Mar 8, 2010

Good fences make good neighbours

There's alot to be learned from building a fence. A true right of passage for a homesteading man. A statement of permanency and purpose, of stewardship and commitment. A legacy of security, strength, bulging biceps and aching shoulders.

You learn about power. Two-plus days of pounding fenceposts by hand, building strong corner braces, pulling and nailing wire mesh, hanging the gate - what a glorious way to greet the spring. When I speak of it my wife notes a proud, alive gleam in my eye that's not there after the average late-night grant-writing sludge. It's the raw, physical dominion and union that is an elemental turn-on.

You learn who your friends and neighbours are. Friends like Trent who shows up with two loads of fenceposts, and Joe who works far later into the twilight than his body tells him to (and who shows up at 9:30pm a few nights later to help herd the cows back inside and repair the section of fence we didn't do so well). Neighbours like Bob who's so pleased he's offering to either help pay or (hopefully) to give us some of his old beekeeping equipment. And neighbours like Fran who makes us create a new fence parallel to hers but 2 feet apart so that we don't mess up "her" posts. Same fence, very different reactions.

You learn the power of man to change the environment to his own whims and needs. I made an arbitrary decision to give more space to kids and less to animals. We ran the fence straight across the field rather than following the contour of the base of the hill, instantly creating a huge play area on one side of the iron curtain and pasture on the other. Over time the cows will mow and trample fertilize one side while kids and I mow and trample and don't fertilize the other side, slowly and deeply redefining the land as well as its usage.

You learn history, past and evolving. Somewhere in the Old Testament (Leviticus?) farmers were encouraged to "cut corners", leaving the very edges of their fields unharvested so that hungry peasants and travelers could eat. These days, cutting corners is a negative - doing things on the cheap - and the current social concern when laying out a field is the idea of placing the fence 10 feet shy of the property line as a "wilderness corridor." 3400 years later, same fence placement, different priorities.

And most touching, you earn the deep gratitude of those big brown-eyed, trusting beasts who'll be this fall's burgers. When set free in their new pasture they bucked and jumped (literally) for joy, then came over to nuzzle me and kiss my hand (again, literally). Wildside Farm will be selling the best-tasting grass-fed beef in the valley this summer, in no small part due to the fact that these cows have felt safe and loved. There is some scientific explanation about them not releasing stress hormones, but at a cosmic level we'll just be tasting the love.

Unlike Robert Frost (excerpt from Mending Wall below), we do indeed need a fence to give our cows healthy freedom within safety in their short life, and for the sheep who will next season take their place. But I plan to build a stile so Bob can hop over and chat while we poke around the bee hives, and I dream of someday breaching the double-barrier between us and Fran. Something there is that doesn't love this wall between us, that wants it down.

...'Good fences make good neighbors'.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down.' I could say '.Elves' to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself.

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