There Was No One Else
The rain came late in the night, a cloudburst, heavy to begin, then quickly fading, and I lay unmoving for a minute under the open window, feeling the wetness on my face, letting it keep me awake, even as I anticipated the moment I’d close the sash and drift back into sleep. So nice.
In three days we put up somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,800 square bales. The weather was perfect, the sun at its annual apex, the air hot and dry, a restless breeze. On Saturday I rode the wagon, 800 bales that day alone, and I pulled each of them off the baler chute and stacked them high as prudence dictated and then a little higher, prideful of my neat rows. A well-stacked hay wagon does not just happen, there is strategy and knowing in it. Maybe even art.
I love riding the wagon; it demands strength and endurance, which I am in deficit of and therefore always seeking the means to bolster. And, because the field we hay is hilled like an unfurling cloth, and the wagons we use do not have sides to halt a fall, it requires a certain high-stakes agility: Grab the bale off the chute and scamper to the rear of the wagon for stacking, even as the wagon tilts beneath you, maybe front to back or, worse yet, a side-hill lean, booted feet slipping on the loose hay atop the wagon’s deck (here’s a rural truism, one of those things you have to experience to believe: Loose hay on a wagon deck is at least as slippery as ice). And really, you almost have to run to get that bale stacked before the next one is poking its nose over the chute edge, there’s no time to fuck around, to congratulate yourself, or just mop the sweat from your brow. I guess that’s the other thing I like about riding the wagon: The bales do not stop, the hay just keeps coming in time to the metronomic clatter of the baler, and above it all the smell of cigarette smoke, Martha cupping a lit Camel in one hand, steering the Deere with the other. In any other setting, I abhor the smell of cigarette smoke. In the hayfield, strangely, it is a comfort.
I am reading Sebastian’s Junger’s new book, Tribe, handed down to me by a friend. I’m not far in yet (every night my ambitions of reading thwarted by fatigue), but far enough to get the gist of it, which is that our society has largely lost its sense of tribalism, and with it, in many ways, our sense of meaningful community. Junger writes of the early days of our nation’s settlement, of how it was not uncommon for settlers to defect to live with native peoples, but nearly unheard of for the opposite to occur. The relative comfort and material abundance the settlers enjoyed were a poor substitute for tribalism, and even many of the settlers knew it.
In reading this book, I think also of an interview with Rebecca Solnit heard recently. A large part of that interview is Solnit talking about her experiences observing and reporting on the social ramifications of disaster, and how surprised she first was when she realized that people spoke of previous disasters longingly. Almost with pleasure. And she realized, finally, that what they longed for, what pleasured them, was not the disaster itself, but the ways in which the disaster compelled them to band together with others. To become, in essence, a tribe, in which one person’s wellbeing is dependent on the next. And so on down the line, until the inescapable truth is realized: Everyone is dependent on everyone else.
I think most of us long for something more meaningful than simple social community, if even we’re fortunate enough to have that (and plenty don’t). Don’t get me wrong: There’s much to be said for social community, for coming together around events and celebrations, or even just because. To share a meal, or see a show, or throw a party, or whatever. But I think that what Junger and Solnit are getting at is that there’s an entirely different level of connection when the stakes are higher, when our reliance upon one another becomes essential to our survival, and therefore we become essential. How amazing that must feel, and how unusual now, with almost everything we need to know at our fingertips, everything we need to survive available for convenient purchase, free second-day shipping included.
I haven’t gotten there yet, but I’m pretty sure that later in his book, Junger writes about the phenomenon of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and theorizes that PTSD might not be so much about the horrors of the battlefield, as it is about reentry into a fragmented, tribal-less society after the intensely tribal camaraderie of war. Is it really so hard to imagine this might be true?
I guess that’s one of the reasons I love haying so much. It is almost like a mini self-created disaster, all that hay down, and no choice but to get off the field before the rain. It’s social, sure, and there is plenty of laughter and teasing and plain ole shooting the shit, but it’s also serious, serious business, and everyone has their role to play, and if one person screws up, doesn’t show up or just doesn’t do what’s been agreed upon, things fall apart real fast.
Last night as I rode the wagon for one final load, right at the leading cusp of the waning light, I watched as my boys drove our truck in laps around the field, gathering errant bales. It’s been nearly a decade they’ve been helping with haying, almost as long as our younger son’s been alive – I remember propping him a protective cocoon of stacked bales on the wagon – and truth be told, sometimes they’re more helpful than others. But last night they knew the chips were down, the rain was coming, and besides, I’d given them the keys to the truck, and what pair of 11 and 14 year old boys can resist the combination of truck and mown hayfield? Hell, I can barely resist it. They swapped places between driver and passenger seats every so often, according to some metric of negotiated fairness I could not decipher from the wagon, and I knew they were tired. As was I. But there was hay to be got, and there was no one else to do it, and so we all kept plugging along until the field was clean and we could go home to bed.