Turning the Corner to Head Back Toward the Cool

June 19, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Our oldest barn was built a century or more ago, and here and there it shows its age. When the hayloft is empty, daylight spills through scores of cracks and knotholes in the siding boards, lightening the gloom up under the roof.

But the roof itself, slate on one side and tin on the other, is still tight, and the porous siding doesn't let in much rain or snow. In fact, the extra ventilation provided by the holes and cracks seems to make the loft a better place to store hay. Over a period of several weeks, hay that was baled just a touch too green will cure satisfactorily in the old barn, while in another place it would be likely to mold and spoil.

Helped by the recent hot dry weather, we've been storing a lot of hay lately. In the last week or so, more than a thousand bales have made their way off the wagons and onto the rattly old conveyor that lifts them into the loft. By summer's end they'll be followed by several thousand more.

The bales weigh from 30 to 40 pounds, and each one has to be lifted by human hands at least twice -- off the wagon and onto the conveyor, and then off the conveyor -- before it gets stacked in the loft.

This would be hot work even in winter, but lately the loft has been a particularly warm place. It's out of the sun, but up there under the roof it's like being in a sauna.

When later in the summer the barn has been entirely filled with hay, just looking at it will provide considerable satisfaction. We'll have hay to sell, hay to feed our livestock, and hay to remind us of the physical effort it took to put it there. It's said that the firewood you cut by hand warms you twice; a loft full of hay will do the same thing, and you don't even need to burn it.

Still, it takes a lot less work to fill a hayloft now than it did years ago. In the days before balers and conveyors with electric motors were commonplace on farms, haylofts were filled with loose hay. Sometimes this was done with pitchforks, sometimes with a big mechanical claw attached to a block and tackle and raised either by a tractor or a team of horses. In either case it was slow, heavy work.

Stacking bales is a repetitive job that permits the mind to wander a little, and when I'm working in the hayloft I often find myself thinking of the ''swallow thronged loft'' in the Dylan Thomas poem ''Fern Hill.'' It's an image that sounds right, but it clashes with my own experience. The lofts I know best have pigeons nesting in them, and English sparrows, and sometimes barn owls. In the winter a family of raccoons will frequently move in. But I seldom see barn swallows there.

Our barn swallows prefer to nest on the lower level of the barn. I don't know why that is, but suspect it's because it's both cooler and safer. Once the loft is full of hay, even a nest just under the roof can be reached by a prowling cat. Perhaps in Wales they don't fill their lofts quite so full, making them more desirable as a thronging place for swallows.

As much as possible in this weather, when we're making hay that's going to be stored in the barns we try to do most of the unloading in the mornings.

Even if it's only a few degrees cooler then, that seems to help. To a certain extent, temperature is a state of mind.

The other afternoon, I was baling the last of our first cutting of hay and thinking rather cockily that the heat wasn't all that bad. The sun was intermittently obscured by some dingy clouds, and thunder was rumbling off in the distance. Perhaps we'd get lucky and have a little local rainstorm come through, preferably right after I pulled the hay wagons under cover.

After the next-to-last wagon was full I unhooked, then backed the baler up to the last empty wagon, which had been sitting out in the sun most of the afternoon. When I picked up the wagon's steel tongue it was so hot I couldn't hold onto it with my bare hands, and I dropped it. Just then, as if make sure that I got the message, the sun broke through again and the promising thunder faded away.

The professional weather prophets have been gleefully pointing out of late that this is only a ''late spring'' heat wave. Summer doesn't officially begin for a couple more days, they remind us; the implication is that while we may think it's been hot so far, we ain't seen nuthin' yet.

But those of us who regularly work outside know that August is seldom as hard to bear as July, and that July tends to be easier than June.

The significance of the summer solstice isn't that it marks the beginning of ''summer'' on the calendars. It's only important because it's the corner we turn to head back once again toward the cool.

Just ahead are shorter days and longer nights, falling leaves and the departure of the swallows, wild winter winds and ice on the windowpanes. You can anticipate these coming events with equanimity, once you have a barn full of hay.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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