The other day, towards evening, the younger children came along with me on a check of the fence lines. As soon as the engine of the Gator turned over the new dog, a border collie, jumped up on the hood where he routinely rides like whenever we head out for chores. The kids had named him Bandit, in part for his black mask, but in a fortuitous act of precognition for his intriguing ability to find old items hidden in the grass or the barn and line them up each morning near the spot where he sleeps. Some days the arrangement is so striking that I find it hard to believe that a dog is behind it. Plastic animals — a lion, a horse, a heavily gnawed rhino, another horse and a frog — the last an actual frog, laid on it’s back without a mark on it as if it were one of the toys.
Another day it was salvaged vegetables from at least two gardens, a forgotten acorn squash, two potatoes — a Kennebec and a white fingerling — a green Cherokee tomato and a striped gourd. The layouts indicate some kind of complex thought process as there appears to be a consistent theme behind each one, children’s toys, old eggs, vegetables, fasteners, containers, types of string and twine. We have always tended towards intelligent breeds, from Kelpies and Australians, to Shepherds and Collies, but this particular pup was on a level all by himself.
As we began the drive down the hill Bandit positioned himself at the front of the hood, riding it like a surfer. At each curve or drop off he would either hunker down or lean in, positioning himself to remain on the vehicle no matter how difficult the terrain. He has come to understand his ability with the cattle so that he will go nose to nose with them on command, but when we first brought him home and introduced him to the herd he was frightened of their size to the point that he wouldn’t disembark from the safety of the Gator regardless of our entreaties. He quickly learned that if he wanted to stay on board he had to either stay low or learn how to balance himself like a pro.
The kids, being kids, refuse to sit properly and hang off the sides of the vehicle like refugees clinging to a freight train. It scares my wife, but I have gotten used to it, recalling my own youth every time we head out and I hear their excited voices asking if they can come along. The youngest routinely carries some form of weaponry with him, swords made from maple branches, an old wooden musket his brother gave him, a relic of a long ago visit to Williamsburg, Virginia. He engages in imaginary acts of warfare and random duels on a daily basis and as naturally as the changing of the seasons. My daughter, handy as she is and comfortable around the farm, still manages to appear like a lady even in her muck boots, covered in purple flowers. A boy, left to his own devices, becomes a male with little encouragement. So too does a puppy become a working dog.
We check the fence lines out of habit. Branches fall, posts rot or split. Livestock, smelling the We use a combination of types; high tensile electric for the pastured acreage, hand made oak split rail for the driveways and road frontage. There is woven wire and cedar posts along the wetlands, five-strand barbed wire on the property lines in the way back. Fences are one of those things that people notice but rarely, if ever, give thought to or install themselves. The work involved is tedious and exacting. A poorly built fence, a weak section, a gap between lines is like a magnet for animals. Every day they test the limits of their enclosures no matter how large they may be. It is the natural state of domesticated livestock to push the boundaries of their confinement regardless of how satisfied their needs may be. Wherever there is a gate, there will cows and sheep, pigs and goats be found to congregate.
Perhaps the words are more than eponymous. One of the first lessons we learned was to never feed animals at a gate, for there they will stand blocking access until they are fed again, looking for an opportunity to push through the moment it is opened. Likewise the fence on either side of every gate should be built to withstand the additional pressure a bored or hungry herd might put upon it. We learned also to establish the new fence lines along the terrain features that act as their own limitations, the bottoms of hills, rock ledges, watercourses and heavily wooded areas. These become keylines, the established boundaries that never alter, while temporary lines, the divisions between pastureages and grazing areas are set up and broken down as the seasons and stocking densities fluctuate.
The tools we use while setting up and repairing fences vary; sledge hammers and augers, picks, tamping bars, post drivers, and standing awls. There are lineman’s pliers, hammers, wire cutters, fence pullers , crimpers and t-bars. We carry buckets of staples, plastic insulators, several different wires in a variety of gauges. On occasion we have to drill into ledge and set expansive lead shields in order to hold a post or wire in place where nothing else will work. The fences that hold the best are the ones that contain animals that want for little. A well fed herd is less likely to pressure their containment than one that pines for what is on the other side. The grass is, in fact, always greener on the other side no matter how well it is maintained on the side where the animals are kept. A fresh fall of apples in the Autumn is a lure that no fence can can withstand and it is wise beyond measure to keep fences as far away from orchards as possible.
Some animals, the pigs for example, are easily trained to electric and appear to pass the knowledge and respect of it on to each generation, while other like goats, find some kind or perverse pleasure in licking the charged lines repeatedly before pushing through. Sheep, insulated by their dense fleece appear to be unfazed — no pun intended — by any voltage and stay only where a woven wire has kept them in. We are fortunate to have the kinds of terrain features that limit animals naturally; dark forest canopy of the sugar orchard to the northern edge of the property and miles of stone walls built centuries ago alone the southern edge. These came with the land when we bought it and act as barriers to most of the animals, at least seasonally.
In the middle of Winter when the snow is deep it is a chore to get the animals to move more than fifty yards from their feeding areas, unless it is to calf or lamb, in which case the mothers will often head for the deepest drifts in the most inaccessible locations possible. In Spring when the tender grass first emerges the herds strain at every location, ravening for the new growth that must be allowed to reach a height of eight inches before grazing can begin. A soft spot, a weak post, a grounded electric line is nothing short of an invitation to crash through and get on with the year, with or without permission.
And so I found myself, down at the bottom of the big field near the trout pond looking back up towards the house and barns, the great sweep of fallen leaves like brush strokes across the pasture, watching the cows feed at bales placed on the newly seeded spots, my son whacking away at Canadian thistle with a machete to chants that sounded like a crazed Maori. My daughter sat perched in the front seat of the Gator taking photos of the geese on the pond and the dog, free to do as he liked, watched the cattle like he owned them. I wondered just how long we could make this last, this world where we remain free to do what we like in order to feed ourselves as an ever increasing number of limits are placed upon us, the human cattle called consumers. It can’t have gone unnoticed to the people at the top of the food chain in our society that keeping people fenced in, so to speak, is not so difficult if everyone is well fed, if they think that by passing from one enclosure to another they have some kind of freedom and after seeing the TSA treatment at the airport when I took my son this Summer it’s most likely that Temple Grandin’s texts are sitting on their desktops.
End Notes: This morning while out feeding the livestock I looked back up the slope where the big oaks were dropping the last of their leaves. This year was a bounty of acorns and there, outside of the electric fence were a litter of Fall piglets rooting for them in the dropped foliage, their mother watching them wistfully from the other side of the enclosure. I smiled at the sight, understanding that the young aren’t born with the idea of limitations, that the established lines meant to control them are only as effective as the lure of what’s on the other side.