Bringing in the Hay

sunset and rainbow

My neighbors to the north have a small farm. They are a young family who’ve grown up in the life of farming here. Ian wants to have cows on his 80 acres — in fact he wants to buy some of the adjoining 600 — but that’s still on the wish list. For now he hays the pastures every summer and keep a few critters, dogs, and a cat. He has kept goats and chickens since I’ve been here, but not right now. This summer he has a couple of horses in the pasture closest to the house, the one where he had a steer a few years ago. They’re here because another neighbor had too many mouths on her pasture, plus she broke her arm, so Ian stepped in. He has to haul water for them every day. He uses a 100-gallon utility tank that sits in a small trailer behind his four-wheeler and pumps it by hand it into their trough.

Nine days ago we had three inches in rain in 45 minutes. The massive rain cause major flash flooding in spots around the county, including through the local mall, flooding by run-off from the roads and parking lots uphill. The perils of hardscaping. I had nearly a foot of water in basement — not creek overflow, but backup because the sump pumps could not keep up with the rising ground water level, which was already saturated from  “above average” rainfall.

The hay field next door. © Patti Witten

Last year we had a so-called 100-year drought. Seven months of way below average rainfall, spring through the fall. This year, in some places corn and soybeans have wilted and rotted in the wet fields. But the grass is above average tall and if it stopes raining for a bit, farmers will have a chance to get it in.

Three days ago Ian mowed the pasture closest to my house on his 20-year old tractor. That’s not a bad age for a John Deere. He replaced a really ancient one with this one last year. But since he mowed the field he’s been racing to get it turned with the harrow and baled before the next round of thunderstorms and flash flood warnings. Yesterday, Ian started baling but I could hear him stopping the tractor every few minutes for some issue. He didn’t get very far and despite near perfect weather, he stopped baling at about 5pm.

This morning help arrived. With Ian driving and the helper walking behind the baler hitched to the tractor, they got it all baled. I was up on my ladder trying to clean the gutters, sweating in the humid air. I’d started that job yesterday, too, but had to quit because I ran into a hornets’ nest. (I was stung three times but did not fall off the ladder.) Some of the bales were a bit wonky, a little crazy-shaped. Some were curved into wide letter Us. Others were twisted like square slinky toys. But it got done.

At about three this afternoon I could hear Ian and his two older kids working to bring in the bales before this evening’s thunderstorms. They buzzed around the field loading 6-8 bales in the aforementioned trailer (minus water tank) behind the four-wheeler, ran them to the hay wagon, loaded the bales on the hay wagon, then rushed back to the field for more bales — wash, rinse, repeat. According the weather radar, the storms were slow-moving but intense, running in a line from southwest to northeast, from Corning to Ithaca. At 7 p.m. the dark sky was pierced by lightning and frequent thunder. The four-wheeler buzzed and voices shouted until the rain began.

My stomach was a mess of anxiety about these approaching storms for a different reason. I looked at the radar on my weather app showing huge clots of orange and red rain cores, trying to gauge if/when the deluge would hit. I had to do some talking to myself and breathing to calm down. I thought about the recent flood, knowing all too well that if we lost power the sump pump would not run and there was nothing to stop the basement from filling. I went down to the basement and moved the cat litter box and dehumidifier to what passes for high ground down there. I ran the worst case scenario: slow-moving storm, 3 inches of rain, flooded basement, another insurance claim, another round of fans and dehumidifies courtesy of a commercial water abatement company, pasting on my brave face, and surviving more turmoil and expense. Ugh!

So I thought instead about Ian and his family. About the bales of hay in danger of being soaked and ruined, become worthless due to mold. All that work for nothing. What must it be like to desire a farming life these days, even if it’s just a small place to raise your kids and keep goats and chickens? Maybe a few cows? Day jobs must fill the void. For many farm families, some things must be deferred in favor of the farm and equipment, maybe renovations to the house, or vacations, or new vehicles. Maybe more.

The storm caught up to us but fortunately just a glancing blow. No prolonged, drenching rain, no flood, no loss of power.

Now, a cool breeze is pushing it south and east, away to other towns, other farms. I hope they got the hay in and under cover. I hope there won’t be more storms tonight. I hope we can adjust to the new normal of weather extremes and enjoy this beautiful part of the world while it still resembles what we grew up with. Meanwhile, I’m watching the next line of storms heading this way, stretching from Detroit to Toronto.

As it moves east, the back of that storm line is lit by sunset with a diffuse, pink glow that slides into orange, then golden yellow as I watch. A rainbow stretches up to the base of the cloud and receding rain so that all you see are the two pillars touching the earth and a dome of color. Lightning arcs beneath it.

Sometimes the drama is behind you. Sometimes it is ahead.

July 23, 2017

sunset and rainbow
© Patti Witten | more photos at

Green, Gone

It’s February and Northern California has turned green again, as green as the Emerald Isle. Only four months ago in October, the hills and ditches were a crisped brown in the fifth year of severe drought. Small animals like birds and squirrels seemed to move quietly, conserving their energy. I imagined them in the hot summer, tense with thirst and stoic with resignation, staying close to water sources until they went dry.

But now the bare hills are green, green. Ditches and flat valleys brim with water, buoying trash and breeding bugs. House cats stalk the tall grass at the verge of new ponds, between the hotels and fenced neighborhoods, poaching frogs and mice. Crows and robins are plentiful. Frequent rains have turned the surface cracks in all the paved roads dark with moisture, and many trees are bright with new leaves.

On the bus near Novato, CA.jpgIt is 8am, Thursday before Super Bowl 50, and I’m on the airport express bus from Sonoma County to San Francisco, at the start of a travel day heading home.This route has become familiar to me from visits over the past two years. Off the 101 between Petaluma and Novato, cattle meander bright pastures, relaxed in a world of plenty. The sun rises through blurred cirrus clouds, and white birds crowd a distant, shallow lake. The morning traffic becomes dense near San Rafael, where we make a stop before crossing the Golden Gate and threading our way through the city to the airport in South SF.

I think of all the repetitive roads and airports that have led to family over the years, strung behind me like beads on a string. The 250 miles of highway and 2-lane roads between Ithaca and Fairfield County, the college town that became my home and the place I grew up. Later, Ithaca to several towns in Florida: Vero Beach, Orlando, St. Pete. More recently, the complex itinerary of flights and taxis booked to get to Boquete, Panama, where my mother, sister and brother-in-law lived for 2 years: SYR to MIA, then, not one but two airports in Panama City (arrive at Tocumen International and get a connecting flight from Albrook International), finally arriving at Enrique Malek International in the city of David on Panama’s Pacific coast, not far from the Costa Rican border.

Closer to home, I think often of the the two-lane roller-coaster roads in the Catskills between Ithaca and Big Indian, NY, where for the past four summers I have have spent a week with a tribe of musicians. And I think of all the domestic air travel done over the years requiring transit through US hubs, mainly Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, Charlotte, Detroit. And ATL, the grandmother of them all — Atlanta, my mother’s birthplace, where some of our family still live. I wonder how many more times will I travel this particular route between Ithaca and Santa Rosa, the scene of my mother’s decline.

Dorothy is a resident the senior facility that my mother lives in. She is white-haired, thin, and sharp-eyed. She was a Rockette during the second world war, hired in 1942 at just 17 years old, below the minimum age requirement, but, as she says, “It was war.” She has a smile that is both devilish and sad, and, in case I mistake her for an old woman, she is quick to offer me a profile of who she really is, inside — young, adventurous and risk-taking, at one time a mother and matriarch of a country house full of dogs and children. Now she’s a widow like all of the women on the assisted living wing, carefully walking the well-lit halls of invisibility. My mother walks here, too, but she is quiet, reserved, inward-looking, and seldom offers any insights into her feelings or thoughts. Perhaps this is her advancing memory loss, or perhaps it is her true nature.

Traffic is heavy on the 101, and the ride to SFO will take two-and-a-half hours this morning. But I’m not anxious about missing my flight. I will have time to get something to eat before boarding the long flight to DTO on a 737. After a one hour in layover Detroit, I’ll take the one-hour-plus flight to ITH on a Canadair jet, arriving about 10pm. Home.

I’m obsessed with my travel details: times, distances, signage, countdowns, gate numbers, terminal letters. Every fifteen minutes I check the contents of my large, heavy purse: iPhone, iPad Mini, wallet, passport, lip balm, liquids in a quart size ziplock, handkerchief, hand lotion. I read every highway sign overhead on the 101, hearing the words inside my head: Lucky Drive, right lane closed, Tiburon Blvd. The big names of myth and magic: Blithedale, Tamalpais, Alcatraz. But there is so much monotony, too. Miles of big box stores, car dealerships, generic houses crowded into every available bit of real estate. Cars, cars, cars. Whatever is beautiful and fine must be shared by so many. There are no private experiences, everything is reduced to a common denominator, from affluence to working class to poverty.

My travel OCD is more pronounced as I age. I repeat these numbers and names to myself, over and over. Delta. Gate 41. One dollar tip for the bus driver in my right pocket. Passport. Boarding Pass. The unbelievably blue ocean and bay under the Golden Gate distract me briefly. The unimaginable breadth and depth of the Pacific Ocean bordering this coast threatens to unmoor my travel thoughts. It almost knocks them from the top spot. Almost.

I could never live here. It’s too dense. The green is too thin, too transient. There are too many people, too many cars, too many houses. I feel that my mind could not survive the constant onslaught of stimulation. There are too many numbers, names, and times to track and memorize. Street names, addresses, amounts, garbage pick up days, new routes to necessary places, intersections, mental maps, instructions. People’s names: doctors, neighbors, instructors, caregivers. Too many homeless, panhandlers, crazies, drug addicts. Perhaps I would adapt, if I chose to or was forced to. Necessity is the mother of adaptability. But for now, I’m gone. Just a visitor anxious to leave, conveyed passively with the conviction of deliverance. I visit California as the green only visits. We make our long arrivals, recessions and departures. And then we fly away, again.