Vagneur: The art of making hay
The ritual is not as old as civilization itself, but it ranks right up there and signals the gradual shift from hunting and gathering to the pastoral and farming way of life. You get a couple of wild goats tied up near the tent or domesticate a yak or two, and the first thing you know, it’s winter and you have to feed the damned things. And so began the civilized tradition of putting up hay.
Hay, as the term is generally used, is made up of various grasses, generally perennial in nature, harvested in the cool, dry Colorado mountain air and stored until needed in the winter months as livestock feed. We all know when it’s haying season — freshly cut hay is unmistakable with its sweet, lush aroma, wafting through our olfactory senses as we pass by a recently incised field.
The production of hay is essential to cattle, horse, sheep or other ranching enterprises in the Roaring Fork Valley, and there aren’t many cowboys who have the distinction of strictly riding horses and roping cows for a living. I probably shouldn’t say that, because there are some who do, at least in their own minds, but during haying season every one pitches in because there is a lot of work to be done in a short period of time. Sunny days are spent riding hay equipment — rainy days are spent on the open range when it’s too wet to harvest hay.
Funny how that attitude of being a cowboy who “only ropes and rides” rolls around, though. Many years ago, when I was in the horse business, I’d occasionally pick up a young hitchhiker in town or along Highway 82, and almost immediately the conversation would turn to horses, and before long the offer would be made, from the hitcher, that if I ever needed help, just give ’em a call. And come September, we’d be looking for strong young guys to aid in hauling about 150 tons of hay to the winter ranch in Carbondale, and I’d call, and the reply would invariably be, ”I meant if you ever needed help riding the horses.”
Haying isn’t grand or glamorous unless it gets inculcated into your being at an early age — and then you think it’s one of the greatest things in the world. Maybe it gets inherited or stuck in your genes or whatever. George Vagneur, in his written history of our family, relays the account of my great-grandfather, at a young age in northern Italy, working the hayfields side-by-side with much older men, swinging a razor-sharp scythe through thick hay, being careful not to encroach on the men on either side of him. Maybe I can trace my commitment back to those days or likely even further.
It was much tougher physical work in the era of hand-cutting, but no matter our stage in the evolutionary development of technology, we always think we’re close to leading charmed lives and don’t know what we don’t know. A better scythe leads to a horse-drawn mower, which leads to a motorized device of the same utility, which leads to better and easier ways to lay down swaths of hay. At least until something breaks down, and then suddenly the sweeping hack of an unpretentious scythe or a horse-drawn implement can seem quite alluring.
When I was 10, my grandfather taught me how to rake hay on a Farmall O-6 tractor (with a hand clutch) and I’ve been at it ever since, a tradition I truly love. Through debilitating bouts of hay fever, tropical-like rainstorms, broken-down machinery, threats of divorce and a glut of other obstacles, my desire to put up hay has never faltered.
It is a beautiful dance, from the irrigating of the grass early in the season to watching it grow to maturity, the purple flowers blossoming on the alfalfa, the orchard and Timothy grass drooping with huge buds, slathered in pollen, deciding when to cut the hay, based in part on the weather forecast and then diving headfirst into a commitment that might last a couple of months. And still, on rainy days, we get to ride for cows in the high country.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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