The Bookworm: Making Hay

Making Hay by Verlyn Klinkenborg. 176 pages. Vintage Departures. 1986.

But a finer reason for wanting to hay with my uncles occurs to me now. It lies in the difference between a steel behemoth scratching the soil, its operator shrouded in insulation, and three men moving slowly onto a field with wagons made of wood. Unlike most modern field tasks, haying in Elmore Jack’s old-fashioned way is mainly a human, and not a mechanical, event.

I bought Making Hay last September at the Acres of Books closing sale (a tear rolls down my cheek). Fittingly, it is the type of rare literary jewel you only find at yard sales or used bookstores. An independent store may carry it, but a mall monster like Barns & Noble would need to special order it by request. Though I’ve since discovered it has had at least one more press run, Making Hay is the kind of book that is printed once and then vanishes into obscurity.

At the time I had just returned from Iowa and was homesick for autumn, the vast countryside, and the overabundance of vegetation. I had forgotten that plants grew wherever and however they could there; it was green green green. I had picked up a couple oversized books about Iowa and found four copies of Making Hay in the nonfiction/essay section. I pulled it out, scanned the front and inside pages, and read the back cover, which included the word “Iowa.” I had no doubt: I was taking it home with me.

Making Hay is, as the title suggests, about making hay. It recounts the summer when Klinkenborg — who grew up in Clarion and Osage, Iowa — returned to his roots to help his uncles and cousins cut and bale alfalfa. He also writes about visiting ranchland in Montana’s Big Hole, where cattlemen harvest wild hay and stack it high using unique and self-built equipment.

Making Hay is also a testament of modern farm life. The events outlined in the book took place in the mid-1980s, smack dab during a crippling agricultural crisis. Prices plummeted while the cost of operations increased, and a lot of America’s small family farmers went under; their homes, barns, and history were torn down by large ag-corporations to make way for more cropland. The farm my mom grew up on was one of the many victims.

Over the past few years I’ve become more and more enamored with the small family farm life that still clings to existence in Iowa. I’m sick of the city — the concrete jungle, the traffic, the crowds — and am yearning for a return to nature and a slower and simpler life. I know it’s na├»ve to think of farm life as simple and slower — it’s hard, dirty, and stressful work, which I now appreciate more than I ever did when I lived in the Midwest — but from afar it looks much more instinctive and natural than the nine to five scramble of urban living. Sometimes when I daydream about my future I think it would be awesome to own a little farm east or north of Iowa City and grow my own food.

Of course, I’m a town boy who knows nothing about farming.

I want to say Making Hay was a good read, but I’m a bit hesitant. Klinkenborg is a good writer. His pastoral descriptions were beautiful, but at times the language and flow of the text was choppy. The book was also not as intimate as I was hoping; I felt there was an imbalance between scene and summary. There are episodes, like the last chapter, when Klinkenborg gets personal and in-scene (the type of nonfiction I love to read and write), but much of the book was summary, describing the equipment, the process, the history, and the plant.

Also, Making Hay was about an agricultural process I was interested in but knew nothing of. Although Klinkenborg enlightened me, at times he assumed I wasn’t as clueless; he became technical regarding the equipment and methods. Tractors and combines I know, but I’m less familiar with windrowers, windrowing, and the numerous raking and baling components, which made his descriptions difficult for me to envision. However, I discovered a plethora of videos on YouTube related to haying, which helped my minds eye convert Klinkenborg’s words to images. Here are a selection of vids related to mowing, raking, and baling.

I bet you didn’t know…: Alfalfa is commonly grown and used as hay in the US, but it is known as “lucerne” in the UK and Australia. Alfalfa is a native plant of northern Iran, and was called “alfacfacah” by Spanish Moors. Wherever the plant is called alfalfa that means the word and grass was introduced through Arab influences. Alfalfa was introduced to the Western and Midwestern United States via South America from Spain, which explains why we call it what we do.

Overall, Making Hay was an entertaining and enlightening read. It brought back memories I have of exploring farms, barns, and haylofts, as well as the autumn hayrack rides I took when I was a kid. To truly appreciate the book, though, I think you have to be interested in the subject matter, which I doubt many are.

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