Shaking off the rust from a long winter
The fences are in rough shape after the long North Dakota winter. And the people fixing the fences aren't all that different. But spring may finally have come, and we'll shake off the rust.
"I was trying to find a little newer piece of wire," my husband said, walking along the fence and looking at old splices on the barbed wire.
"Newer relative to what?" I quipped. "Statehood?"
"At least something that didn't come over on the Mayflower."
The lower wire of the fence along the winter pasture, where we've turned out most of the calves and all of the cows yet to calve, most certainly is not from 1889 or 1620. But it is far from new, and the winter it just survived hasn't helped its condition. Months of snow drifts piled on and pushing on the fence made both wires sag in places. Insulators for the electric portion broke or the wire popped off of them. Clips holding the unelectrified portion were missing. One fence post had been pushed out of the ground entirely. While the top wire still is mostly gray in color, the lower wire is decidedly brown from rust, as well as brittle and stiff.
The fence, then, looks like most of us in central North Dakota feel after the long winter appears to have finally ended. Notice I don't say that it has definitely ended; I'm afraid tempting it will conjure up another blizzard.
That's why I was out helping fence on the first pleasant evening we've had this spring. While we all pitched in with shoveling, pushing snow and helping with cattle to the best of our abilities, my husband has done the bulk of the stressful, physical work for the past six months. He's watched the snow he just pushed out of the feed lane drift back in minutes later. He's spent hours trying to save calves born in blizzards or the mud that followed.
So, he's maybe just as brittle and stiff as the wire, and it seemed only right to give him a hand. Of course, he's a professional when it comes to fixing fence. He can pop on an insulator without a struggle, covering two or three posts in the time I get one done. If this kind of fencing were an Olympic sport, I've certainly kept my amateur status secure — but I wouldn't make the team anyway. I pinch the ends of the slightly too big fingers of my gloves as often as the wires and insulators I'm trying to grab with the fencing pliers.
He asks me how it's coming and I say, "Slow," and he asks, "Why?" I am smart enough to just respond that I'm not good at it and not say that I need more practice — because I know more opportunities for practice will be available on all of the pastures in the next month or two. I'm no glutton for punishment, though I'm sure I'll end up helping anyway.
I felt strange wearing a sweatshirt, jeans, cowboy boots and a baseball cap and foregoing a coat, coveralls , a stocking cap, heavy boots and lined gloves. The trees stood still rather than whipping in the wind, and there wasn't even a hint of moisture in the air. Heavy snow still fills the tree rows and stands tall in piles around the yard, but the open spaces finally are bare. Green grass even has begun in the past week or so to tentatively poke out of the ground. The calves near us bucked and kicked and played.
And so it may be that spring actually has arrived. Forgive us for being slow to realize it, as we had started really feeling like it wouldn't come. While the barbed wire — which, predictably, snapped in places when stretched and had to be urged gently to stay together — will remain covered in rust, we'll shake ours off and remember how to live without layers of clothes and chapped, frost bitten skin. We'll fix our broken spots and move on to the spring and summer with hope that we won't get piled on next year.
Jenny Schlecht is Agweek's editor. She lives on a farm and ranch in Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 701-595-0425.