‘Tis the season for hay, straw, and a sweet-smelling dog

It’s autumn, and as the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season approaches, folks in my Illinois neighborhood like to decorate their front porches with pumpkins and corn stalks sitting on hay bales.

And every time I see that, I can’t help but think of Schatze, the sweet-smelling dog of my youth.

Schatze was a German shorthaired pointer that Dad had trained to be our excellent hunting companion, pointing and retrieving the pheasants we bagged whenever we drove to rural Dwight, Illinois, on weekends during the hunting season.

She loved nothing more than to be outside, even during the cold, snowy days of winter, so Dad built her a masterpiece of a doghouse with insulated double-walls and a baffled entrance to keep the wind out. Every winter he lifted the hinged roof of the doghouse and filled it with a thick layer of straw for Schatze to lie on whenever she wanted to take a break from an afternoon of huffing and snuffling through the snow in the yard.

One autumn day, as winter approached, I found a bale of straw lying at the side of the road. It must have fallen from a passing farm truck, or maybe from a trailer bringing it home to a suburban porch to put pumpkins and corn stalks on it.

Not wanting the bale to go to waste, and knowing that Dad hadn’t gone out to get straw for Schatze yet, I picked up the bale and brought it home.

But when I showed it to Dad, he smiled.

“Thank you,” he said. “But this isn’t straw.”

“It isn’t?” I said. “What is it?”

“It’s hay,” he said, and he explained the difference to me, because I thought hay and straw were just synonyms for the same thing.

Hay, it turns out, is tall grass that is harvested live and then dried to be fed to horses and cows. Straw, on the other hand, is the stalk of a cereal plant like wheat or rye, harvested after the plant has dried in the field. Unlike hay, straw provides little nutrition for farm animals, so it’s not used for feed.

So what good is it, I asked, and why did he use straw instead of hay for Schatze’s house?

“Well,” Dad explained, “straw is hollow, with a little chamber of air inside. And that air acts as insulation for the dog when she lies down on it, trapping her heat and keeping her warm. And because of the air inside, it doesn’t rot when it gets wet like straw does, because it dries quicker.”

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry, I thought it was straw.”

He shook off my apology and pulled a handful from the bale. “Actually, we’re both wrong,” he said, as he stuffed his nose into the fistful and inhaled deeply. “Here,” he said as he held it out to me. “Smell.”

I did, and the smell was sweet, warm and wonderful. “What is it?”

“It’s alfalfa,” he said.

I had heard of alfalfa, but only while watching Our Gang comedies on TV. Alfalfa was the freckled kid with the severe part in the middle of his slicked-down hair, who was always singing songs in a voice that could never be described as sweet.

Dad explained that alfalfa was another type of hay, cut from a plant that resembled clover because of its sweet-smelling purple flower. When it flowered, it was loved by bees—and by animals that ate grasses, like rabbits. And when alfalfa dried and was cut for animal feed, the bale smelled flower-fresh all winter long.

He knew an awful lot about farm crops and meadow plants for a guy who worked in a steel mill, because his first job as a kid during the Great Depression was in a greenhouse, where they grew vegetables all year long to put food on the table. His job was to shovel frozen cow manure with his bare hands and to carry it back in a wagon to the greenhouse, where it would be thawed and used as fertilizer. After a childhood like that, a handful of anything would smell sweet.

Dad decided to use the alfalfa in Schatze’s doghouse in any case, even though it wouldn’t keep her as warm as straw would. Schatze didn’t seem to mind, since she spent the coldest winter nights indoors with us anyway.

And all that winter, as Dad sat on a stool by the fireplace brushing Schatze’s hair, every now and then he would bend down and bury his face deep into Schatze’s back and take a long whiff of her sweet-scented fur.

“I think I’m going to try to find a bale of alfalfa for her house every year,” he said.

Both Schatze and Dad are long gone by now…but not really.

Because every year around this time, when I see neighbors decorating their porches with bales of hay (or straw, or maybe even alfalfa) and topping them with pumpkins and corn stalks, I am overwhelmed by memories of that season long ago when I was a kid just finding out about hay, and straw, and a sweet-smelling dog.

Author, musician and storyteller TR Kerth is a retired teacher who has lived in Sun City Huntley since 2003. Contact him at trkerth@yahoo.com. Can’t wait for your next visit to Planet Kerth? Then get TR’s book, “Revenge of the Sardines,” available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online book distributors.

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