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First Chapters


Hay, I'm Not Used to This!
Caroline Liebenow in Southern Lapland

The following is an excerpt from my non-fiction book manuscript titled Destination Finland: Adventures of an American Expat, which chronicles my experience of moving to Finland as a single woman and meeting my Finnish husband via the internet. In this excerpt, I recount my first, and probably last time trying to help my in-laws make hay on their farm in southern Lapland.

In late afternoon, we all piled into the van to take a short drive to the neighboring field to make hay stacks. The weather was perfect: mild temperatures with gentle sun and scattered clouds. Mosquitoes were a moderate problem, but we had repellant and long clothes, which proved to be a good solution. I was handed a two-prong pitchfork and I followed everyone to the site. As I made my way, I felt an uncanny sense of alienation and it occurred to me how easy it is to be very far removed from the flavor of farm life even while having grown up in the countryside surrounded by tractors, milk tankers, and cattle wagons. I’m used to the feel and smell of the earth of course, but to think that I’ve never even liked gardening, explains why hay-making is so unnatural to me.

Laura directed me to a slim 7 or 8-foot high pointed wooden stick in the ground and briefly explained the procedure. Take the stick and jam it hard into the ground, then stomp heavily around the base to secure it, much like planting a tree. Scoop a clump of hay and then vigorously shake it to loosen it up. Scoop it up again, then impale it on the stick and push it down to the base. After two clumps of hay have been impaled, take some strands of hay and wrap them tightly around the pole just above the top clump, then continue with a series of two clumps and one tie, until the pole is covered. The tie keeps a space so air can circulate. Lastly, "wipe the ass" of the stack by raking away excess hay strands.

By the time she was done demonstrating, the rest of the family was hard at work, and all I could hear was occasional chatter and the swish of dried grass.
On my first try, I forgot to secure the pole in the ground, so when I stuck a clump of hay over it, it wobbled and tilted to one side. Laura spotted my mistake and burst out laughing, pointing at the leaning stick as if it was the runt of the litter.
Overwhelmed with a shot of crushed pride and embarrassment, I tried to pass off my feelings with a good sense of humor, but it didn’t work.
"Don’t laugh at me!" I said loudly in English with an innocent smile and a look of self-pity in my eyes. I knew that the tears were coming, and I hoped I could stop them. As a defense mechanism, I stared at the ground and casually poked around in the hay with the pitchfork. By then, Heikki had realized that I was having trouble, and came over to help. I nodded as he explained how to do it better, but then he noticed my moist eyes.
"Hey, are you crying?" he asked with such tenderness that I couldn’t hold it back anymore.
"Yes!" I sobbed. "I feel like an idiot! I grew up in the countryside and I still have no natural skill for this. I’m so embarrassed because I’m the only one who doesn’t know what I’m doing. I’m sorry; I know I’m acting like a big baby but I just can’t help it." I babbled on and on as he held me close and consoled me.
"Hey there, it’s ok. It takes weeks; sometimes seasons of practice to get used to this and even then some people still feel clumsy about it. There is no right way for a pole to look, and in fact each one looks like the style of its maker."

Heikki’s mom was also concerned at this point and came over to see what was wrong; he waved to her that everything was ok. After a few moments, I was composed enough to rejoin the group, although I hadn’t regained my pride. I stood awkwardly next to Heikki, feeling like a cracked gasket among these family members who worked together as a well-oiled machine. Heikki squinted in the menacing glare of the bright sun and vigorously shook each bundle of hay from the pitchfork to the pole, rhythmically uttering a profanity with each motion. He noticed that I make excellent ties, so he suggested that I first follow Maarit behind the tractor and place poles in the ground, then come back and make ties for his stacks. The compromise worked like a charm because these were two very essential yet easy jobs. Maarit operated a tractor with a steal auger in the back. Every time she lowered the device, it drilled a hole in the ground and I picked a pole from the rack. Within 30 minutes we
had all of the 100 or so sticks placed, and then I cut Heikki’s average production time by about one-third by preparing ties while he stacked hay. By the end of the work session I had my confidence back and was glad to have found some tasks that I do well. I explained to Heikki that my natural tie-making ability comes from my arts training, and as I worked, I kept thinking how funny it is that skills come in handy in the most unrelated situations. Heikki later told me that his mom was unfamiliar with the haying methods when she first began working with her in-laws, even though her own homestead farm was only miles away, and that she too almost cried out of frustration during her first haymaking experience.

© Caroline Liebenow June 2003

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