Tuesday, February 22, 2011

In The Beginning

I suppose the most difficult part is in knowing how to begin: a report and a farm.

Serious discussions between the property owner, Richard Ellers, and Living Lands Agrarian Network concerning the meadow off Red Dog Road began sometime in late August. There was to be much inchoate dialogue and many rambling walks through the parcel in the weeks that followed. The property was truly raw: to even have a look-around one had to park his truck in a wide spot of Rocker Road, which ran along the parcel’s western edge, pull back a thick layer of pine boughs on the roadside and wind through thick, downed logs and a damp gully before he would emerge upon the meadow. There was no access by road, no usable fence, no structures, electricity, or water. By late October, however, some concrete plans had been laid to bring a road into the property from the northeastern edge off Red Dog Road.

Work commenced the first week in November. There, as Autumn approached, we dawned hedge trimmers and weed-whackers and chainsaws to rip and slash and saw our way through thirty feet of a willow thicket to push our road through. Fencing supplies—some three thousand dollars worth—were ordered and delivery was arranged. Immediately, however, the going was slow. Rain and scheduling conflicts delayed our tractor and our gravel, and the Thanksgiving holidays promised to make none of us feel much like working, with our full bellies and holiday spirit.

Road-building is a job for heavy tractors and fifteen-ton trucks. Most afternoons I stood aside, observing, waiting for the moment human hands might become useful. Truckload after truckload of rock came from the quarry and slowly the tractor scraped it across the edge of our pasture, carving out a road. First, the trucks brought large, four-inch rock; this was the preliminary layer intended to lodge and hold in the grass and soil. Next came two-inch rock, which was spread over this base of larger rock to lock and give us a drivable surface. None of us, not even our road-builder, had any appreciation for how soggy the ground was: the muddy brown seemed to eat each successive truckload of rock: tons were poured and yet the road developed no firmness. This bottomless wet was adding to our cost and our schedule. Finally, after one hundred and thirty-five tons of rock were laid, we had the skeleton of a sturdy road, which stretched four hundred feet from the roadside down into the glade where we planned to build our pole-barn.

Accordingly, the road that promised to be done in a week wasn’t completed until early February; by early December, however, as the tractors rolled and scraped on, we felt compelled to turn our attentions to the fence. Under grey, looming skies, strapped now with metal-bladed weed-whacker, loppers, chainsaws, and Muck boots, we began to push our way around the perimeter of our envisioned fence. (In what will become an ongoing theme) This clearing that was needed to open a swathe for the fence that promised to take a day, took ten. I had promised my family I would return to southern California by December sixteenth, and so suddenly, we all felt the burden of time.

The fence is of a rather simple construction—difficult perhaps to explain in prose. To begin, fence lines are imagined and for every corner, direction-change, or gate, a series of wood posts are set. In a corner, for example, one post is set on the corner mark. One post is then set on either side of the corner post, some four feet away, creating a ninety-degree angle. Two horizontal posts, four feet high, then connect the corner post with each of the two structural posts, creating two visual “H”s. Wire, and in our case, salvaged barbwire, is then diagonally attached around each “H-brace”: two pieces of wire are attached at the bottom of the corner post and the wire is angled diagonally upwards toward the top of the two structural posts that are four feet away. The wire is then twisted, and with each twist, made more taught. The wired “H-brace” is intended for structural support, to transfer tension when the fence is finally strung. All of this, of course, is more easily said than done. For each wood post a two and a half foot hole with a diameter slightly larger than your post must be dug using the aptly named “post-hole digger.” We eventually dug fifty holes for fifty posts, some through soft, moist soil, but the majority through massive tree roots, rocks, swamps, and clay. After the hole had been dug, the post is lowered in and gravel is slowly poured around. Going three-inch layer by three-inch layer, we pounded down a heavy metal bar to pack the gravel, securing the post in place. The gravel provided strength for our posts but also created a region through which moisture would drain, thus theoretically prolonging the wood’s longevity. Most folks use pressure-treated pine rounds for their posts; in a bout of thrift, we said we’d use locust and cedar we could scavenge (of course committing to this plan without fully appreciating we would need fifty). But sure enough, on high, Nevada-City hills and through low, Highway-49 creek gullies, we found our locust—honey and black—ranging from four to ten inches in diameter. To our forty or so we scavenged, we added ten purchased cedar posts a friend had logged on his property some thirty minutes further up Red Dog. After posts were set and H-braces wired, there was of course the most satisfying part of fence building: the stringing. Nailed to a corner post of choice, we worked our way around the perimeter from corner to corner, pulling the fence taught as we went, nailing it to each successive wood post. The fence’s tightness came from a “come-along,” a nifty, simple little tool that acts something like a ratchet, holding the fence in position as you manually advance the spoke forward. And lastly, the t-post clipping. Between every wood post, some of which are hundreds of feet apart, is a line of thin, metal t-posts that give the fence some vertical form. The clipping is simple, bending a thick, pre-fabricated metal wire around t-post and fence.Although it had been our intention to have the road and fence completed by Christmas, we needed to find contentment and patience in what our bodies and the weather and time would allow us to complete. On the evening of the fifteenth of December, the day before I left, a handful of us worked well into dark, utterly fatigued. There was a moment around four o’clock that afternoon, as the sun bent into the horizon and we had reached a good stopping point, that I was ready to give up. I looked at Tim and undoubtedly he knew; instead, he suggested blankly we push on, and I agreed, for him having suggested so, there seemed no other choice. By dark we had the most noticeable northern stretch of fence along Red Dog Road nailed off, which at least made it look like we were finished.

In the end, the winter holidays came: there were two large piles of rock blocking the top of our driveway, sitting there, waiting to be spread, to complete the road, and we had managed to string eighty percent of the fence.

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