Kateri Kosek, whose poetry and reviews have appeared in Orion, recently left her Massachusetts home for a several-week trip to Poland. Here’s the second in a three-part series of dispatches from her travels.
Waking up early, I see my uncle and his wife already scurrying between the outbuildings. The cows lumber out of the barn, across a shaded lane where a man riding his tractor gives me a wave, and into the pasture that stretches until it hits the slopes of the coal-ash landfill, courtesy of the power plant beyond. The milk of these cows is fragrant and sweet, and all week I drink it raw. They eat nothing but grass, as they should, and in winter, hay.
In a stroke of good timing, the hay has just been cut. After a few days, it is dry and ready to harvest. The hayfield, a few kilometers from the farm, is all motion and excitement. Neighbors have come to help, people dart about, and my uncle chugs by in the tractor, trailing a machine.
A few white storks, a common sight in Poland, hang back like gulls behind a fishing boat, waiting to scoop up the frogs stirred up by the machines. They fly off if I get too close, but my uncle says he counted sixty the other day, so fearless he had to shoo them out of the way.
When I take hold of a rake, eager to help, Maczek, a cousin of my cousin, beckons me to follow him, and we walk urgently across the field to where the hay lies in clumps. He seems completely at home here. His voice is musical and resonant, brimming with energy as he explains and gestures what we are to do with the hay. But he speaks no English and I fear I am just moving hay around, though his voice is full of reassurance. We gesture back and forth for a while, and finally I understand: The hay is in a messy row. We aren’t moving it, just neatening the rows.
When my dad was young, this whole harvest was done with scythes and rakes, but now several machines work in tandem. One makes wide slow circles around the field, sweeping the hay inward, into rows that the bundlers or balers can pick up.
At the same time, a tractor rolls slowly past the dropped bundles, while people pitch them from both sides to the person arranging them in the wagon. My cousin Lidia, twenty, drives the tractor and says to me later, “I can’t believe you’ve never worked on a farm before,” though she is also impressed that I struggled to pitch a few bales myself, which she’d never done. They are heavier than they look, and I stop lest I hold up the operation.
Before long, before we are even done, a stash of big Polish beer bottles gets opened. I don’t think I’ve done enough to earn one, but no matter. We stand together in the hot afternoon sun with the warm beer, quick to celebrate. The beer is a popular brand called Żubr, after the European bison. About seven hundred wild bison can be found in national parks in the wild northeastern part of Poland, not too far from here. I ask, through my dad, if anyone’s ever seen one. “Only when I’m drinking beer,” Maczek laughs, pointing to the label. I say, “the more you drink, the more you see!” and I can tell the joke translates when he breaks into a grin.
Afterward I head into the field with my rake, sure of myself this time. I claim large areas, gathering up what would otherwise go to waste, scattered hay the machines left behind. I rake up the sweet-smelling piles and carry them to the rows, throwing them in front of the machines like an offering. I dart out of the way when I have to, like the storks, as if the path of these rented machines were fixed and ancient, and all of us just trailing along.
Kateri Kosek’s poetry and prose have appeared in Orion, Creative Nonfiction, Terrain.org, and elsewhere. She teaches college-level English and frequently writes a birding column for the Poughkeepsie Journal. She hopes this was her first of many trips to Poland.
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Lovely images…making hay the old way, mostly. Actually, guess you have to go to Romania to see it made the old way, where they still pile it in high stacks in some (many?) places.
Thanks, John. Not sure about Romania. I’d never witnessed hay being made before, so it’s likely that this all seemed more novel than it was. I’d be curious to see how much it differs here in America.