Thursday, July 1, 2010

Fixin' Fence

Just after 3 p.m. the temperature bumps into triple digits. First 100, then 101, then finally 102. I don’t know it at the time, and frankly, I don’t care. It’s hot, very hot, and after a wonderfully cool spring I’m not used to or prepared for very hot.

Sweat bee, Dialictus zephrum

I’m fixing fence on the EJE, one of the usual summer chores. The fence I’m working on has been rather neglected for several years, low on last summer’s priority list but high on this year’s. As I bake in the stifling heat I suddenly grin and laugh to myself as I realize (for the zillionth time?) how much I love this chore, even though I hate it from the bottom of my heart. Such contradictions are part and parcel of ranching. I turn and look at the wash I’ve just climbed out of, and pause to admire the straight, tight section of fence I’ve just completed. There was no grin on my face thirty minutes ago…

There’s only the barest hint of a breeze, and only occasionally. The air is mostly still and close and hot, and more humid than normal because the lush grass and sweetclover are transpiring, sucking in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen and water vapor. I feel the weight of the atmosphere bearing down from above, wrapping me in a hot, wet blanket of misery. Sweat pours from my skin and my clothes, boots and gloves become wet and sodden. Perspiration fairly pours from under the sopping ball cap on my head, running in a steady stream past the sweatband, into my ears and over my face. The sweat rivulets wash bug spray from my forehead and deposit in my now-stinging eyes. As I plod along the fenceline, stooping and grasping and nailing wire to wooden posts, I find myself on the edge of a small wash. Below me, in the bottom of the wash, mustard grows rank and wild, six feet tall and more.

The mustard-filled wash is hellish. The stiff stems and leaves claw and scratch at my arms and legs and snarl the four strands of barbed wire. Sorting the wires out is pure misery in the wash-bottom oven. The wire seems to be playing a rude game, dodging away from my sight and grasp, then suddenly snapping back and biting my arms until the sweat runs red. Cloying, choking mustard pollen fills the air and makes me cough and sneeze and wheeze and gasp. At my feet, hidden in an impossible snarl of weeds and wire, there is a sudden harsh buzzing sound. I jump and yell instinctively, fearing the sound means snake, even as in mid-jump I realize it’s only a grasshopper.

Time seems to stand still there in the wash, and my world becomes very small; only me, my fencing task, and natures efforts to defeat me. I persist, and keep working, despite a deep desire to give up and leave the wash for another time, another day. Slowly I gain the upper hand, get the wires unsnarled, staple each to the appropriate spot on the half-dozen nearly invisible posts. After what seems an eternity I scramble up the other side and emerge triumphant. Breathing heavily, with sweat pouring and eyes stinging, I look back and grin.

The misery of such labor is just that – misery. I hate it passionately – the heat and the sweat and the coughing; the close, stifling air and the stinging eyes and biting barbs. At the same time, however, the victory is sweet and delightful. I don’t think I can describe it adequately, but it includes the deep satisfaction in having struggled mightily and persevered and won out by finishing the job and doing it well.

I learned about fixin’ fence and learned the love and the hate of the thing when I was a youngster. Those memories are never far away when I’m doing the chore, and they’ve always been close and served me well whenever I’ve struggled with other hard tasks. During the harsh physical regimen of boot camp, for instance, while other tough 18 year-olds were falling out and giving up, I knew I could persevere and dig deep for untapped reserves. They’ve always been there; the well has never run dry.

The lesson’s not just about toil and perseverance, though. It’s about doing good work and contributing to an enterprise, of being part of something larger and longer-lived than oneself. There’s somehow a solid comfort in sharing the sweat and toil of my forbears on the same land and for the same reasons. One of those reasons, and perhaps the most important, is preserving the EJE’s ranching heritage for generations yet to come.

I have a nephew working with me this summer, trading the sweat of his brow for college cash. He’s always known “the farm” as the place where Googie and Grampy live, and as a place of fun and adventure. As he struggles now with fixin’ fence he’s seeing the ranch through different eyes, and he’s learning to hate the task with a passion. But he’s a good, solid young man, and though he may not realize it yet, he’s already showing signs of learning to love the task, too. He’ll probably never take up the profession of agriculture, but what he learns this summer will stand him in good stead no matter what he does in life.

I turn and move along the fenceline once again, bending and grasping and nailing, with the hint of a smile lingering on my still-sweaty face. The breeze picks up a bit and a cloud passes over, providing some much needed and wonderful shade. Delightful! Then the sweat bees show up.

1 comment:

  1. Glad I'm not the only one to jump at a grasshopper's buzz. And I haven't even seen a snake yet!

    Darn! I wish Blogger would automatically link to my blog info like other blogs do.