we worry about getting caught up on those awful big wooden-spoked wheels with enormous hubs, held in place by a cast iron tire—no. It was truly a carefree, worry-free, feeling of innocent childhood.
When the wagon could hold no more, Charlie took the reigns and we made our way to the hay barn. This time we sat on top of a gigantic load of hay. To a young kid it seemed as high as a two-storey building. We had to duck under the overhead trees. Hay would get caught up on the tree branches, barbed wire fence, and some would drop to the dirt road. As Charlie unloaded the hay, we helped with the tamping in the barn. Sometimes we’d deliberately stand under a shower of hay. We were hot, tired, and thirsty, but we were happy because we experienced a grown up adventure, we did something important. Charlie never paid us, we did this for fun, and it was thrill enough for us to be allowed to help out. After all, if we were sissy kids he wouldn’t let us help.
Naturally, we had to go swimming to cool off. What an unexpected surprise when we jumped into Charlie’s Hole (a wide part of the small river). Although we wore jeans, the hay had scratched and poked through at our legs and arms. Our whole body would sting as we jumped into the water. Ouch!! Didn’t matter, we were tough, after all we were Trampers. And to quench our thirst we just drank some fast flowing water from Charlie’s hole. It never occurred to us that Charlie’s cattle often crossed this river.
I loved the hay barn; it was nestled between the horse stable and milking stable, which was next to the chicken coop, and pigsty. We used to play in the hay. We’d set up a ladder and dive from an overhead beam into the hay. The barn doors usually remained open in the summer. There were always bird nests in the beams and birds flying in and out of the barn. When the evening sun would stream in and magnify the golden specks of dust. We’d lie back in the hay and just talk about everything and nothing.
Once the hay was in and it settled down, the odd free-range chicken would decide to reproduce rather than provide eggs for Charlie. We’d find the nest in the hay and watch every day until the little yellow chicks were hatched. In the evening, mother hen sheltered her chicks under her wings. We could hear little peeps coming from the huge oversized hen, and every now and then a tiny chick’s head would pop out through the hen’s feathers. I’m sure Charlie enjoyed many a roasted chicken dinner in the wintertime.
We never saw rodents in the barn; there were too many cats around. There were always litters of kittens. Somehow the litters diminished in size. I kept thinking they fell prey to larger animals. I refused to believe what the bigger boys told me—that Charlie drowned the tiny kittens in the river.
We’d often go to the barn on a rainy day and just lie in the hay and listen to the rain on the tin roof. The empty hay wagon was parked dead centre in the barn, hay stored on either sides, almost to the rafters. We could hear the wind outside and the streaming of rain on the ground. Rainy days were for doing nothing.
. . . . So I went for a bike ride today, and I became transported in time. My time machine took me back a half-century. I realize how much freedom I had as a kid, how much my mom trusted me, how much I learned for myself, how much innocent unstructured fun I had. It was another generation, another time. I realize how much the world has changed since then, my “tramping” is an experience of the past. Am I really that old???
I wish I could show you the spot I’m describing, but it’s not meant to be. After Charlie died, the small one-family farm stopped its operation. The abandoned hay barn collapsed. The hay fields grew into forests. The old farmhouse became a summer cottage. Several cottagers still live in the scenic valley. Since you can’t go back in time with me, I’m putting this in writing so that I might be able to share my past with you.
I think I have always gone through life with “eyes wide open”. I still remember sights, sounds, and thoughts from when I was a little kid. I was a youngster when the vision of Charlie lifting hay with his pitchfork over his head, reminded me of a hay umbrella.