Wednesday, 10 June 2015
I don't notice the roar of farm machinery passing up and down the road anymore, living in the country makes you immune to those kinds of sounds. But having nothing to do, must have oiled the gears of my memory, as I noticed a huge John Deer tractor round the bend in the road, pulling behind it a machine that either made round hay bales, or launched missiles into space. By the look if the yoke, it was capable of either. The teen behind the wheel, was bouncing around on his air-cushioned, ergonomically formed, drivers seat, cocooned from the noise and dust, inside the air conditioned cab of the monster. I doubt you would see much change out of a hundred thousand euro, for the two of them.As I watched the massive, and massively expensive, piece of machinery vanish into the distance, it made me think of my youth spent working on farms.
In my teens, the places I worked had tractors too. Most of them were open-wheeled and cab-less. The closest we got to air cushioned seats was when the wind blew from behind. Back then the work was sure to make your hands hard and your heart soft. Every job seemed to take an army to complete, and there was never a shortage of helpers. If the sun was shining, you'd never find a child indoors. The only possible reason for such an un-natural occurrence was dire illness. Those were great days, but not the greatest. My greatest ever farming memory took place long before then, in a time when I'm sure I was more hindrance than help, in the stony fields of Galway. That golden memory is of the day I made a Rick with Willy Rabbit.
In Galway, in the early seventies, most of the work was done by hand. The small uneven fields lent themselves to this way of toil. The hay was cut by scythe, and left lie where it fell, to dry. After a few days, the hay had to be turned, again by hand. I remember going over the fields with Willy, my short handled pitch fork over my six year old shoulder, proud to be doing a man's work. I so wanted to keep up with Willy but that was an impossible task. I was sore and tired when Mrs Rabbit appeared in the field with a basket. She laid out ham sandwiches, lumps of apple tart, on a cloth spread over the ground. What fascinated me most was what she produced next. Glass Lucozade bottles with milky, sweetened, tea inside, each wrapped in several layers of newspaper. I can still taste that tea hitting my tongue and it will go with me to the great beyond as one of my most exquisite meals.
A few days later, Willy came calling to see if I was free to help with the Rick. He said the word as if it were spelled Reek, and I had no idea what he was talking about. Armed with my shortened pitch fork, we headed for his field. I watched in amazement as Willy began laying out a huge nest of hay carefully on the ground. My job was to fetch him fork fulls of hay and deliver them to the growing nest. Round and round Willy worked, rising higher into the sky, on the ever increasing bundle of carefully arranged grass. Willy made sure that all the fronds were pointing out and down from the center of the Hay Rick, so the water would run off he explained. When Willies feet were higher than my little fork could reach, he slid down from the top and began the crowning of the reek. Rounding out the top with woven bundles of grass, each adjusted until Willy was completely satisfied. When the job was done, he threw a potato sack over the top of the whole thing and tied heavy rocks to the four corners. That day we only made four or five Hay Ricks, but to my six year old mind they were endless, and looked like a silent army of hairy giants, sleeping in the evening sunshine.
As I watched that young man speed away in his high-tec tractor, I wondered if he represented progress for farming with one hand, and the death of community with the other? No longer did neighbors gather together to bring in the harvest, or rejoice in a job well done. Farming is a business now, not a way of life, and sadder because of that fact. I remembered Willy and his good humored patience with a very young me, all those years ago and wondered when I had last seen an actual Hay Rick in Ireland. Plastic wrapped giant circles might be efficient, but to me, farming is being able to crown a Rick.