Wednesday, May 9, 2007


Apr. 29, 2007
I had an interesting conversation with a surgeon a year or so ago. I was having some trouble with an old lung injury and the surgeon was trying to figure out whether to clamp a persistently bleeding venule in my right lung or buy an acreage. Ultimately he decided to clamp the venule. I survived the endoscopic procedure, and I think he decided against buying a hobby farm, but that’s not the point of this yabber.
As the surgeon was thumping on my chest and looking at my MRI images, he noticed a bunch of healing scratches on my forearms, some worse than others. “What do we have here?” he wondered aloud in the distracted manner of surgeons the world over, and shifted his poking and prodding to my upper extremities.
I told him (probably rather smugly) the scratches came from fixin' fence.
At first he was astonished that barbwire could cause the number and variety of scratches I sported. I could tell he as wondering whether I might actually be a mentally disturbed “cutter” or if the scratches could be evidence of a murder I’d recently committed. He was about to call for a security backup and a consult with the psychiatric health department when I said, “You guys don’t get out much, do you?” I went on to explain, relatively briefly, the process of fixin’ fence, with an emphasis on the unruliness of barbed wire and the near certainty of collecting a good number of scratches. (I know, I know. Most experts never receive scratch one. But I ain't an expert. I'm a fence fixin' duffer. It's just something I like to do and I don't really mind the scratches. Go figger.)
At first he was horrified that anyone would have to perform such nasty, unpleasant physical labor in the twenty-first century. Then he was horrified that he’d forgotten to be horrified that I’d just admitted to doing such physical labor out in the middle of nowhere with a leaky vein in my lung. It might, after all, rupture, and I could bleed to death way out in the country, far from all hope of surgical care.
“I live in Kimball, Doc., which is in Nebraska, the next state over (he glances north, I point east), no, that way. In Kimball they have an excellent hospital, but it's a small, rural hospital. They have no chest cutter on hot standby. So whether I’m sitting on my couch or out in the country fixin’ fence, I’d have to call 911 if I start to bleed out. It’s 10 minutes to the hospital, or 20 if I’m out south of town. This thing gonna kill me in 20 minutes?”
“Well,” he said, “it very well could, but it probably will not. Still, be careful. Rush immediately to the emergency room if you begin to experience hemoptysis again.” (Surgeons talk like that when they get excited).
“Sure thing, Doc.”
I had a chuckle of recollection the other day when I got a dry-air nosebleed while once again fixin’ fence. I considered rushing immediately to the emergency room. “Oh, yeah, from the mouth. Sorry, my bad.” Guess you had to be there.
And we're already back to the tentative mental illness diagnosis, aren't we?
I had another chuckle later on the same day when I decided to tear out about 80 feet of fence and rebuild some corner posts at the apex of two pastures, a fenced-off shelterbelt, and a set of corrals. In doing its job, the shelterbelt had deposited 15 feet of snow atop this particular fence over the winter, and as some of you know, snow drifts can be hard on fences. I got the old fence down and old corner posts out just as the wranglers brought the cattle in to do some sorting and doctoring. The cows knew where they were going for the most part, but new calves skitter everywhere and their mamas get excited, so I had to do a quick, temporary repair to keep them in. It all worked out, but the whole thing was amusing. Guess you had to be there, too.
Sorting the cows (as usual) provided a fine example of how the best laid plans seldom survive contact with the first cow. One of the beasts was temporarily insane. We herded her into a small corral with four or five others and a half-dozen calves, then carefully closed and locked the gate, and turned to capturing the few remaining attention-needing cows still hangin' with the main herd. I glanced back just as the nutcase cow walked straight through the gate as if it wasn't closed and chained. At the end of the day everything got done, but it was a good reminder that we really build fences for our own peace of mind. The cattle don’t care one way or another about fences. Oh, they’ll stay inside one. But they weigh half a ton or more, and if they want to be on the other side of the fence, they’ll go to the other side.
But I digress. The cowlosophy is for next week. Ahem.
Rainy weather and a few other things have combined to shut me out on the fence fixin' fields for several days now, but I've still managed to build four solid (if not pretty) corner posts and get some snarled wire sorted out. And in the process I collected a good crop of scratches on my arms.
So last week I had a similar conversation (see first paragraph) with a different surgeon. The one who repaired my Achilles tendon, in fact. She understood. In fact, she'd been scratched by barbwire herownself. She already owns an acreage and hates working on fence, especially the scratches part. She did not admonish me to avoid physical labor, but we did discuss stapling technique. She cautioned me to work conservatively in light of my newly repaired tendon, but allowed that fixin' fence was probably excellent therapy for my recovery. It was an altogether pleasant conversation and she didn't mention rushing to the emergency room a single time. And she cleared me to push harder in strengthening the tendon.
Which is why Saturday morning found me striding across the prairie with a rifle and fifty pounds of gear strapped on. Now, that's not rehab like most people envision it, but I'm not most people. I wanted a good test, a good benchmark to measure my progress against, and I wanted to get back out on the prairie. It had been far, far too long.
I went about 7.4 miles, according to my GPS. I took it relatively easy but gave both my tendon and my cardiovascular system a "ruddy good gallop." It hurt, but rehab is supposed to hurt. Muscles need rebuilding, tendons need stretching, scar tissue and adhesions need breaking loose. No pain, no gain. In fact, at 46, I'm at the point where no pain (meaning no vigorous rehab work) means no return. If I don't rehab this thing now It'll quickly reach a point where I literally can't stretch the tendons or break up the adhesions. Permanent limpville. All the pain, the crutches, the dang transformer boot — all for naught.
I've got far too much invested to risk a wimpy rehab, and I'm not much interested in viewing the prairie from afar. At least while there's an alternative.
The prairie was a springtime delight. Last winter's snows have kept their slow release rain promise, and the cool season grasses are fairly exploding from the ground. Everywhere is green, and it's the green that only well watered shortgrass prairie can achieve. The first flush of wildflowers are coming along, and though you have to look close for them right now, they promise a lovely wash of color in the weeks and months ahead.
And it must have been a good winter for the animals, too, because you can't swing a cat out there without hitting some form of wildlife. There's no shortage of jackrabbits, and I've seldom seen spring cottontails as fat as the ones I saw scampering across the prairie Saturday. Native birds of all varieties were busy building bowers, and I kicked up eight fat mule deer does. They took a close look at me before scampering off over the hill.
These were all pretty springtime prairie visions I'd have missed if I wasn't out there, doing the unorthodox rehab work.
Halfway through my jaunt I stopped at a favorite stopping place, had a seat, and just took it all in. The fresh air, the sunshine, the growing plants and scurrying animals, and even the placid, lichen encrusted rocks.
If you're looking for a lesson in these words and haven't found it yet, you're not going to. If you have, I wish you the best in burning the day; in grabbing life with both hands and squeezing every bit of the juice out of it. This ain't practice.

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