It’s a death, life, death, life kinda day. I back out of the driveway to leave for work and notice a brown mush in the road, near the fire pond. I pull back in and grab a shovel. Roadkill. Also known as chicken snacks. But what is it? I guess it’s a squirrel, which would be excellent hen breakfast; but when I stand above the poor beast, I’m not sure what it is. Brown and furry, elongated ears, flat and stretched out like a run-over cartoon. A fox? A coyote? Too small. Aah, I see the teeth and its facial features, still intact whiskers, button nose. ‘Twas a cottontail. Didn’t know we had ‘em ‘round here.
I scoop up Mr(s). Cottontail and carry it down to the Eggs Factory. Rabbit will do just fine. Herbivore, clean eater, harmless. At the Eggs Factory, there are lots of potential inputs and they all lead to one thing. Toss in grain? Pop out an egg. Kitchen scraps? Convert ’em to eggs. Offal? Eggs. Garden weeds? Eggz. Hot off the press. You can feed chickens Eggos and get eggos.
Well today’s Eggs Factory input is Wabbit. I toss the carcass in and the birds surround it, first fiercely, then curiously. Not that interested, I gather. Oh well, I have just fed them grain. It is barely dawn. We’ll see what happens – before I can jab the shovel in the ground, birds chase each other around with little rabbit bits (rab-bits?) in their beaks. Fun!
The day goes along as days do – a Friday, tediously. I eat a great salad of nasturtium, lettuce, and radish from the garden with a healthy handful of shredded cheddar and two sliced up hard-boiled widgets from the very same Eggs Factory I supervise. I sit in my work truck at the base of Wildcat Mountain and admire the ski trails and summit, where Kay and I were married in 2017. Dreaming about snow (it snowed during our wedding!). At some point I am home again, but not for long!
After multiple delays – a damaged trailer light wiring harness, thunderstorms, timely chores – I am finally free to go buy hay from my Hay Guy in New Durham. I’ve never met Hay Guy, but I’ve messaged him on Facebook Marketplace for two years straight and he tells me where to go and where to pay. He’s also a busy farmer and hay season is the wild times for farmers of his fashion. I wonder if I’ll meet him tonight, I think. Pip hops up into the Blazer – he’s my Hay Dog – and we blast loud rock music and lurch up Ainger Hill, one of the many hills the Blazer dislikes. But this ride is all hills. Hill Road this and That Hill Road that. The trailer cracks and pops and bounces and rattles and shimmies and threatens to fall off and the Blazer wheezes and stinks like gas and brakes and tired old transmission (and a hint of sheep). But it loves the work. It might be gone someday soon – but it might just never die.
We rock and roll through town, along the Squam, and through Ashland. We pass ice cream eating, dog walking, beach chair carrying tourists and Lake People blissfully unaware of the Blazer and trailer squealing by on its mission for ruminant winter sustenance. Farmers must think of the cold and lean times during the fat and happy times. I glance out to Golden Pond and long for a dip. I am already hot and sweaty and scratchy and I haven’t even lifted a single bale of hay yet.
We pull up the maple-line farm road, mountain vibes but just another hill. The Blazer chugs up the dirt driveway. To our right, horses graze around a dormant sugar house. To our left, west, a beautiful valley filled with hay fields looking out to hills and transmission lines. There are beef steers around a small pond. The fields are freshly cut, patchy and pretty, the lines from tractor implements fading as the second cut grows in. Atop the hill stands a gorgeous farmhouse, flanked by barns, greenhouses, rock walls – a perfect combination of manicured and put to work. I think that is the ideal and most beautiful farmhouse aesthetic. Swallows fly from the barn, swarming above me. Welcoming me? They probably don’t even notice me. There are farm fields to explore for summer evening goodies. Every patch of grass is verdant. No fallow corners, no horrid weed infestations. A working farm is a living, breathing creature. Nothing is still, everything moves.
It is the present tense. Things flash by, hop slither squirm bend shake and bow.
I back the trailer up to the hay barn, its large sliding door closed. I could see hay through the window, piled high in a trailer, still green from the field. I could feel my inner sheep drooling at the candy store before me. Hmm, I think, but is the candy store open? Hay Guy never mentioned the door being closed. I decide to go ask if it’s okay to open the barn. I nod at Pippy in the Blazer – hang tight, co-pilot – and stroll below the squall of swallows to the open patio door. I rap on the door. There’s a voice from inside the house. I am not sure if it’s even directed at me, so I look at the cat staring at me from just behind the door. Was it you? The voice repeats itself. “Come in,” it says. It might just be the cat. I enter the house.
Just inside the door, I see an old man sitting at a kitchen table. He immediately points to a chair and tells me to sit with him for a bit. This is one of those moments in life that happens and you just do the thing. I clutch my hat and my work gloves and I sit with the old man at the kitchen table. I tell him my name is Rich and I am here for hay. I mention Hay Guy (he has a real life name, I promise) and ask if it’s okay that I open the barn.
The old man quips effortlessly and sweetly: “Well of course! That’s how you get the hay out, you see.” I feel like I’m on the cusp of a Lewis Carroll adventure. A staring cat, a whimsical magical setting, overtly logical conversation. I was in the rabbit hole. “I haven’t lifted a bale of hay in a long time,” the old man tells me. “I’m 96 now, and mostly what I do is read the paper.” He points to his tablet propped up on the table. “And cook dinner.” I realize there’s a nice smell in the kitchen and the stove is warming the room.
96! He looked healthy and strong, I think, for 96. I don’t even register that he’s almost 100 until he tells me. He asks where I’m from. I say North Sandwich. “Not too far of a drive,” I add. “I like the hay here.”
“Yes, they are some nice, heavy bales.” We sit for a moment. “North Sandwich,” he confirms, with a wisp of wonder as if I had said I drove up from Boston. I don’t want to tell this guy I had lunch at Wildcat today. Imagine thinking North Sandwich is far away – but also imagine living ensconced in a heavenly pocket of earth you helped sculpt that feeds you and sustains you and provides you all the beauty you'll ever need – then spring forth multiple generations fed and nourished from that very land. And as the world exponentially grows faster and crazier, time on the farm stays at its usual 1x speed: one day per 24 hours times 365. Sometimes you can slow time down on the farm. Read your paper, cook dinner, sit on the porch and watch the swallows. North Sandwich might as well be below the equator.
We chat a little more, mostly about our mutual need for hearing aids (for some reason this is where every conversation I have with older folks goes). I wish him well, but my dog is in the Blazer so I’ll go load those bales now. Our five-minute conversation feels like an hour and it easily could have been. Time slowed down. Someday I will be able to slow down time on our farm, but I must learn to wrangle it and hop upon its back. This gentleman is a master of time management.
I slide the barn open and hop into the hay. The hay is soft and lush, cut no more than two days ago. I pile 27 bales into the trailer while Pippy watches patiently between the seats. I strap it all down, put the money in the secret box, and fire up the tired old Blazer.
Down the hill we go, the golden sunlight spreads the maple trees apart like curtains. Pip looks joyfully out to the beef steers in the pasture below, tongue lolling, soft panting. Dog smiles. We hit pavement, still going downhill, and for a moment the Blazer feels like a kid again. We tackle the hills back home with grace and enthusiasm and transmission fumes.
Of course one doesn’t just buy hay; one must load hay. Back home and I crawl up into the loft and pull all of last year’s bales down so I can load the fresh stuff up top. Every thud of a bale hitting the floor causes the cheeps in the brooder to pipe up. “You’re okay!” I reassure them. They don’t believe me. They have long happy lives ahead of them as Egg Production Specialists. Soy-free, pasture-raised pay and full benefits (like dust baths and sunshine). I take a break to collect eggs and peek around for the rabbit leftovers. I find a hide, a head, and feet. It looks like a dog toy with no stuffing. I carry the dog toy to the compost pile, where it will do some good. Last rites.
Let me offer a eulogy: I think of that squirrel I hit up north today. It had a death wish; I couldn’t react fast enough in my work truck. I doubt anyone scooped it up for their chickens. I hope the squirrel is laid to rest by nature’s scavengers, some creature of the night. I think of the flagger I saw at a roadwork site as well, drinking a huge energy drink and flipping his SLOW/STOP sign with the vigor of a squirrel that had just been hit by a work truck. He has to stand there in giant orange pajamas for eight hours a day and deal with hundreds, maybe thousands, of automobiles, nothing between them but his sign while he bakes into the tar, keeping cool with a gummy worm flavored carbonated beverage. My beverage of choice for the day was raw milk from a local farm, a food that is actually alive. Most real food is. We all eat and we all get eaten. Amen.
Living creatures on this earth. There are so many of them, literally inches from death. Or maybe miles and miles. My 96-year-old friend’s time may finally stop, peacefully on his farm, tonight. Or he’ll rock and roll right past 100. The swallows will come and go, but there will probably always be swallows.
In the darkest dusk I stand drenched with sweat, glittered with sticky hay, parched and beat, craving that swim. But I’m flexing my biceps at the empty hay trailer. HAY = DONE. We have enough hay for the year now, and then some. About that swim….
I toss some ice cubes from the freezer into my little portable ice bath – it’s too dark to drive to the lake. I stand out in the moonlight and prepare myself to jump into the cold water, but today’s death count isn’t over. A firefly flashes its little orange butt at me from the ground nearby. (Lady fireflies lie on the ground and send signals for the males to come say hello.) I aim my headlamp to get a good look at the firefly and lo! the critter was being engaged with (and engorged upon) by a big old wolf spider. Wined and dined perhaps, then dined upon.
I hop into the ice bath. Miserable cold beneath the half moon as the heat (and hay) escapes my body. Counting out a minute feels like forever. Time slowing down. A favorite song lyric comes to mind we are young forever, that’s written on the moon and I get out dripping and grinning. I’m alive now and I will be ‘til I ain’t. I’m a living creature on this earth and someday I’ll die too, maybe tonight. And maybe I’ll lurch up a hill and reek of burning transmission, coughing and swearing but oh lord don’t make me stop. I’ll tell you when I’m done.