4 July 2021

The Art of the Romanian Haystack

At this time of year the fields of the Romanian countryside are full of new haystacks.  Over the centuries this particular method of haystack building has become more refined to the point where the haystacks of Romania have their own unique characteristics. Haystacks like this are found nowhere else on earth.

It is of absolute importance to get the haystack just right.  In the past, without the extra food supply to see them through the cold Romanian winter, vital farm animals would have perished.  If the haystack is compromised then disaster could strike.  Great care, then, has always been taken in the construction of these stacks, some of which tower over four meters in height.

This is not a haphazard construction.  The skills needed to build the perfect haystack have been passed down the generations for the best part of a millennium.

Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
Image Credit Flickr User Royston's Rascals
The first step is to line the poles up where the haystacks will be built.  At the same time, the hay is cut – even today this is often done with a handmade sickle or scythe.  It is first placed on the ground where it is raked after a few days to ensure it is dry through. The pyramid structure of long shafts – a kind of tripod brace - is then made which will support the hay. It is sometimes visible on the outside of the stacks but is often hidden within.

Image Credit Flickr User Royston's Rascals
Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
Dryness is the key to a successful haystack.  If one is wet then it will rot from the inside, making it unusable for animal feed.  Again, if the hay is not properly dried then it can ferment.  This often results in such heat that the haystack catches fire – somewhat ironic considering the conflagration is caused by dampness. 

Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
After the hay is dry the farmer must not simply start stacking it.  In order to avoid it rotting, it has to be placed on a layer of branches.  This layer will allow the air to circulate at the bottom of the stack just enough to stop the hay from decaying.

Image Credit Flickr User Camelia TWU
Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
The piling can then begin.  Traditionally the farmer will pass the hay up to his wife who, being lighter, will not trample the hay too much - although this also depends, of course, on age and fitness.  The construction can take the best part of a day but when the shape is built there are a few more things to do.

Image Credit Flickr User Camelia TWU
Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
The stack must be combed with rakes before the person on top can descend from the dizzying heights they have created.  In this way, when it rains the water will run down the haystack in these man-made funnels instead of soaking in.   There is no need for any kind of covering.  As long as the haystack is formed correctly then the outer layer will become a kind of water-proof shell, matting down in to an impermeable crust.

Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
The stack is combed all the way to the ground and any excess hay is put aside to help in the construction of the next stack.  If this is the last the farmer will make in this season then it is simply used to feed the cows that evening.

Image Credit Flickr User  Camelia TWU
Image Credit Flickr User Horia Varlan
Before the final descent a wreath is made and placed on top of the haystack.  This is more than just a finishing flourish – it will ensure that the top of the stack does not blow away in the wind.  If this happens then of course all the farmers' work will have been in vain and the livestock will potentially go hungry.  Only after this final touch will the person atop the haystack come down.

Image Credit Flickr User Globetrotter Rodrigo
Image Credit Flickr User Basil and Tracey
Whether the farm is new or old, the technique remains essentially the same with structural some variation from place to place.

Haycock dry grass- rural scene,Cioclovina Natural Park
Image Credit Flickr User Rasears
Haystacks - also called Germans

Although some are more extreme variations than you might expect...
Goodbye Romania
Hay, Hay, Hay!
The haystacks have embedded themselves deeply in to Romanian culture and language.  Phrases referring to these pastoral prefabrications abound.  When the 1989 demonstrations against the rule of the communist autocrat Nicolae Ceausescu led to bloody revolution, starting in the city of Timişoara, it was said to be the spark over a very dry haystack.

Răchiţele, Cluj County, Transylvania, Romania: Apuseni Mtns.
Dawn mist over Botiza
When the country was occupied by Turkish forces bandits and freedom fighters would hide in the haystacks.  Turkish soldiers on patrol would often randomly stab the stacks just in case someone was secreted in their interior.

Săpânţa haystacks
Yet hiding in the stacks is associated more with love than war. In the past, farmers had to be careful what their daughters got up to with the hired help.  Often, the building of a stack would lead to amorous liaisons in the hidden shelter of the hay.  Suspicious fathers would often pitchfork the stacks to ensure their daughters’ modesty (amongst other things) remained intact.  It is said that many young men in the past bore a scar known as the love fork.

Countryside, Botiza, Maramures
Romanian Haystacks
As autumn arrives in Romania, the men and women of the country’s agricultural heartlands will be putting the final touches to this year’s haystacks.  Perhaps as you read this a young couple are tentatively approaching their first hay-bound kiss and cuddle which could lead to a lifetime of love – or, for the young man, another love fork to add to his collection.

La Comarca? no, Maramures / The Shire? Maramures!

First Image Credit Flickr User CliB

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