Saturday, May 1, 2010

Hay & Captain

The Southland floods have created an unexpected hazard for boaties in Foveaux Strait – floating haybales. Southland dairy farmers knew about flood plains. Newcomers often didn’t and apparently did not accept advice. Result, the plastic-wrapped bales were swept away. In time as the water seeps through the plastic they’ll sink. But they’ll be at their most dangerous when water-logged they float just below the surface.

The harvesting and storing of hay was part of my boyhood. Across the creek from my widowed mother’s cottage was Pop's hay-paddock, full of red clover and drowsy bumblebees. Cutting created great excitement. Two big Clydesdales pulled around the cutter in ever decreasing circles. Anxiety dominated while the grass dried, Pop surveying the sky, fretting at the least sign of rain. Until it was stooked he worried. Before and after they were covered by the tarps it was great fun to slide down the stooks, no-one seemed to mind though we were warned about the dangers of pitch-forks.

Before long a tractor replaced the horses and a baler the stooks. One crop got damp, so Pop had to keep shifting the bales around to let them cool. Haystacks and haybarns frequently caught on fire - spontaneous combustion people explained, it seemed one of life's wonders to me. Pop's survived, however. Shifting the hay meant mouse-hunts, great fun for boys and dogs, and a grandfather. The hay - winter food for horse and house cow, and insurance for cattle and sheep if there was snow, otherwise stock was left to take care of itself. Breeding ewes got first attention if a cold snap set in, they carried next year's income.

When he bought the Okuti top of the valley farm my stepfather Dick also bought a big draught-horse called Captain. Unlike the gigs mouldering away under the macrocarpa trees, mere roosting perches for the chooks, he used the sledge which came with the place. When Captain was called for service, he and Dick proved an even match. It was a herculean contest, truly high drama. Unlike Pop, who rarely swore, Dick possessed a soldier's vocabulary. The air turned even more blue than usual when Captain was worked.

First he had to be caught. It usually took several runs around the horse paddock with Dick commenting upon his ancestry before the hefty animal could be cornered and haltered. Then came harnessing. Captain by this time as "mad as a snake", objected to the collar and the attachment of the swingletree which he knew meant drudgery. He held no idea of taking the strain of the sledge.

As soon as Dick shook the long reins, Captain snorting his contempt hit his traces like a missile, Dick jumping and twisting over stones and thistles and remonstrating at full voice as he bounded along behind - the dogs acting as outriders - the sledge groaning and creaking, showering sparks as the iron runners hit a rock. It was OK unless the sledge overturned, spilling its load. Dick once had the bright idea of wearing him out by taking the empty sledge high up the farm. It didn't work, Captain remained convinced he was a racehorse in disguise. Naturally we were never allowed on the sledge. Dick would give extra hay to the lathering horse at the end of the day - they held a mutual respect.

Dick had to buy in hay. There was a haybarn near the house. In the first winter Dick sledged the hay up during the winter months. By the next winter he’d built another barn higher up. It was an autumn chore to fill it. After the Korean War wool-cheque Dick bulldozed tracks and brought an old truck. It could ferry more bales than the sledge.

Captain had a much easier life after that except for Inny-Pop. That was what Dick christened the old petrol engine which ran the Wolsley shearing machines in the woolshed. By a system of pulleys it turned the machines as well as the grinder to sharpen the blades. Starting Inny-pop caused more blue language. As obstreperous as Captain, the machine seemed even more unwilling to start. Dick would turn the handle, cursing as it spluttered into life and then died. Once he got it running he happily adjusted valves and oiled it, acts that earned my admiration - he knew about machines.

He would heave the machine on to the sledge to take it the quarter-mile over to the house to power the saw to cut the lengths of manuka firewood. Captain hated Inny-Pop. It smelt of oil and labour. Dick, naked to the waist, muscles knotted as he strained at the task - like Captain, he never acknowledged defeat - would lever the machine up onto the sledge. He would then hook up the horse, with Mum standing uphill with a rope tied to the machine to balance it. As Captain led off with his usual frantic burst there'd be Mum fleet-footed uphill and Dick racing along behind keeping up. The machine never spilt, more by luck than design. Dick enjoyed these jousts. He could have rigged the saw up over at the woolshed. But at home Inny-pop going, Mum handing him up the wood, he'd expertly saw and toss the pieces straight into the woodshed. They were happy doing things together.

Even the truck became redundant. Quite a number of Peninsula farmers had a form of winter transhumance, they drove their sheep to farms on the plains where they wintered over on turnips and lucerne. Dick did this in his later years. So Captain had a long and as far as I could see a contented retirement. He deserved it.

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