Fencing with a Story Stick

June 30, 2016


I was pulled into paperwork and carpooling yesterday. After getting the sheep onto fresh grass, the barn mucked, the cattle in, and the water troughs refilled, I ended up having only a couple of hours to work on the back field. However, I did finish putting up all the insulators.

When I am fencing, I use something I call a “story stick.” Historically, builders put up houses and barns (and pyramids) without access to rulers and measuring tapes. They realized that what mattered wasn’t exact dimension but uniformity. Therefore they would cut and peel a tall, thin sapling and carve notches in it to mark the length of rafters, the height of walls, the width of doorways, etc. Everything would be measured and cut according to the marks. These carved poles, idiosyncratic to each project, were known as “story poles,” and even into the 1930s could be found in the attics of old New England farmhouses.

When I’m fencing, I mark a scrap of wood (sadly for romance, with an indelible pen rather than a knife) with the height of all the insulators for each post. This is my story stick. I’ve had story sticks for each pasture — the height and number of the insulators depending on the animals I was hoping to enclose at the time. The back field will only have cattle, and so will only need three electric lines around the perimeter. Cattle typically do not jump fences like horses, nor get down on their knees and wriggle under like sheep. They are generally easy to confine.

E.B. White, the author of Charlotte’s Web, wrote in 1939:

A friend of mine has an electric fence around a piece of his land, and he keeps two cows there. I asked him one day how he liked his fence and whether it cost much to operate. ‘Doesn’t cost a damn thing,’ he replied. ‘As soon as the battery ran down I unhooked it and never put it back. That piece of fence wire is as dead as a piece of string, but the cows don’t go within ten feet of it. They learned their lesson the first few days.

Apparently this state of affairs is general throughout the United States. Thousands of cows are living in fear of a strand of wire that no longer has the power to confine them. Freedom is theirs for the asking. Rise up, cows! Take your liberty while despots snore. And rise up too, all people in bondage everywhere! The wire is dead, the trick is exhausted. Come on out!

What was true then of cattle is still true. They rarely test fences. However, my farm borders a busy 55 mph highway with a hill and a winding blind turn. I have had a young bullock take down a gate and lead a heifer into traffic. I was lucky: no one was killed. But I always try to keep my pastures “bull-tight” for safety.

While I was fencing I measured the old posts against my story stick. Allen and I sank these treated 6x6s several years ago. Each year I’ve found them lifted six to eight inches by frost over the winter.


In the past, every spring Allen would patiently push them down again with the excavator bucket. Now he is gone. I tried standing on the tailgate of my truck and smacking one of the frost-heaved posts with a sledgehammer. It did not move. Yesterday, I adjusted all the old insulators to the new reality. Then I drove around the field and put in all the missing ones.

The hundreds of steel T-posts have snap-on plastic insulators. Between us, Kyle and I put most of these up last summer. This year, my main job has been to drill in the insulators for the wooden posts. These are heavy-duty, one-piece affairs. Premier calls them “TuffRings.”


It is embarrassing to realize that I put these up for years, patiently pre-drilling the posts and winding in the insulators laboriously by hand, before discovering that Premier sells a simple metal driver that drills them in with one motion.


The driver costs less than $5. It saves hours. (“You ain’t really dumb,” I can hear Allen saying encouragingly in my mind.)

Yesterday I made my way around the field with my drill, my bucket of insulators, and my story stick, drilling in the insulators as deer flies swarmed my head. Today I hope to get the lines up.

Mother – Daughter Day

June 29, 2016


Lucy and I drove to Burlington yesterday for dental appointments and afterward met Amanda, Jon’s fiancée, and her mother, Judy, for some wedding shopping. Amanda had bought her wedding dress in Virginia (where she grew up), but we were able to find a lovely satin bridesmaid dress for Lucy.

We are all giggling because the mannequins are styrofoam and nearly weightless; Judy inspected the handsome burgundy tie on one and accidentally K.O.’d him to the floor.

Great company, a happy lunch, successful shopping: a perfect day.

Dental appointments

Bridesmaid dress

Back to fencing!

Brief Pause for Flu

June 28, 2016

Sunday night I came down with a sudden and distressing stomach bug. I thought it might be connected to dehydration but now that seems a stretch. I was felled abruptly after supper, didn’t sleep much, and got up yesterday before 3 AM, still nauseous and woozy.

I didn’t feel strong enough to hike with the dogs. I mucked the barn and spread manure. I moved the sheep. I forced myself to work a little more on the back field fence but mostly collected fresh bug bites.

Today I’m back at 95% but am on the road all day with Lucy. I am off to barn chores momentarily as we must leave by 8 AM.

The cattle have grazed off all the desirable forage in the knoll field and were eating hay last night in the barn paddock. I am so eager to have them out in the back acres. I think one more long day will do it.

I don’t have time to be sick!

Another Long Day

June 27, 2016


… of work without much visible progress. However, I try to remind myself it is all incremental.

I include the photo above to illustrate why I need to weedwhack my fence line in the back field. The electric ropes are buried in weeds. No, I didn’t get to the weedwhacking.

But I did cut up the fallen poplar into lengths using Dad’s hand saw, and dragged the pieces to the burn pile.


I towed out the “tea cart” (more on this eventually) and the antique spring-tooth harrow. This latter was lent to me some years ago. It didn’t work properly when I received it, but then Damon accidentally crushed the gears with the excavator. Now I can’t imagine it can ever be restored. I have been keeping my eyes peeled for a replacement on Craigslist so I can return a working facsimile.


I raked the burn pile site, removing a heavy trash bag of rusty screws, bolts, spikes, and nails. (After this summer’s bonfire I will borrow a magnet to find any remaining.)

Sheep move, barn mucking, dog walk, and three chores done before lunch! I was feeling good about my progress through the list.

However, so often one’s day does not go according to plan. I now discovered that over the winter, the bottom of my 325-gallon tank on the water wagon had grown a giant carpet of fungus, which, when I filled the tank, had broken into stinking black, green, and pink mats the size of my hand that swirled disgustingly through the water. The mats were too thick to drain through the hose. The top opening of the tank is only 10″, too narrow to scoop them out. Using a pipe wrench, I removed the water spigot. I lashed a scrub brush to a broomstick with baling twine and spent more than an hour scrubbing the inside of the tank and breaking up the mats, forcing them out the drain. I wonder if real farmers have this sort of problem, I thought, hose in one hand, broomstick in the other, while standing on an overturned water bucket for height.

Once that was done, I proceeded to fencing. At this point I discovered that when Kyle had taken down some fencing last fall, he had coiled it like climbing rope. Unfortunately, fencing rope has wire in it. Unlike climbing rope, it kinks on itself; instead of falling in smooth coils, it becomes a massive snarl.


I have made this mistake myself in the past. I now know to always wind fencing rope onto something. I own several reels for this very purpose. Of course I cannot be upset with someone for making the same mistakes I’ve made myself.

However, struggling with the knotted mess was frustrating.


I managed to stay patient, picking at the knots while swarmed by deer flies in the hot sun, for about an hour. Then I quit to mow behind the sheep as a restorative.

At the end of the day I was feeling cranky with my lack of progress when I saw three young snowshoe hares in the underbrush near the garden shed. They were clearly playing tag, scampering after each other in big circles. One raced out in a giant loop that took him face to face with my chickens, scratching in the compost pile. It was hard to tell who was more surprised, the chickens or the hare: they all leaped in alarm. Then the hares went back to playing.


No day is lost when God gives you snowshoe hares playing tag.


June 26, 2016


The first day’s progress on the back field was slow. Of course, all my progress is slow, but this day seemed to be particularly poky. I’m not sure what happened, other than my usual underestimation of time required and overestimation of what I could accomplish.

I moved the sheep pen. I mucked the barn and called the cattle in (the biting flies are so bad in the heat, they were waiting, stamping, at the gate). I took the dogs for a 45-minute hike on the wilderness trails to get that chore out of the way. And then, eating breakfast, I made a short list of nine things I thought I could get done before lunch.

IMG_0594I accomplished 1.5. Hanging the gates took far too long. Just taking down the gate Kyle had hung improperly required twenty minutes in the hot sun, while fat deer flies swarmed my head. (I recently read an article on deer flies, which explained that only females give the painful bloody bites, and that you can tell females from males because the eyes of females are set widely apart while those of males are close together. I was staring intently at the flies landing on my shoulders only to realize that I couldn’t see any eyes and I didn’t want deer flies of either sex on me.)

I got the first, new gate [above] up without too much difficulty, though even that took longer than anticipated because it required all my strength to screw and unscrew the old gate pins. The second, old gate was a bear. Looking at the post Kyle had drilled [left], I found five holes. I didn’t want to drill any more and further weaken the post, so I had to move the hardware on the gate. The tight metal cuffs took forever to bang off. Several times I banged my hands instead of the cuffs. I realized at 1:30 PM that I was so dehydrated my brain was not operating properly. Shortly afterward I brushed the electric fence and that jolted me into breaking for lunch and a drink.

Half an hour later, restored by a peanut butter sandwich and two quarts of cold water, I finally got the second, difficult gate re-hung. Then I began working down the list, towing things out of the field.


  • Re-drill the post and hang the gate that Kyle hung too low to open
  • rake up and dispose of all small bits of metal at the burn pile site (old nails and screws from Mike’s scrap lumber, that cattle will eat out of fatal curiosity)
  • hang the back gate
  • drill insulators into all wooden posts
  • hang the fence lines
  • install a new top line all the way around the field
  • install fencing behind and in front of the cabin field
  • make six rope gates
  • bury wire in conduit under gates 1, 2, 3, 4
  • cut the large fallen poplar off the back fence (I’m afraid of chainsaws; big task with a handsaw)
  • put air in the flat water wagon tire and fill the water wagon
  • move out a water trough; fill
  • remove the Pig Palace (cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the “tea cart” trailer (subject of a future post; cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the fence post trailer (cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the extra sheep shelter frames (cattle will crush them)
  • remove the antique spring-tooth harrow (cattle might hurt themselves)
  • weedwhack the entire fenceline to keep weeds from shorting the fence
  • hang the new fence charger
  • wire the new fence charger

Simple work, but I didn’t even finish all of that. At 4:00 I had to drive to Tractor Supply for (believe it or not) tractor supplies, as Damon has taken my John Deere home for a tune-up. I had to shop for groceries and get gas. I had to plan dinner.

By the time the groceries were unloaded and Stash and I were watering the sheep at evening chores, I was shot. I sat on the truck tailgate in my sweaty, dirty clothes, barely able to form a thought.


It seemed a little unbelievable that I’d worked all day and accomplished so little. However, today is a new day and I’m writing the day’s list. I remind myself that it’s all progress.

Getting the Cattle on the Back Field

June 25, 2016


I need to get my cattle grazing on my back field. These photos were taken nine days ago and the grass (and weeds) are much higher now. Every day the field loses nutrition as the available forage ages.

The problem is the fencing and myriad other chores I need to accomplish before the cattle can be safely turned out.


  • Re-drill the post and hang the gate that Kyle hung too low to open
  • rake up and dispose of all small bits of metal at the burn pile site (old nails and screws from Mike’s scrap lumber that cattle will eat out of fatal curiosity)
  • hang the back gate
  • drill insulators into all wooden posts
  • hang the fence lines
  • install a new top line all the way around the field
  • install fencing behind and in front of the cabin field
  • make six rope gates
  • bury wire in conduit under gates 1, 2, 3, 4
  • cut the large fallen poplar off the back fence (I’m afraid of chainsaws; big task with a handsaw)
  • put air in the flat water wagon tire and fill the water wagon
  • move out a water trough; fill
  • remove the Pig Palace (cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the “tea cart” trailer (subject of a future post; cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the fence post trailer (cattle will chew on it)
  • remove the extra sheep shelter frames (cattle will crush them)
  • remove the antique spring-tooth harrow (cattle might hurt themselves)
  • weedwhack the entire fenceline to keep weeds from shorting the fence
  • hang the new fence charger
  • wire the new fence charger

There are other tasks, but they are improvements, not requirements. Still, this represents hours and hours of work.

The last few days have been tiring with discouraging developments on the personal front. I have had no energy for a big project. I’ve actually had no emotional energy at all. I have forced myself to do the usual making of beds, mucking of stalls, walking of dogs, moving of sheep. And then I have mowed. Mowing is one of those tasks, like cooking dinner and washing dishes, that never makes the list but still has to be done. It is also soothing. I mowed for four hours yesterday.

Today I’m determined to start work on the back field.

As you can see if you look closely [double-click on the photo], the green look is somewhat deceptive. In many places it is predominantly inedible weeds, bald patches, rocks, ferns, and moss.


However there is a lot of it, and the first step to improvement is to get my cattle out on it.


I’m starting the process today.

On Second Thought

June 23, 2016

… I weedwhacked the whole plot of nettles.

I started pulling them but after pulling up 100 plants I had only advanced about six inches into the fifteen-foot long thicket. I had also underestimated the claustrophobia I would feel, surrounded by four-foot plants with stinging leaves, even covered head to toe with rubber rain gear, gloves, and hat. Every time I bent to pull more nettles up by the roots, I was uneasily aware that my face was nearly brushing disaster.

Instead, I backed out, set up my weedwhacker with fresh brush blades, and waded back in, swinging the weedwhacker like a scythe and singing along with my iPod:  “It is Well With My Soul.”


June 22, 2016

Seven years ago, Allen made a small pile of manure compost for me outside a corner of the south pasture. I always meant to do something with it, but in the way of things, that chore fell down the list.

Six years ago, while working on another project, Allen tossed the pile with the excavator bucket to kill the giant weeds overtaking it.

Five years ago, I had a dozen six-inch balsam seedlings and stuck them there “temporarily,” some extra daylilies, ditto. The small pile grew tall again with weeds (and the balsams are now five feet high).

Two years ago, finally prodded into action, I waded into the weeds with a weedwhacker — and thought I’d waded into a nest of yellow jackets. I was being stung all over. Oddly, there were no flying insects at all.


Stinging nettles! They must be! I had never seen them before, but I grew up on English novels in which poor little girls were always picking nettles with blistered hands.

Yes, picking nettles. This, to me, is a testament to the amazing creativity of the human mind. Or at least, some human minds. Never in a million years, after being attacked by a plant, would it occur to me: Gee, I wonder if I can eat it? Or, when my hands and arms were lumpy with oozing blisters: Gosh, do you think we could weave cloth out of this? Yet that is exactly what humans did. There are apparently dozens of uses for this wild plant. Just the other day, I informed a country friend of mine that I had stinging nettles. She wrote back: “Make tea!”


Not this girl. Two years ago, I put kill stinging nettles on my list. However, as frequently happens with items deemed less urgent, I did not get to it. The patch of nettles on the compost pile flourished and spread. This spring they are marching down the farm. Last week I found stinging nettles in my daylily beds near the barn. A few days ago I noticed nettles growing at the edge of the pond.

I do not intend to spend my sunset years gardening alongside pitbulls.

Today it is cloudy and 53°, a break from temperatures in the 80s. I will put on gloves and foul-weather gear and pull nettles.

Start of the New Regime

June 21, 2016


Yesterday I moved the sheep to the bottom of the south pasture to start the new pasture improvement program. The sheep grazed this area a month ago, and then Kyle mowed the weeds off. (Yes, I’m aware that a month is not long enough to avoid parasites. I’ll worm the flock more often this summer.)

The spring flush of new grass is past. We haven’t had a lot of rain. To top it off, this section has particularly low fertility; thus, it has not regrown much. I put the sheep on it yesterday morning with plenty of hay.

They were happy to drink cool fresh water as I filled the trough from the truck.


But their main reaction appeared to be shocked disbelief. They ignored the hay and scavenged among the short weeds.


All day long as I passed the pen, working on chores, they cried at me reproachfully.

I had to remind myself over and over that fresh hay, alfalfa pellets, clean water, and bright sunshine were not a cruelty.

“Where I Step…”

June 20, 2016

“… a weed dies,” boasts the tarantula in archy and mehitabel, the 1916 collection of stories about a cockroach and an alley cat by Don Marquis.

Well — where I work, a machine dies.

Saturday was an insanely frustrating day. Earlier in the week I had weedwhacked for hours, only to have the weedwhacker slowly lose power. The last twenty minutes of the job, I had to tilt the machine this way and that to get it to run. Finally it coughed to a stop. When I went to restart it, the pull-cord came off in my hand. Stay calm. I took it to my friend Mike, who returned it to me Friday afternoon with a new pull-cord.

I had a long list for Saturday. First of the chores was weedwhacking. The weedwhacker started, gave out white smoke, and stopped. Four times. Clearly it was not fixed, and would not work.

However, I am accustomed to problematic tools. The trick is not to let it ruin your day. The great thing about a four-page list is that there is always something else to do. Onward!

I would collect stones and branches from the north pasture before Kyle was due to mow it on Sunday. I have an old Craftsman mower with no mowing deck that I use for pulling a cart for various farm chores. Kyle calls it the “I-Haul.” I feel particularly proud of the I-Haul because I, myself, replaced the battery this spring. I went to start the I-Haul. Nothing. Not even a click when I turned the key.

Don’t panic, I told myself. The complete lack of response: surely the cut-off button that prevents starting when the (now non-existent) blades were engaged was not firmly depressed. I spent twenty minutes under the hood, doing complicated things with zip ties to lash the gear lever firmly to the button. At last I was done. Confidently I went to start it. Nothing. Arrgh!

Shake it off, shake it off. Onto the next job. I mucked half the lambing stall. I drove Lucy to town. I spent two hours on dull paperwork. It occurred to me: was Kyle actually going to return on Sunday for the day of mowing he had promised? I texted to him. No, he replied, something had come up. I controlled my irritation (when had he planned to let me know?) and decided I would mow myself. I love mowing. It’s the job I most frequently hire out, as it’s the easiest work and thus kids are happy to do it, which leaves me free for the tough tasks. However, on this day I would mow.

I filled the Cub Cadet and Allen’s Mo-Chief pull-behind mower with gas. The Cub Cadet fired right up, and I drove to the north pasture. I went to start the mower. The mower would not start.

It was at this point that I felt the top of my head start to lift off with rage. I drove to town to pick up Lucy and shop for groceries. I called Mike. I was out of patience and done with projects for the day.

However, yesterday was a new day. I made bacon for Father’s Day breakfast. I moved the sheep. I mucked the stalls and brought the cows in. I walked the dogs for forty-five minutes on the state trails. I made the beds and started laundry. I took out steaks to thaw for Father’s Day dinner.

By 10:00 Dr. Mike arrived to examine the mower, the first of his patients.


He showed me that the gas-intake mechanism had broken. I had inadvertently flooded the spark plug. In ten minutes he had the mower running with a healthy roar. (The I-Haul he took away with him. It needs a new starter. He’ll price the latter for me, to see if it’s worth fixing.)

Sunshine, a beautiful day, a working mower, and a pasture of weeds to mow! Heaven!


I was so happy. Mowing always reminds me of my mother. Using Allen’s gift mower reminded me of Allen. They were great company in my mind as I cut the field in long swaths. [Double-click to have the in-the-field experience.]


Damon called me. I burbled happily about the perfection of Allen’s mower. I hung up.

The mower would not re-start. Don’t panic, I told myself (a regular refrain for me). I inspected the engine and saw the gas-intake mechanism was now completely hanging loose. Surely that’s the problem! I went to my tool room and searched for small bolts and a screwdriver. I found a bolt that was too long but with a nut wound partly up the neck might work for the short term. I bolted the gas mechanism back into place. The mower started right up. I’m a genius!

I mowed for two and a half hours. It would only require another half hour to finish, but it was very hot. I needed to drink fluids and walk the dogs. I stopped, drove home, and returned in twenty minutes. How satisfying it would be to have finished the field!

I went to start the mower. The pull-cord came off in my hand.