cutting hill

[cutting hill]

[Garrett County Press]

Excerpt from
Cutting Hill
by Alan Pistorius

It's spring!" says Joan exultingly. "Dick's fixing fences." It is the third day of May, and when spring is mentioned in these parts the response you mostly get is a grumbling "about time." April has been cold and rainy. The third week in particular was bleak and raw, with temperatures below freezing every morning. On the twenty-first a blanket of snow covered the daffodils.

If April was hell--or at least purgatorial--this first warm day of May is simply glorious. It has a soft, summery feel, with quiet breezes; delicate smears of mare's tails ride in a high sky. Clearly spring will come--as it so often does in mid-New England--with a rush this year; the interval between snow shovel and lawn mower will be measured in weeks.

After a hesitant beginning, the greening of this Vermont hill-and-valley country--a topographical "rumple" where the Taconic Mountains to the south slide down to the broad Champlain Valley to the north--is going confidently forward now as Dick Treadway, hatless, gloveless, in dark cords and a light check shirt, sets out to fix fence around ninety-odd acres of mostly rock-ledge mixed woods where his older heifers will soon run. An axe over one shoulder, a roll of shiny electrical-fence wire over the other, hammer and wire cutters secured in a heavy leather linesman's belt around his waist, Dick heads west down the fenceline accompanied by the listless song of a black-and-white warbler (the season's first, a full week late) and by Thorson, a huge-footed, black-muzzled, red-brown Great Dane-mastiff mix.

One farms literally on top of the work of earlier generations of farmers, and nowhere is that more apparent than when one cruises fence. This first westrunning section is ancient zigzag rail fence--the "worm" fence of an earlier age--reinforced by old rusted two-strand barbed wire. Age and the combined forces of winter--frost heaving, wind, the weight of snow, falling trees and limbs--conspire against fence; rails tumble, wire sags. Eyeing the fence from a heifer's perspective as he walks along, Dick stops to deal with problems. Fallen rails are lifted into place. A sagging length of barbed wire is pulled taut against the inside of its anchoring post or fenceline tree and secured by an inch-and-a-half staple, whose legs spread when driven by virtue of planed points. If the sag is severe, Dick simply grabs the wire at midpoint with the jaws of his wire cutter and rotates the tool, twisting the wire tight (and leaving a curious conelike excrescence projecting from it).

The neighbor's young black retriever spots the fencing crew across the pasture to the south and makes a bee-line. He arrives all wiggles and jumps and wags and charges. In Thorson's view of life there is no excuse for these enthusiasms. He is appalled, and gravely repudiates the puppy's overtures.

"We had a two-hundred-twenty-pound St. Bernard before. The kids rode him like a pony. He was gentle, but fierce-looking. Strangers didn't fool with him." When the St. Bernard died, the Treadway family got another big dog from a man who had for some reason named him Thorson G. Orson and kept him chained up. Given his liberty on the farm, he had practically run himself to death--uncoordinatedly at first--and, as Dick puts it, nearly "wore out his nose" trailing scents. Thor has matured into an effective watchdog, intimidating in size and voice and mien. (At close range, one finds his soft brown eyes fixed in an expression of sad apology, as if he were chagrined at his own ferocity. Few strangers ever get near enough to notice.) Apparently bored with the fence detail, Thorson strikes off cross-country, the puppy in pursuit, still soliciting sport.

The property line turns north, and the fence here is newish-looking, sturdy barbed wire. "Heifers are pretty good about fence if they're only on one side," Dick says. "If there are heifers on both sides, they try to get together." That was the case here, and, tired of chasing and sorting, Dick and his neighbor got together and put in better fence.

The land drops abruptly to a spring-fed stream, whose bank is littered with light tan wood chips below fresh pileated woodpecker work. The barbed wire here parallels a stretch of old stump fence, a picturesque form of livestock control rarely encountered now in the countryside. (Rail fences are increasingly scarce on farms as well. The old rails are fed into farmhouse woodstoves, turn up as rustic accents on monied country estates--having been bought at farms or from intermediaries who are likely to have stolen them--or simply rot on the ground.)

Fence cruising gets tougher as the boundary line humps and dips near the base of a steep, ledgy hill. There is no livestock forage here ("Heifers shouldn't get down in here, but you never know"), but the hardhack is flourishing, as well as the occasional magnificent red oak, trees ten and even fifteen feet in trunk circumference. Here the fence is "woven wire," a fence of barbless wire whose horizontal strands are tied together with short verticals to form rectangular units. "This fence must have come in back when some Vermont farmers were still running sheep. But how do you suppose they ever got it in here?" Dick wonders, casting an eye over the steep, loose, and wooded hillside. "Just carrying it in would have been tough enough, but can you imagine trying to unroll it in here?"

The Treadway farm boasts nearly every conceivable sort of fence except what has become most common for livestock control, the single-strand electric fence. What with continually falling limbs, that fence would be useless in these woods. But even in the open cropland to the east, they haven't electrified. "Electric fence is handy if you want to move your pastures around," says Dick. "We don't. Beyond that, electric fence demands constant attention, and cows walk through electric just like they do barbed wire. I'm not sure we'd be better off with electric. We fix up what we've got."

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