Richard Benson on the importance of stacking your hay right…
A few years ago, I worked on a photography exhibition, funded by the Arts Council and a farming charity called the Addington Fund, intended to increase understanding between rural and urban people. The idea was for me (providing the rural element) and a fashion photographer (urban) to travel the British countryside, with the photographer taking pictures of rural scenes that interested him, and me writing accompanying text, explaining the scene, and why he liked it.
It seemed a good idea right up to the point when I was standing in a farmyard in East Yorkshire with a farmer and his stockman, and the fashion photographer – a good friend of mine called Kevin Foord – arrived, parked up and walked across the mucky ground to meet us. I had not really thought about how striking Kevin’s clothes would be in this green-and-brown setting, but I thought about it now because he was wearing, among other things, mirrored Aviator sunglasses, a long, Lurex-threaded scarf and brand-new, bright green Hunter wellington boots.
The men were quiet, and only one spoke. He turned and said to me, ‘Did tha say thy mate were called Kevin, or Karen?’ Fortunately Kevin has a winning personality, and anyway, if you can cope with the London fashion industry, how much of a challenge are piss-taking Yorkshire farmworkers, really? He won them over with his enthusiasm, and the experiment, conceived to discover what in a rural environment made an urbanite curious, did produce interesting results. He liked the predictable landscapes and animals, but it was the colours and geometry and oddness of the human-made incursions that really fascinated him. Crop sprayers were a big favourite, and he really enjoyed tractor tracks, feed silos, gateposts and the spirograph-like ribs of polytunnels. But most of all, Kevin loved bales.
I mean the straw, hay and silage bales you see in fields everywhere in Britain at this time of year. Mostly these days, they are cylindrical, tall as a man, either naked or wrapped in green or black plastic to keep them dry (hay) or wet (silage). Occasionally you can still see the small, cuboid ones about a metre long (these began to disappear with smaller farm units in the 1980s), or the larger, metre-high versions of the same shape; they may still be left scattered about the field, where the baler spat them out, or stacked to keep as many as possible dry, before being transported back to the farm, or carried off on a straw merchant’s lorry. They are often referred to with the catch-all word ‘hay’, though there is a substantial difference between hay and straw – the former made from grass, legumes and other herbaceous plants, and having a nutritional quality that means it can be used for feed; the latter being the stalks of cereal plants used mainly for bedding.
In any form, they have become one of the most familiar sights of the summer landscape; not traditional, exactly, and certainly in no way ‘natural’, but pleasing in their alien, non-naturalness. ‘I just love the way they all look, those neat shapes laid out in the field,’ Kevin would say, as he made us stop somewhere in North Devon to ‘do a few of those bales’ for the hundredth time that day. (‘We’ve got quite a few pictures of bales, you know,’ I used to say. ‘Don’t you fancy doing a sheep or something?’ ‘Yes, but these look better than the others,’ he’d reply. ‘I won’t be long.’)
In the many hours I spent in stubble fields waiting for Kevin to shoot the latest lot of ‘better’ bales, I had plenty of time to think about their visual appeal. I think it’s to do with the precise lines and curves contrasting with the undefinable, organic shapes of everything all around them, although with the round bales there’s an extra element, in that the long, straight rows of stubble, which emphasise the contours of the field, contrast with curvature of the cylinder ends. This vague contrast of the human-made and the natural is particularly strong in the case of wrapped bales, which look like a Christo project. All of them remind me of the first and second verses of the Wallace Stevens poem, Anecdote of the Jar:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no
No one really knows what Wallace Stevens meant, and there are some very complex interpretations of this poem, but it makes me think of how landscapes seem to be oriented around whatever human intervention is most striking in them, be it a set of bales, a monument, or a building. I suppose this might all seem a rather pretentious way to talk about straw and hay, but in my defence I would point out that Kevin and I are not the only ones to be beguiled. Try a Google image search, and you’ll see what I mean. The Mexican sculptor Helen Escobado made an installation based on them in 2011; Terry Reynoldson, a tutor at the University of Calgary, does great, photo-realist balescapes; Claude Monet painted a haystack series between 1890 and 1891, and David Hockney has painted round bales in a field in East Yorkshire.
Anyway, the appeal isn’t limited to artists, photographers and curious urban people passing through the countryside – it can also extend to people who work with them as well. I say this with some certainty because I spent every summer of my childhood stacking them up (I say ‘childhood’: the truth is, it was until I was sodding 22).
As our farm was little – and had a source of cheap manpower (ie me and my sister), my dad stuck with the labour-intensive smaller bales until – coincidence! – I got a proper job. It was hard work. The deal was, you had to stack them in piles of eight. The baler (an incredibly frightening, breakage-prone piece of machinery, examples of which maimed dozens of people, and with which my malcoordinated self could not be trusted) towed a sort of sledge which released them in groups of eight, except that very often it was groups of seven or nine, which meant carrying them long distances from drop to drop.
If they were well-baled, and the weather had been dry, and the straw was from barley rather than the far heavier wheat, this was OK. However, if soil had somehow gotten in, or if they were wet, it was a pain in the arse; the twine cut your fingers and itchy bits of straw got into your clothes (This is a euphemism. What I really mean is, barley awns* slowly worked into your shirt and the waistband of your trousers, then down into your pants. This meant that at least three-quarters of the working day was spent with little splinters sticking into your neck and, worse, your scrotum (or equivalent if you are female). Not a detail that features in much pastoral poetry, so far as I am aware).
After the bales had been successfully stacked in their eights, they were then moved to trailers using a lifter mounted on the front of a tractor. On the trailer, they were restacked, partly to fi t more in, and partly to hold them steady for the ride back to the yard. There were nine layers, and the idea was to keep it all very straight. I, however, could not keep them straight – and my wonky, lurching loads were a running joke among both my family and my friends. (‘I’m sorry, Dad,’ I remember saying in a twilit field, after the first load I had done. ‘It’s all right lad,’ he said, in a tone that half-suggested forgiveness. ‘You’re driving the f––er back.’) In the stackyard the bales were – with a level of work that seems medieval compared with modern systems – unloaded and re-stacked again: this time, you needed extending ladders to get up and down the huge stacks. And the thing is, at the end of it all, there was for a short time this really great feeling between the four or five of you who had done it. The stack and field just looked so neat, and it felt like a triumph over nature (yeah I know that’s not a fashionable thing to say, but I dunno, George Monbiot can try bringing in a 40-acre fi eld of wet wheat straw and then see how he feels about it) – and quite like you’d made something, somehow.
* Awn: A stiff bristle, especially one of those growing from the ear or flower of barley, rye and many grasses
Of course it’s much easier now, when a single person can bring in a field on their own – with big bales, you just need the bale spike on the tractor or telehandler, and a big trailer to carry them home, where you use the spike again to unload and stack them. They’re also much easier to use – no need to use several small ones to bed up a foldyard; just cut one and unroll it. But I think the satisfaction is still there, though. My brother – the one of us who could be trusted with the baler – now buys and sells straw to make part of his living, and will still point out to me his tidily-assembled stacks in August and September. He was, in fact, one of the group of blokes who met Kevin that day. When the pictures were done, he asked if he could see them, and ended up asking for a print of a local field of bales he had baled himself with his own machinery. It still hangs framed on his kitchen wall.