Bales round and square

“What do you know about a field of wheat, a poem of profane love, or the fear of being taken by the hand. What do you know?” These wonderful lyrics from the song “Pensieri e parole”, crafted by the great wordsmiths Lucio Battisti and Mogol, paint us a tender, loving picture of the summer fields, yellow with wheat. Whatever the cereal being grown, arable fields are one of the defining features of the Italian countryside. The crops grow, ripen, are harvested and threshed (now, thankfully, almost never by hand). The chaff – the waste, in other words – is then rolled into cylinders, those unmistakeable hay balls that will eventually become fodder for the animals. Until then, they stipple the countryside, one of the iconic images of the Tuscan summer, every bit as apt as sunflowers, poppies and fireflies. We also see square bales, but the cylindrical form is more classical, standing well over a metre tall and weighing more than 200 kilograms. In some cases, they can reach up to half a tonne.

Really, bales come in all shapes and sizes, be they slanted, prismatic, or boxy; the hay bound tighter or looser. At the more hipster rural festivals, they might even be used as seating. And they’re not necessarily only made of hay; straw is also an option too. Most of us are only vaguely aware of the difference, but it’s an important one: hay is dried grass, and is used to feed the animals, while straw is made of the cut crop stalks. It’s a waste product, and it can find other ends apart from bales: it can be used to make straw hats, flasks for traditional Tuscan wine bottles, or it might go into mulching. When mixed with animal droppings, it can be used as bedding in the stables, or in fertilizer. It’s also being tried as an alternative energy source, and even as a building material. We may remember that one of the Three Little Pigs built his house from straw, in fact the first that the wolf managed to blow down. But we’re learned since then: today, straw is combined with other, stronger materials, and it would now rebuff any huffing and puffing lupine, besides providing a wonderful source of insulation. It is, moreover, self-supporting, resistant to earthquakes, soundproof and, hard though it is to be believe, surprisingly fireproof. A few people, mostly handy, imaginative country folk, have also turned it to artistic ends: a great deal of so-called “poor art” is made from straw. After all, the people who made the aforementioned straw flasks for traditional Tuscan wine bottles were nothing if not artists. So to sum up, hay is mainly a foodstuff, and straw is primarily practical. But whatever they’re made of, the bales in an arable field have a poetry all of their own.