Out the side of my house, the long hayfield that lies between my lawn and the gray house next door lies slain. The first cut of this hay season was Monday. At about five in the evening I cracked open the basement door for the breeze and lay down a moment on the couch to watch a documentary about Mongolian camel drivers. An unnatural rumble deepened outside, and my eyes focused on the reflection in the TV screen. Heaving into view: the gargantuan contraption they use to hay with nowadays. I mean this thing is effing HUGE; its blades are mounted on a span that extends perhaps 20 feet out on either side. It’s huge, and it moves at the pace of huge things; advancing at a creep, it still covers vast territory in a wink. It goes about half a mile an hour, and levels a 40-foot swath at every pass. Two passes around this 5 acre field take maybe 18 or 20 minutes, and she’s done.
When we farmed (15 years ago), Brian Gerrow and Scott Meehan would make a morning’s project out of that field with the John Deere. Up and back, up and back they went, the mower’s barrel of blades chopping and churning like paddle wheels in a foaming green wake. Critters scattered before them — mice, moles, voles — or were caught, singly, and crushed or decapitated. And I know men here whose living memory includes doing this work by hand, with a blade, a wagon, two pitchforks and a horse. Scott Reed may even remember doing this very field that way. It might have taken most of a day.
Critters could get away easily then. Here would come the men, advancing: swish go their scythes; their tread dull on the dark earth, muffled by weeds; the horse: snorting, standing in the heat, its ears flicking; a few flies circling, undecided, not alighting; the creak of the wagon’s wheels against a backdrop (distant) of a june bug’s whine. The smell: of harness, hot sun and cut grass. A critter could smell all this, and hear it all coming, and take time to decide in which direction evasion lay.
From this new rig, though — there is no “away.” The behemoth is upon you, and upon every reach away you could possibly get to, all at the same time. The best a critter might do is to get really l-o-w down and hope the wheels pass to the left or the right. A critter would be lucky to ride it out below the swipe of the blade.
I went to New London for the day on Tuesday. While I was gone, the temperature here climbed into the 90s. The cut grass turned crispy and puckered and its deep, green aroma dried out and darkened. At midday along came a rake, fumbling through the chop, tossing it together in mounded narrow rows, doodling free-hand across the hummocks and down into the cuts where the springs and streams have retreated. The sun became a hot coin on a white cloth; it burned all the blue out of the sky. By the end of the afternoon when I got back, even the birds had been driven to cover.
A storm alert went out. Up and down the highway, the farmers’ NOAA radios blurted out the warning. On the weather channel maps, legions of translucent yellow rectangles leaned into the eastern regions where we live, and squads of jagged white lightning bolts blinked there in unison. Thunderstorms! High winds! Dangerous lightning! Possibly hail! Even a chance of tornadic activity! Computers are switched off in the white town hall in the village. Everybody there is sent home. One or two stop by the store where the news is spread and weighed. One or two employees reach for their own switches, but just then the owner walks in and says We don’t make any money with the doors closed. and reluctantly they reverse themselves. Those who are homeward bound depart.
For hours the hot air hangs over us all. In the distance we can hear the booming that was forecast, but nothing happens here. We do not see the towering anvil of a thunder cloud. Dusk draws on. Clouds in the western sky obscure the sunset. The darkness deepens; colors are leached from the land. For a moment a sunbeam strays out and strikes the crested edge of a cumulus cloud; we see a smudge of pearl and pink against a charcoal sky, but then that dims, too. The rain starts.