~ Riceland Meadows ~

by Ralph Rice

The hay lies in swaths neatly clipped by the horse-drawn mower. The scent of newly mown hay drifts on the wind. A gentle breeze caresses the remaining hay still standing. The swaying grass looks like an ocean, the heads of the blooming timothy forming whitecaps on this sea of green.

So starts yet another haying season. The grass is cut, then dried by the sun and wind. As the hay cures the field comes to life. Under the swaths of hay mice seek out succulent seeds for their young. Snakes search for seed-hunting mice. Overhead a pair of red-tailed hawks hunt for a tasty snack. Other birds dart about feasting on bugs. Crows hop around the field, scattering horse droppings. The cycle of life is before my eyes right here in the hayfield.

The next morning dawns through a misty fog. The sun quickly burns its way through the fog, but not before I catch a glimpse of a white-tailed doe and her new fawn escaping from the hayfield into the woods.

Our horses stand quiet while I hitch them to the rake. They seem to appreciate the absence of flies that buzz and bite this early in the season. They watch the birds and enjoy the warm sun on their massive bodies while I grease the hay rake's bearings.

Riding on the rake's seat I survey the hayfield and our farm. The horses walk along easily, as round after round the swaths of yesterday are turned into fluffy windrows to finish curing in the sun. The horses know where to step to make the rake work at its maximum efficiency. I merely guide them around the field, listen to the rake chatter and click, and ponder the wonder of life.

A mother skunk, followed by three cute kits, scampers away from the noisy rake, disturbed from their dinner of earthworms. I respectfully admire the family hurrying to the safety of the woods. The new little critters' fur is shiny black and pristine white. They trot obediently behind their mother, tails raised high.

We reach the end of the swaths drying in the sun. I unhook from the rake and drive the horses to the mowing machine. We will mow another third of this field. I mow about three acres at a time, an amount that is manageable for my antique equipment and me.

Mowing this next section I see the life cycle repeat itself. Birds come in flocks to pick through the newly clipped hay, helping keep the insect population in check. The mice continue their scampering underneath the hay.

We mow the last round as the sun drops toward the west. I unhook from the mower and head the horses toward the barn, cool water, and dinner. Overhead the pair of red-tailed hawks circles the hayfield in search of prey.

The setting sun casts long shadows of my two friends and me. Walking across the field to the barn, I sing to them. I am satisfied with today's work and grateful for my horses. As we pass the pond, barn swallows dart and dive to catch an evening snack. Later in the evening they will be replaced by mosquito-eating bats. I marvel at the swift movements and fast turns that allow them to grab dinner out of the air.

For a brief second I catch our reflection on the pond's shimmering water. The image of man and horses reminds me of a snapshot of my grandpa walking with his team. I remember his smile as he moved easily behind his pair of good horses, the trio in perfect tune with each other. I feel his hands on mine as I grip the lines. I look down at the leather threaded through my fingers, just as he taught me, and realize that I, too, am part of the cycle of life.

My young son runs up and asks if he can put the horses in the barn. I stop the team and start to show him how to lace the lines in his fingers, but then I realize he already knows how. He speaks to the horses with a soft yet commanding voice. Their heads come up and they step off toward the barn. He drives them like someone much older than himself. I watch them disappear into the barn, the perfect close of a perfect day.

Ralph Rice's column "Reflections" appears regularly in Rural Heritage. This column appeared in the Spring 2003 issue.

21 July 2003