Monday, September 21, 2015

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?



Dad reckons fencing in the Midwest has become a lost art. “Baling wire, panels, and electric wire are used to patch up problem areas. Only a few seasoned fence builders know how to stretch wire and brace it with wooden and steel posts set in a straight line for 80 rods.”

Fencing used to be essential--and maybe even dangerous. When I was seven years old, Dad nearly lost a finger while coming down hard with a steel post mall. He kept the bloody mass in his leather glove he was wearing, Mom drove him to town, and Doc Hall stitched it up—without using baling wire or duct tape, I presume.

“Before mechanized help, we pounded posts with a mall and dug holes with muscle. Hard dirt and rocks made it tough, and pasture creeks offered special challenges.” Dad and his brother Pat kept up the practices left to them by Grandpa: barbed wire field fences held cattle in pastures and out of the corn; boards on feedlot fences were nailed on tight and painted white by us Tom Sawyer kids on hot summer days; and woven wire fences gave the pigs something to match wits with—they sometimes won, and we spent plenty of time rounding up wayward livestock.

For some farmers, fences were a source of pride bordering on obsession. “Our neighbor Ambrose had the ultimate fence,” Dad tells me. “It was hog-tight around his 160-acre farm. Three barbs above 36-inch-high woven wire attached to creosoted wooden posts interspaced with two or three steel posts. This allowed him to graze cattle, hogs, or sheep in any field on the farm.”

Confinement livestock practices and wall-to-wall crop planting changed things in much of the Midwest. “Fences have fallen down,” says Dad. “Drifted over by blowing dirt and bulldozed out by farmers, fences are considered nuisances. They harbor weeds, drift snow, and snag field equipment.”

In his poem “Mending Wall,” Robert Frost uses the line “good fences make good neighbors” in folksy and ironic ways. Two neighboring farmers tend to a rock wall that sets the boundary for their property. As Dad recalls, “Fences could be meeting places for farmers in the fields. We’d stop our planters or cultivators to visit for a spell. Nowadays the renter might wave from an air-conditioned cab atop a monster tractor.”

But Frost also used the line “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Maybe he was prescient about modern farming in the land where corn and soybean fields roll like oceans toward the horizon. Something there is that doesn’t love a fence.

by dan gogerty, with thanks to Rex Gogerty (pig pic from organicgrowersschool.org; collage from youtube.com)

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