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.