Good agriculture fosters good art, and vice-versa
I’ve written before about my attempts to build a haystack that looks like one in a Claude Monet painting (see links at end of this post). This year I came close, as you can see by the two pictures. The distracting blue plastic at the base of my Monet will eventually be put over the haystack although I think the stack will shed water without a cover as well as Monet’s did. I’m not taking the chance of a sudden 6-inch Midwest downpour ruining it— something I don’t think Monet’s farmers had to put up with. They didn’t build their haystacks inside a ring of woven wire fence either, so I’m cheating a little.
Online, you can find haystacks still being erected all over the world. (Reader Ian Graham has sent me photos of his— he does a good Monet, too.) And as for paintings, good heavens! It appears that almost all artists, right up to the present, feel that they must paint a haystack or a haymaking scene just like so many of them feel compelled to paint nudes at some time in their careers. I typed “hay in art” into Google, and up popped hundreds of hay paintings. Not to be undone by the absence of stacks in modern agriculture, today’s artists are filling their canvases with hay bales including those big round ones wrapped in plastic.
I like to think there is more going on here than just an arty thing. The essence of farming comes down to feeding plants and animals so that they can feed us. Grazing pastures is the most sustainable way for animals to eat and plants to keep growing, as the Great Plains buffalo proved. But in northern climates, that means some of the surplus summer pasture needs to be cut for hay for over winter. This was the most practical way to insure a steady food supply back before farmers went crazy and decided to feed the world with corn and soybeans. People in Monet’s day saw much more than just the beauty of a haystack when they looked at one. They saw survival. As long as haystacks dotted the horizon every fall, society knew that it would survive until the next growing season. I wonder if even today, people look at those hay bales dotting a field and instinctively realize the same thing.
For those of you interested in making your own Monet haystacks, (it’s a very low cost way to make and store hay on a small scale) here’s what I’ve learned since I wrote about this subject last year. I quit mowing with the cutter bar (actually my cutter bar mower quit on me) and now cut hay with a rotary mower. The hay is mostly red clover or improved varieties of white clover like Alice. The rotary chops the hay up finer than I would like, or so I thought at first, but it dries faster, preserving the nutrient quality better. I can put it in the stack towards evening of the day after cutting and windrowing it. It dries faster also because I maintain only light stands of clover rather than heavy rank ones. The resulting high quality hay is, oddly enough, also easier to sculpt into a stack than long-stemmed cutter bar hay, especially hay with a lot of long, over-mature grass in it. Long grasses are too slippery to stack well. I actually would not have to use the woven wire base anymore. I can rank up this hay into a vertical wall, at least around the bottom of the stack. The trick is to always stack up the outside first and fill in behind it as you go up. Since medieval farmers did not have mechanical mowers, but harvested hay by the sickle or scythe handful and the rake-full, would that not be why they could form up such beautiful symmetrical stacks?
That suggests an even more awesome philosophical idea: what if hay that is more easily sculpted into a work of art indicates hay that is of higher quality in nutrients too? Could that be more than just an accident of happenstance? Perhaps in the most profound sense, art imitates nature and form forever follows function.
Images: Monet Haystacks Midday; Logsdon Haystack Midday
See also Gene’s…