Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Hay Bales and Other Things

We had a period of unusually warm weather this month.  The bright sun and higher-than-usual temperatures came after a short period of revitalizing rain, and were a boon to local farmers.  Hay crops burgeoned and farmers laboured to bring in the third (or in some cases even fourth) mowing of the season.

My daily drive to and from work takes me right through the heart of our valley's farmland.  I watched with interest as the hay was cut, then fluffed and left to dry for a couple of days, and finally baled and brought in. 

One evening, I passed by a field in which the bales still stood.  They were the old fashioned kind - smaller than many modern bales, and rectangular - and I thought "That's what hay bales are supposed to look like!"

There were lots of good reasons for thinking that, but when considering my reaction I have to admit that it was mainly rooted in nostalgia.  Those smaller, rectangular bales are the bales I grew up knowing; seen on countless Sunday drives, together with the hardworking folk who gathered them from the fields.  When I think "haying" they are the image that comes to mind.

My "that's how they're supposed to look" reaction gave rise to a whole new line of thought: 

Am I getting old?  (Of course I am. Well, older anyway.)

When did I start reminiscing about the "good old days?"

And why do so many things from my childhood - although often not anything to do with me directly - seem so much better than what we have today? 

Will my grandchildren reminisce about computer games the same way I reminisce about Sunday drives?

All good questions.

I don't pretend to know all the answers but I did come to an understanding about a couple of things while following this line of thought:

Memory is flexible and selective.  Humans want to remember good things more than bad, so the past tends to take on a golden light in our memories; filled with sunshine, and happy thoughts, and good times.  There is simplicity there.  It looks, to our mind's eye, so much less complicated than our present time that we can't help but yearn for it.

Besides, some things really were simpler in the past.  All of this technology - which was touted to simplify our existence - has not helped.  Somewhere along the way, we confused labour saving with simplicity.  There are a great many things we can now do while scarcely lifting a finger and rarely leaving the house, but the processes involved in doing them are much more complex than they used to be.

Hay bales are a good example: 

An old-style rectangular bale of hay weighs about 60 pounds.  The hay is mowed with a tractor, and baled with an attachment pulled by the same machine.  Once baled, it can be lifted by human power onto a truck, or a trailer, or even a wagon pulled by horses, and taken to its storage place.  It is can then be stacked it into place in a loft, a barn, or some other storage facility. 

The equipment required for the old fashioned baling process is fairly simple.  The size and shape of the bales allows them to be moved with no machinery at all if need be, and ensures that they will fit in a compact space.  The stacked bales have an additional benefit too, insulating the building in which they're stored against both heat and cold.

More recently, though, someone looked at the haying process and thought "If we can find a machine to bale hay in larger portions, and if we can store it right in place, in the fields where the animals will eventually eat it, it will take less labour and we'll require fewer workers." 

A specialized machine was constructed that rolls the hay into vast cylinders, then wraps the cylinders in heavy plastic as protection against the weather. The wrapped bales can be left right in the fields until such time as they are needed.  It's a labour saving process that also spares the farmer the cost of specialized storage.


Those immense hay cylinders are too large to be moved without the aid of machinery.  Those who do need to move them about must purchase a forklift with a specialized attachment in order to accomplish the task.  Should the cylinders need to be transported away from the farm, they're so large they must be loaded onto the flat bed of a tractor trailer truck.  Both the forklift and the tractor trailer truck are very expensive and if they break down or become unavailable, moving the hay becomes a difficult process indeed.

If the hay cylinders are left in place in the field, the farmer need not worry about transporting them at all but must pay for the plastic needed to wrap them, and the disposal of the plastic once the time comes to use the hay.  That plastic has its own impact on the environment too.

Each method has its merits, but the second option is certainly more complex and expensive in terms of both the materials and machinery required to make it work.

The point of all of this?

I guess what I'm trying to say that I've finally arrived at a time in my life where I understand why our elders reminisce:  

They do it to seek comfort against rapidly changing times and the stress that comes with change. 

They do it out a desire to share knowledge and to help younger folk understand their thought processes. 

They do it because, sometimes, the old way of doing things really can be a better solution to a specific challenge,

and they do it because humans beings form emotional bonds through story telling.

Wish I'd understood all of that sooner.  I'd have been more patient!

So here I am: fifty-something in a time when that is neither old nor young, finally realizing that there's merit in embracing both the promise of the future and remembrance of times past.  And I'm asking you, please, to have patience with the reminiscences of your elders.  You might find something in them that can move you forward in a whole new way.