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Mending Fences | Caring for the Legacy of Those Who Were Here Before Us

Mending Fences | Caring for the Legacy of Those Who Were Here Before Us
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Good fences make good neighbors—but tending to them year after year also teaches us the patience that comes with caring for the legacy of those who were here before us.
Photo/Art by Allen Garns
Good fences make good neighbors—but tending to them year after year also teaches us the patience that comes with caring for the legacy of those who were here before us.

I’ve been fixing the same old pasture fence for more than 20 years, and in that time the fence has educated me. This old horse fence, unpainted wooden boards and posts, has schooled me in wood and tools.

George Iselin built this fence 17 years before we bought our house with its old barn, outbuilding, and eight acres of fields and woods along Moose Brook. George is as deceptive as his fence. He looks like an unkempt, wispy hippie. In his college years he was known on campus for going barefoot in the New Hampshire winter. But George is incredibly strong (and kind). He works as a farrier, and I’ve seen him move, by himself, a heavy heating-oil tank that would have normally taken two or more people to move. His fence is strong, like him: He nailed it together with huge spikes. All of the fenceposts are standing tough: no rot, not the least little wobble in any of them after nearly 40 years. Most of his thick boards are still hanging there; some of my replacement boards have come and gone, while his lichen-covered boards hang there. Why? This fence should have fallen apart long ago.

At first I was slow to realize my caretaking duties. Our pasture is right on a major road to town, so I knew that I had to keep the fence up, but I was always behind and unprepared. For starters, I had no power tools. To replace a board, I had to pry out those huge rusty nails. They were as long as railroad spikes; sometimes I had to throw all my weight behind the pry bar. Then I’d cut a new board with my old hand saw. It was slow going.

It was worse keeping the fenceline clear. Brush had grown right under the fence. I went at the fenceline with some dangerous tools, including a rented brush cutter that had a naked circular saw blade dancing and
hopping at the end of a long handle. Then I graduated to a chainsaw, which wasn’t much better. I’d do this every few years in the summer, and haul pick-up truckloads to the burn pile at the dump. But it seemed that every time I looked across the field at the fence, all the brush had sprung back, as if in some time-lapse movie.

I finally wised up and called in a backhoe to uproot the brush. I got a new fleet of cordless tools: a small circular saw to cut the boards, and a reciprocating saw to cut the nails off.

George’s fence taught me all this. If you drive by and see a guy fixing a fence, you’d have it wrong. It’s really a fence getting a guy to keep it standing. This is what Michael Pollan says plants do: We’re working to spread apples or potatoes. The plants are cleverly in charge.

But lately the fence has been showing its age. (I don’t know about George.) We had a few snowy winters, and the plows pushed the snow hard against the fence. In spring it looked as though a stampede had busted through the boards. I’ve had the dreaded end-of-life discussions with my wife: Should we just take it down?

At first we fixed the fence to keep horses in, but sheep are pastured there now, and they have their own portable fencing. So we fixed the fence for appearance’s sake—and now we fix it because it would be just too much work to take it down. (The posts still stand true.) It’s easier to leave it. I try not to think about this as I fix the fence each year, try not to see it as metaphor for life or the politics of our republic. I just patch the fence. It’s what the fence wants.

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Updated Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

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