Good Fences

My last wood screw went into the last board as the rain began to fall.

There had been a steady drizzle, but now the dark ceiling opened up to a torrential downpour. 

I scrambled to put my tools away, slipping in the mud.  It took me a few moments to realize that it was the very last screw in my pouch - the last 3.25 inch construction screw I had.   It took still longer for me to get inside  the warm house and out of my wet clothes, to stand at the window looking at the green gray fields and admire what I had accomplished.

The fence was finished.

It still needed a coat of white stain on the last section, but that would come on a sunny day. My daughters love painting the white stain.

 I love good fences.

I never thought much about fences until we moved out West in 1978. I was Grace's age then and the forest hills and hidden fields seemed vast open wonderlands to me compared to the crowded suburbs of New Jersey. To be sure, we rambled through the wooded swamplands that backed up to our home there, but it nothing like 82 acres of field and forest. 

There was a great hill overlooking the whole property that we would climb in the last hours of a summer day with the night hawks already diving for prey. It was a grand thing to me then, to stand in an open field on the crest of a high hill, counting the white capped mountains as the pink fire of sunset painted the sky. 

The fences were barbed wire, which tears your shirt if you slide under it, and is too unsteady to climb over. Best to have a friend hold the wire for you,  if you want to climb through. Still they seemed few and far between.  We could ride our horses for miles without touching a road by simply finding the gates between properties, and making sure that we closed each gate we opened behind us. 

I never liked barbed wire. It rips the flesh of spooked horses and his hard to see in the trees. 

The fences I loved were at Crosby Stables. White painted rails around the whole property including the arena where Jim Crosby trained his Tennessee Walkers. I remember the mint green barns and the ink-black Schipperke dogs that Jim and Eunice used to keep. Little Tasmania devil dogs that would run and hop up to land on the rump a moving horse that never lost its stride. Jim was an Iowa man who landed out West with the railroad. We would ride over the hill to his place for 4H sometimes and he gave our family invaluable advice on horses when we were just starting out. Crosby Stables was like a microcosm of a Kentucky estate, four rail white fences cutting serenely through rolling hills. 

It is the fences of his idyll that I have tried to recreate here on my little patch of land. 

When we moved in, 22 years ago. The house was in need of attention more than the property so it became our priority. 

 The borders of the land were blackberry bushes with barbed wire buried somewhere underneath. 

When we had time and energy from our busy low-paying just out of college jobs, I hacked at the blackberries with a machete. Year by year cutting away at the invasive plant's empire of thorns. It was cathartic, but my desk job left me too weak to counter it's ever encroaching vines. It took years -- and eventually Hank's excavator -- to clear the last of it. It opened our property up so we could see the open fields beyond. We put in posts -- some dug with auger on the back of the tractor, other's dug by hand -- until finally the bright white-stained rails emerged. 

Just in time for little girls to clamber over them for walks out in the field. 

You see a good fence does more than just keep livestock in. It keeps animals -- and children -- safe. Lindsay and Grace love climbing the fences, or sitting on them and waving to grandpa as he goes by on the tractor. The white brings bright beauty in the dark gray of winter. 
I ripped out the last of the barbed wire a few weeks ago. 

Dug the post holes by hand. A good post hole digger will beat a week at the gym for building upper body muscles. There was a layer of gravel to go through too and some concrete from the old dairy barn that used to be nearby. At times, I was hands and knees pulling up rocks from the holes. 

Of course I never count right when it comes to how many boards I need, and that means another trip into town. No matter. There was a time when we could only afford to do a few sections of the fence at a time.  

Now I can even afford to buy a store-bought gate and latch. Much better than the home made gates that now want for replacing. 

The girls are helping me paint now that the weather has turned. Lindsay is dreaming of horses that will one day lean their heads over the top rail trying to see if there is a treat in her pocket.

As Lindsay and I paint, I tell her to take a step back every now and then and look at her work.

"Why?" she asks.

"So you can look at how far you've come," I tell her.

 "So you can see how much better you've made it by your hard work."


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