Friday, July 10, 2015

Hey, Hei, Heinä!

Near my home in North Helsinki is what I usually refer to as “the horse farm”. That’s not a completely correct description of Tuomarinkylän kartano, but it will do. They do have horses.

Tuomarinkylä (“the judge’s village”) is, in fact, a former kartano (“estate”) that was founded almost 300 years ago on the broad, rich bottomlands of the Vantaa River. It was a Finnish equivalent to the Georgia plantation or Russian usadboy, though of course with the arduous farm work being done by sharecroppers, not slaves or serfs.

The manor house at Tuomrinkylä.

Today, Tuomarinkylä is owned and run by the city. Its well-preserved manor buildings  contain a cafe and an interior decorating shop (and formerly a couple of museums, now closed due to austerity cuts). Its barns and stables are home to dozens of horses belonging to a couple of riding schools operating there. Its fields are sown in grain and hay. It’s a nice place to visit to be sure.

Driving past there recently, I noticed a sign saying something about an upcoming heinä-something-or-other. I should have taken a closer look. Seems that for quite some time I’ve been missing an unexpected side of the farm.

The past couple of summers or so, I have noticed a field along the road running past Tuomarinkylä has been filled with rows and rows of haystacks, the old-fashioned kind formed around a wooden pole.

As a child, I remember seeing these kinds of traditional haystacks near my hometown in Georgia, presumably because that’s how one local farmer still did it in the 1960s, though by then the de rigueur method of gathering and storing hay had long been mechanized bailing.

I have also seen such hay stacks here and there in the Finnish countryside, though it’s not clear whether they were erected simply for decoration or out of nostalgia. Come to think of it, the place where I have regularly seen them was the small corner of a field cut off from the rest of the farm by a highway. Maybe the farmer figured it wasn’t worth getting a machine in there, and just did it by hand. Respect for that.

In any case, the time when hay was stacked by hand in Finland probably isn’t that far removed from today. Hiking in the woods with my wife a couple weeks ago, we happened to pass a farm where we saw leaning against a barn wall a dozen or so wooden poles, each sharpened to a point at the ends and with holes drilled through them at regular intervals. It was obvious what they were for.

Riding training at Tuomarinkylä.

For the record, nowadays hay in Finland is packed into in the huge, round bales also common in the States. The ones completely covered in white plastic and often left in the fields are whimsically called dinosauruksen munat ("dinosaur eggs").

It may not be going too far to say that haymaking is one those mundane things that underpin civilization – at least any civilization with livestock. And it’s been romanticized in plenty of artwork over the centuries, as well as lives on in such English expressions as, “needle in a haystack”, “hit the hay”, “make hay while the sun shines”, and the ever-popular “roll in the hay (!)”.

All through my childhood, my family always owned some cattle, though my parents were mainly running a small business in town. When I was in high school, we had maybe twenty head or so, which we kept on some pastureland we rented along with one of my uncles. Each summer, we’d close off one part of the pasture from grazing, allowing the grass to grow freely to its full height without fear of being munched by some ambling bovine. When the grass was high enough (and a long-enough stretch of hot, dry weather was forecast to allow harvesting), we’d hire someone to cut and bale the hay.

When the hay was dry enough for bailing, my brother and I were recruited to help load the bales onto the back of our pick-up truck, often driven by my mother, as we followed behind the hay bailer. The machine, pulled by a tractor, spat out the rectangular blocks of hay remarkably fast. We had to work quickly, slinging the 50-pound bales up onto the truck and stacking them five or six layers high, before hauling them to a barn to be unloaded and stacked there for the winter.

We once had to cut short a hiking trip in the Smokies because a window of hot, dry weather had opened up, and we were needed back home to bring in the hay. It was hot work, and I remember we couldn’t wait to finish so we could jump in the cold creek flowing past the field to cool off.

Crossroads at the farm.

As I recall, we cut hay in June back then in Georgia, in fact in early June. In Finland, it seems it’s traditionally done a month later in July, based on, if nothing else, the Finnish word for “July”.

In Finnish, the month of July is called heinäkuu, literally “hay month”, so that must be the month when you do something with hay. Obviously. I guess that goes to show the role that hay has played in ancient Finnish life, as opposed to, say, the corrupting influence of the Romans. (The English “July” is named after Julius Caesar, who without a doubt never spent a single day cutting hay.)

It’s almost surprising that the word for “hay” in Finnish (heinä, pronounced “hay-nah”) is so close to the English, given how weirdly different most Finnish words are. Obviously, it’s been borrowed from one of English’s Germanic-language cousins. I’m guessing Swedish, in which the word is “” (pronounced something like “heww”).

(Also a bit surprisingly, an informal Finnish word for “hello”, “hei” is identical in sound to the “hey” used in America. In this case, it definitely comes from the Swedish “hej”.)

Another way of translating heinäkuu (and my preferred way), is “hay moon”, since kuu means both “month” and “moon”. The connection there is, well, obvious. It reminds me of the names that Native Americans gave to their “moons”. For example, the Cherokee called July “Ripe Corn Moon”.

The fact that Finnish often has such descriptive names for different “moons” of the year adds to the sense I often have of the aboriginal character of the nature-loving Finns, though sometimes those descriptive names miss the mark. The Finnish word for June is kesäkuu, which can be read as “summer moon”, a twisted joke this year when June was the least summer-like it has been for years, depressingly cool, cloudy and rainy.

Haystacks under cloudy skies.

July hasn’t been much better, though the weather improved enough to put up hay at Tuomarinkylä, with a little help from the villagers. The sign I had seen by the road was for an upcoming heinätalkoot, which was held on July 2nd. Apparently, these events have been held for years, maybe even decades, but I’d never noticed. My only plausible excuse is that in the past I often spent that part of July out of the country. The more realistic excuse is that I just wasn’t paying attention. In any case, the heinätalkoot seems like a great idea.

Talkoot are probably best described as “communal work”, where a group of people pitches in to get some chore done. In the past, this included putting up buildings, in the same vein as the legendary "barn raisings" of the Amish. The most common form nowadays is when all the residents of a housing co-op periodically get together to fix/clean up the premises, mow the grass, trim bushes, clean gutters, that sort of stuff. Strangely enough, these kinds of group work could be called "bees" in America.

The heinätalkoot at Tuomarinkylä, one of those creative public happenings arranged regularly around Helsinki, gives city folks a chance to tap their country roots by pitching hay for a few hours like their ancestors used to do. From the photos, it looks like it would have been a fun outing. At least fun to watch. Hopefully, I’ll remember it next year, and try my hand at tapping my own haymaking roots, such as they are. 

Pekka Halonen's "The Hay Cutters".

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