The old expression “making hay” has several related meanings in English, but I chose it because I am getting old. The sun will continue to shine, but I won’t see it from six feet underground, where I expect to be before very long. My good friend and editor thinks that I am being lugubrious, but I think I am simply speaking realistically about the passage of time. We all measure time in the same ways by convention and for our utility, but we probably all measure it a bit differently, too. These days, however, I empathize with Marvell, whom I first read at the age of 15 in Mr. Molloy’s English class:
But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
At the moment, I am trying to weed my personal library, and I am confronted by the obvious, namely that I cannot possibly read all the books that I have collected over the years. I should be thinking about making hay.
In Morocco, at least in the Morocco that I knew, farmers did not make hay to the extent that farmers did in America. Only the large, flatland farms could produce hay in any quantity.
Elsewhere, winter seldom kept the flocks out of the fields except at the highest elevations, so silage wasn’t common, nor hay. A small farmer, if he had livestock, let the animals graze the stubble of his field and their verges. Land was used more intensively in some areas and more broadly in others. There were no hedgerows as are common in England and France, and traditional transhumance spread flocks across huge areas from the Moulouya River valley to the sheltered valleys below the northern slopes of the Middle Atlas plateaus. Military power and enclosure had broken the power of the great tribes of the Middle Atlas long before I set foot there, but the uplands were still used for summer pasturage.
Moroccan rural houses sometimes were enclosed by prickly pear cactus and agaves, American imports from the Colombian exchange, or a farmer’s stock pens by thorny bushes, but the countryside tended to be open.
Of course, what is covering the fields after the grain harvest is not hay but straw. I don’t remember seeing much baled straw, except where agriculture had been mechanized.
Farmers did collect some of it, and I bought it to put in the cats’ litter box on the roof terrace, but I don’t recall straw being used to stuff anything. Those who were able to, bought wool which was warmer, softer, and a way to store wealth.
If one were poor, or were a short-term resident as I was, halfa (esparto grass), a local grass, made more sense than expensive wool.
In a previous post, reflecting on some thoughtless decisions, I mentioned that I arrived in Torla, a Spanish village high in the Pyrenees, intending to climb through a 9,000 foot pass on the Spanish-French border and down into the village of Gavarnie in France. On the way to Torla, I had been sick and stayed a day in bed in Madrid.
Perhaps not quite in the right mind, I left my hiking boots in the hotel room at the old Hotel Atocha when I left for the north. Getting replacements would prove difficult, to which I could probably add that with long, extremely narrow feet, buying boots anywhere was not easy, and continues to be a problem for me to this day. There was no sporting goods store in Torla, which in those days was a place so small that there were hardly any stores at all, so I hitched down to Broto in the valley below.
There were no hiking boots in Broto either, so I decided to see if I could break in a cheap pair of ski boots. As any normal person would have realized, and I had skied at college so I had good reason to know better, ski boots, no matter what you do to them, will not make good walking boots since the soles of ski boots have no flexibility. After a day, I had big blisters on each heel and was hobbling about. So back down the valley again where I bought a cheap pair of Spanish canvas shoes. These had woven rope for insoles, and were vulcanized on the outside. The canvas was dark brown, and the shoes looked much like American basketball sneakers which in those days were plain and simple.
The rope soles of my canvas shoes were probably jute, an imported fiber, but Spain has a long history of rope-soled shoes and sandals. Indeed, a history that goes back into prehistory. Called espadrilles in French, the style has been fashionable, and still is, but for ordinary Spaniards in modern times, the rope-soled shoes, called alpargatas and esparteñas in Spanish, have traditionally been the footwear of country folk. Interestingly, the French word espadrille comes from Occitan, the old language of southern France, via the Catalan word espardenya, which itself comes from a word for esparto grass. So says Wikipedia. Today, the name esparto actually refers to two different grasses that grow natively in the western Mediterranean.
Despite exceptionally heavy winter snows, I made it through to Gavarnie. My canvas shoes were soaked, my feet were cold, and I had had some worries about slipping on the steep snow slopes, but once safe and sound in a warm French hotel, I slept well and the shoes were dry the following morning, and ready to carry me back to Morocco.
And, incidentally, the Hotel Atocha saved my old boots, and I was able to recover them on my way home to Morocco. The Atocha was threadbare and worn. Located opposite the Atocha railroad station, where trains arrived from the south, the hotel was inexpensive and popular with travelers on a budget.
In Morocco, esparto grass is called halfa. The scientific name is Stipa tenissima. This tough grass covers vast areas of Morocco in the Middle and Upper Moulouya River basins. It grows in widely spaced clumps, and is harvested for use as a stuffing for bedding and cushions, for basket making, and for floor mats.
In some places, people make paper from esparto grass, a versatile material, indeed.
In my home, the mattresses and the cushions for the banquettes were stuffed with halfa, and there was a halfa mat.
Well-off Moroccans might have had wool in their cushions, and rugs instead of mats. As a stuffing for cushions, the dried grass was hard. My banquettes were not normally used for sleeping, so it didn’t matter much, though in a truly Moroccan home, rooms were multifunctional and people often slept on the banquettes that they sat on during the day, so wool made a better mattress, by far. Wool was soft and warmer to sleep on. The halfa had a fragrance, that of dried grass, that might be better described as an odor, but I was okay with it.
In the spring of 1970, Gaylord Barr and Mark Miller had gone off to Ain Kerma just south of Oujda to visit Ali Azeriah’s father. Ali was a student at the Lycée Sidi Lahcen El-Youssi, where Gaylord Barr taught, and he invited Gaylord to visit for the spring break. Mark, another Peace Corps volunteer, working in fisheries in Casablanca, had had some serious health problems, and wanted a break from big city life.
I joined up with Louden Kiracofe and Don Brown for yet another climb up Jbel Ayachi. Louden and I had climbed it the previous summer, but were disappointed to have chosen the lower of the two peaks and, late in the day, we were too tired to climb across the crest to the other peak. We still wanted to stand on the highest summit, and thought that everything would be more scenic with snow, and perhaps easier climbing too, and we convinced an administrator, Don Brown to come along.
Either on the way to Jbel Ayachi in the spring of 1970, or on the way back, we noticed some rope makers, probably near Missour, and we took some photos of the process. As synthetics and plastics have today replaced fiber ropes, the little factory is a reminder of a traditional and sustainable industry.
Today, halfa still probably covers the upper Moulouya, which lies in the rain shadow of the Middle Atlas. The soils there, as well as the dry climate, make arable land a scarce commodity, except where irrigation is possible. Increasingly warm temperatures, however, may pose a threat to the existing ecosystem, as well as an even greater threat to agricultural lands of that region.
At 75 years of age, I still remember the expansive plains of grass, and the poor fellows who earned a little money making rope. I didn’t ask where the rope makers were from. They may have come from the Marmoucha area to the north, or from Aït Ayash to the south.
Incidentally, in Sefrou, I was often told that the finest woolen jellabas came from Imouzzer des Marmoucha, though I had also heard that the region of Khenifra was another source of fine jellabas. Most of the cloth was woven into geometric patterns of black and white, which I always admired. My own jellaba, which I always wore in Sefrou when it rained or was very cold, was a nondescript brown. I loved it just the same!