We are moving as a group across an open meadow filled
with wild flowers, red clover, timothy hay, and the sweetest smelling Vermont
air, on a slightly breezy sunny summer afternoon, clouds drifting in from the
west. It is a moment we are each all aware
is precious. Perhaps some of us are
stoned, or tripping. But what would you expect
of a dozen longhaired twenty and thirty year old men and women with five gorgeous
children riding on a flat bed wooden hay wagon, drawn by a magnificent team of
horses, hippie revolutionary communists, living on a former dairy farm less
than three miles below the Canadian border and on a mission?
The day is spectacular. Clouds rush by draw off Lake Champlain into the foothills and onto the plain that includes southern Quebec, the occupied colonial foreign country in our backyard where Vietnamese warrior negotiators seek refuge and material support from both the Quebec Liberation Front in Montreal and from the American left.
The lovingly cleaned and oiled chains and harnesses on the horses, which we’ve purchased from an old farmer who hadn't used a piece of horse drawn equipment in over twenty years, jingle and shine in the sun. The horses are gleaming, sweating, moving steadily and comfortably in the traces. Peter clucks to the team, "Haw, Jim. Haw." The squeak of the wagon, the crunch of the wheels on the earth, the buzz of insects and the whisper of wind fill the air.
Beth Pratt, eight years old, riding bareback astride Jim, the older calmer heroic gelding, leading our common artistic entourage calls back, "Look!" She is pointing toward the swamp, toward the old logging trail that leads through the woods to our neighbor's property over two miles away on the now never used old logging trail through the woods. Charlie, her father, rises up on one elbow, holds his rifle in his extended left arm high into the air. His hair blows in the wind. His skin is smooth. He is close shaven. There is no hair on his chest or back. He remembers even now that a profoundly immoral war is being waged in Vietnam, a war that is in the minds of the communards every day, along with whales and other species at the edge of extinction, the impending silent spring, and huge mountains of bullshit, lies, and deceit, while the broad democracy movement, the unfulfilled promise of universal self-determination built on Indian bones and the theft of Indian land, built on the backs of slaves, and the sweat of the working masses, is still to be reborn. “Uhuru,” Charlie shouts. It means freedom in Swahili.
"Look," Beth calls again, a broad smile crossing her face as the wind pulls the corners of her mouth back to the edges of her ears. It is Kisha, our three legged wonder dog, hoping and running to meet the wagon, bouncing through the meadow as best he can to join us. The smile on Kisha’s face is as broad as the smile on Beth’s. Can anything be more beautiful than this day, this team of horses, this wounded dog, these beautiful people? Life is good.
We are on our way to Ken and Grace Spooners, our neighbors, each of whom is easily eighty years old. They live on the same farm on the top of the hill that they have lived on for over fifty years. The have a herd of maybe thirty cows that Grace still milks two times a day by herself, or sometimes with hired help, Ken having lost a leg to cancer a few years back. They have a team of horses older than they both are, which they never use but cannot bear to part with. They have a yard filled with cats, and a sign posted on their property that says, “No Hunting.” They mean it.
“Anyone hunts on my land,” says Grace, “is sure to be cursed. Fellow shot a deer in that lower pasture maybe thirty years ago and danged if he didn’t poke his eye out the very next year riding around careless like on a tractor.”
We stand in awe of the Spooners. They are the real people we seek to emulate: honest, hardworking, knowledgeable, kind, even politically savvy and liberal. They have telephoned us late in the morning to say the weather looked ominous, that they had some recently mowed hay down in a field almost all of which has been baled, maybe five hundred bales at most, but that they would never be able to get the hay into the barn before the rains come and if they leave it out it will be ruined. Might we be able to send over a man or two to help them get the hay in before the storm hits, they ask.
Naturally we are all tremendously eager to respond to the call and help the Spooners, and by the time we’ve discussed who might go over to help them, and how we would get there, and what impact it will have on the day we had planned, it has turned into a spontaneous little adventure that almost everyone wants to be part of. So we hitch the team to the flatbed wagon and off we go, over the meadow and through the tremendously beautiful world we have the privilege to live in, a world we are aware of and take great pleasure in. The Earthwork communards often said when at a loss for words to describe the choices we are making that we seek to “walk in beauty,” and that mantra guides us on our mission, where a sense of beauty and proportionality is a matter of common reverence. We are so much the creatures of our teachings and expectations.
We emerge from the logging trail through the woods into the Spooners’ old apple orchard. The ride to the Spooners’ would have taken us more than half an hour in a fast pickup truck on county roads. It has taken little more than an hour riding with a ton of people on an old wagon cutting through the woods. We ride up to the Spooner’s farmhouse through their hay meadow.
“Looks like five hundred bales easily,” says Charlie.
“Maybe five gazillion,” says Adrian, all of five years old. “Five hundred gazillion,” says Dylan, who knows the number of stars in the sky and specializes in kitchen chemistry and animal ears.
“Whatever it is, let’s do it fast,” says Barbara pointing to the sky.
Ken and Grace are on their porch waiting for us, smiling and waving like kids. It is delicious to see them. We have so few contacts outside the farm. And they are quite literally thrilled to see us, people who have given them hope for the future. Their old tractor and hay wagon are hitched and ready to go.
“Should we use the horses and the tractor both,” asks Marcel.
“No, let’s rest the horses,” says Peter, “it’s probably just as fast loading one wagon with a full crew as loading two wagons with half crews.
“Do you folks want some milk and cookies,” Grace asks.
“Milk and cookies!” the kids scream. We have not had cold milk or cookies in years it seems.
Grace has already put out a plate of cookies, a pitcher of milk, two jugs of lemonade, and some napkins. We act like the starving savages we are. There has been so few of these simple pleasures in our harsh and pristine world and the kids tear into the cookies without the slightest sense of manners or propriety. I am embarrassed to my bourgeois core, but Grace seems oblivious and delighted.
“What nice children,” she says more than once. “And I see they like my cookies.”
“Like your cookies? Grace did you make these? Where do you find the time?” The women are particularly in awe.
“I made them last evening,” said Grace, “it was my grandmother’s recipe you know, and I make them just the way she did. The trick is to chill the dough before you bake the cookies, never understood why, but it makes them sweeter and softer.”
“Let’s let these folks get to work, Grace,” says Ken.
“Good Lord, just take your sweet time, Mr. Ken Spooner,” says Grace.
And in a flash everyone has had a cookie, maybe two, and the lemonade and milk is completely gone, disappeared, without a crumb or a drop left, as if starving locust or scavenger ants had marched across the porch devouring everything in sight. And now the communal horde, who have hardly even had enough fresh water to brush our teeth with for over a week, are ready to work.
“An army marches on its stomach,” says Grace. “Louise dear would you go into the kitchen and bring out that other plate of cookies, please?”
“Ken, we really got to get rolling,” Crow says. “Let’s have one of the woman drive the tractor. Let’s put two men up on the wagon stacking. And let’s have six people in the field throwing the bales up onto the flatbed. Time’s a wasting.”
“It’s a plan,” says Charlie, “let’s move it.”
Libby gets into the tractor seat. It is for Crow another of those moments when incredible beauty appears. It is what he longs for, what he seeks and reveres. Libby appears as simply the most beautiful woman he has ever seen, a Botticelli-like figure with reddish tinted golden wavy hair sparkling and blowing in the breeze. It is breath taking. Spiritual. This is real, he thinks. It is not sexual. His gaze shifts to the sky that is backlighting Libby and creating the aura around her. The sky is still bright and sunny in the east but heavy gray clouds are moving in from the west. The breeze has picked up and the leaves of the trees are rustling. Pine needles fall and tufts of milkweed drift across the surface of the earth. It is a moment of seeing what is real, or so it feels, a moment of remembering what is real, what is important, of why they are doing what they are doing and more specifically why he is doing it. “Walk in beauty,” he says to himself. He looks from Libby to Charlie and Peter. They are magnificent. Breugels. He loves feeling so positive, loves the love welling up from his chest, filling his head, tasting it. A delirious energy filling him. “We are the people,” he yells.
“Uhuru,” Charlie yells.
“Come on, brothers,” says Marcel.
Hutcher is standing in the field with a bale in his hand quietly waiting. The reward of collectivity is productivity.
Peter and Crow climb onto the flatbed. Barbara, Lou, Mary Pat, and Shannon stay back with Grace, Ken, and the children where they’ll find more than enough to do around the barn and the house to help out a neighbor. They love socializing with Ken and Grace whenever they’re able anyhow.
“Can we do anything for you, Grace,” I hear Lou say over the hum of the tractor as it pulls away.
“Well there is some wood I could use brought up to the house. And the horses haven’t been walked in over a week. And I’ve got a load of wash downstairs that could use hanging and drying.”
“No drying today,” says Shannon pointing to the sky and everyone laughs as if it was a tremendous new joke.
It is hard to find enough folks on most Vermont farms to carry out the duties and tasks demanded of the family dairy farmer. If you don’t have kids or a working extended family you are generally sunk. It is part of the reason so many small Vermont dairy farms are forced out of operation. The margin of profit is simply too small and the need for grunt level manual labor too great to support the operation of a profitable herd. Ken and Grace survive in part because their income is supplemented by social security and Ken’s disability check. They pay a local man to help with the milking and the mucking out of the stalls. He appears most days. It eats up any profit they might have made, but it sustains them in the only life they know. They could surely give up the herd, but a purposelessness and ennui would befall them and they would wither and die. And they know it.
Harvesting hay is crucial to any dairy farm’s operations. It is the base feed that will sustain the herd through the long Vermont winter. If you have to buy hay you are in trouble. It is often simply not available, and when it is available it’s ghastly expensive. Cutting and raking hay is a one-person job with the right equipment, as is running the hay baler. But bringing in the bales takes at least three people to be efficient and usually four people make for the best operation: one person, the physically weakest, drives the tractor, one person stacks the bales as they are thrown up onto the wagon, and two people throw up the hay bales from both sides of the wagon. There is a very specific pattern that bales are stacked in, maximizing the space on the wagon, stabilizing the load, and keeping the upper tiers of bales from falling as the stack grows higher and higher, usually six or seven tiers high, and totaling as many as seventy five to eighty bales of hay per wagon load. It can take well more than an hour to stack and unload one wagon.
But these are The People, the hardworking real people, energized, super charged super efficient people, high on lemonade and cookies. Charlie is so pumped up he’s throwing bales completely over the wagon, from one side off to the other side such that Hutcher has to quietly and stoically load back onto the wagon twice as many bales as he should. Charlie has taken off his shirt and is wearing only boots, dungaree pants, and work gloves. The sharp ends of the hay sheaves are puncturing his forearms and he is bleeding. He loves the blood.
“Easy big guy,” Crow tells him, but Charlie is virtually running from one forty or fifty pound bale to the next, tossing them from as far as ten yards away up onto the flatbed. In less than thirty minutes the wagon is piled to the absolute limit and headed back to the barn with everyone laughing and walking besides it.
When we reach the ramp into the haymow Libby has a hard time backing the load in reverse into the barn for unloading.
Ken has limped off the porch and is calling out directions. “Cut her to the left, no hard left.”
It is very difficult to back up a wagon on a long hitch under any circumstances; and a fully loaded hay wagon makes the effort just that much harder. Besides which, you are backing up on a ramp into the haymow that at its peak falls off ten feet to the ground below. If the wagon wheel goes over that edge you are going to lose the whole load and risk busting up the wagon, flipping the tractor, and injuring the driver. If there is only one person on your crew he or she better know how to get the wagon backed up into the barn. But with eight people there is a choice. The tongue of the wagon, usually a single piece of tapered hardwood or channel iron at least eight feet long and not more than two inches wide and two inches thick, runs from the axle that attaches to and turns the front wheels of the wagon to the tractor. It is held onto the tractor, being pulled or pushed and swinging back and forth, on nothing more than a bolt which goes through a metal plate attached to the tip of the tongue that slides into a hole on a metal track on the back of the tractor. A cotter pin usually holds the bolt down and keeps it from bouncing off or disconnecting from the tractor.
“Hey, let’s unhook the whole rig and just push it in,” says Barry.
Everyone thinks this is between a good and a brilliant idea except Ken, who has come down off the porch and is overseeing operations with a worried look on his face. In his day he could have backed that wagon up into the barn single handedly … and on the first try too.
“Hey ladies,” Libby yells out like a truck driver, “get your sweet buns over here.”
Barbara and Lou walk over. The gaggle of kids follows them.
The ramp is on an incline. The loaded wagon weighs well over three tons, but with eight people lined up in front of it to take the pressure off the tractor Libby can back up just softly enough for Peter to lift the pin out of the hitch and not move the wheels one inch. Once the wagon is disconnected Peter steers the wagon by swinging the tongue ever so easily first left and then slightly right while the remainder of us push the loaded wagon up the ramp and into the hayloft. We are cheering with the miracle of our strength, a dozen sweaty men and women now throwing the bales off the wagon, laughing and cheering, drunk with the sheer physical power of our collective. The hay is off the wagon and stacked in the hayloft in less than ten minutes. It is nothing short of a miracle to Ken whose eyes are wide.
The wagon is walked by hand back down the ramp, reattached to the tractor, and rolling back into the field virtually without pause. Everyone is into it now. Shannon, Grace, all of the kids, running around shrieking in the coming wind like whirling dervishes. It’s clearly right that we did not use the horses to gather the bales. Good as they are, they would have been made nervous and distracted by the noisy hand waving crowd of people rushing and milling around them. There are times when the technology is simply too efficient to argue with.
The wagon is loaded a second time in less than half an hour. The slowest part of the operation has been just moving the tractor through the field to where the bales lie. There are enough people so that distant bales are shuttled closer to the wagon’s path. We are back at the haymow, unhitch the load, and push it into the barn like old experts.
“Look at them go, Ken,” says Grace, nearly dancing with delight. “These folk are sure to have the best darn dairy farm in all Franklin County in no time at all. Yes sir, in no time at all.”
Oh dear Grace, if you only knew.