Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Releasing the West Wall

The farmers who constructed the original stone walls on my property had a wonderful sense of space and contour. Their work seems so perfectly tied to the hills that it is hard to accept that these rock fences could simply have been a utilitarian solution to controlling livestock or protecting crops.

The lay of the land here is so varied and its shape so naturally pleasing that it is little wonder that this farmstead was the first to be settled in the township of Gibson.  The added good fortune of the Old Newburgh Turnpike passing through its frontier quilt work of oat and corn patches, rocky cow pastures and woodlots made it a sensible place for the first white owner to construct an inn. 

Captain Joseph Potter, granted this property by the State of Connecticut for his service in the Revolutionary War, came west around 1810. Timber stands had yet to feel the pain of an axe and the chilling cry of mountain lions still terrorized the seasoned woodsman.   Potter’s door-less log cabin, which he covered with a bear skin during his first Susquehanna County winter, no longer remains, but the inn that he and his sons later built serves today as my next door neighbor’s summer home.  It has been many years since the stone hitching post in the front yard has tethered a team, but it seems to contain a magical energy that draws children to it, enticing them to encircle it with out stretched arms as if hugging a giant fluffy dog.

My project this past week has been to release the west wall of the upper hayfield.   Its original duty as sentry between cultivation and wilderness has been ruefully undermined by years of neglect and ever more modern farming practices.  In the old days when hay or oats were cut with a scythe, every stalk was harvested.   Shoots too close to the wall that may have escaped the swing blade later became fodder for the indiscriminant appetite of sheep who functioned as the 19th century "weed-eaters".  

For the past fifty years our fields have been used only for hay.  In the sixties, the harvest was still a labor intensive, time consuming process employing four cylinder gas powered tractors and sickle bar mowers.  The sickle bar, like a long flat arm extending out from the right side of the tractor, had a series of small triangular blades riveted to a sliding bar.  As the “power take-off “ from the tractor spun in tiny circles, a conversion gear pushed the bar back and forth over and over again, slicing through the dry stalks of hay an inch or two above the ground.  Mowing hay was slow business.  The sickle bar would become clogged if the grass was moist or thick and rocks reeked havoc on the razor edges of the "teeth."  The up side of the sickle bar mower was that it could get close to the walls, and with good driving, clean up the corners where trees love to take root.  

As the mowers improved and the tractors increased their horse power, farming began to speed up.  The hay bind, a three in one cutting implement that sheared, crushed and wind-rowed the hay, made close cutting and corners a thing of the past.  The machinery had become too big and too quick to risk damage by getting in close.  Sheep had all but been replaced by dairy operations, so the trees began to jump the walls, dropping their seeds in the clumps of elderberries, blueberries, and raspberries that sprouted along the fence rows.  Soon service berry, hawthorns, popular and birch were spreading shadows over the field and the farmers were making ever wider turns to avoid the slap of a branch or a broken limb in the mowers path. 

Today, a hayfield that took three to four weeks to harvest now takes three days.  The stacked square bail, pulled onto the wagon with a longshoreman's hook and muscled onto a many coursed pile, is now a specialty item limited to horse barns and gentleman farmers.  Bailage, the large cylindrical spools of grass, vacuum sealed in white plastic, have become the norm for dairy operations.   The hay requires no drying, so it can be cut and bailed in two days.  Loaders lift the thousand pound “marshmallows" onto special wagons for transport.  Feeding operations are automated; the human hand no longer needs to touch the hay and a farmer is seldom required to set foot on the field.  Instead, in an air cushion seat, the dairyman hovers some three or four feet above the ground in an enclosed tractor cab, shaded and protected from the elements.  The walls, once the farm's boundary markers and proud defenders are now all but forgotten beneath a tangle of vegetation.  
And those are the lucky walls.  Many that have fallen into disrepair are sold to stone pickers, who stack the shale onto pallets and haul it away to be sold to landscapers around the country.   If these were the stones of the great pyramids, the world would be outraged.  But these are just old farmers’ walls in hills of Pennsylvania.  Their value is now graded by the ton on the wholesale distributor’s scale. There original function is obsolete.  Their aesthetic and historic significance lost in the culture’s rush toward the future.

So I spent the week releasing the hayfield’s west wall.  Soon I will begin the process of patching the wall's breaks.  It is a slow process from a forgotten era, performed alone but for the landscape and it's history as companions. It is good work.  It makes the muscles strong and heart happy.   

No comments:

Post a Comment