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There are few images that create a more indelible impression of American frontier life and community spirit than that of a barn raising. The barn was often the first structure on the land, as it held both hay and housed livestock , which would be the family's livelihood. In those times, it took a community to build a barn. They had to bring down the trees themselves, and rough cut the lumber. It would take many skills to build – someone to make the nails, carpenters, loggers ... all set to the task of bringing up the barn.
I knew about a “barn raising”, because I had read about them. These were the sort of things that happened on the edge of civilization, in remote frontier towns. Until we built a barn of our own and experienced the kindness of neighbors firsthand, I would have thought the notion of a barn raising to be a quaint relic of the past.
As our first foray into land ownership, we had chosen Perry County, in southern Indiana.
We had been looking at acreage for quite sometime, but had been dissatisfied with our searches locally. In truth, we didn't even have a fully-formed notion of what we wanted out of our ideal property, only that we wanted to live out in the country and away from the hurried urgency of city life. Eventually, we settled on a piece of land 3 hours away from where we currently lived.
Perry County boasted 60,000 acres of the Hoosier National Forest and touched the Ohio River at it's border. Traveling along the Ohio River Scenic Byway, you would catch commanding views - rolling hills stretching out in either direction.
The property was perched atop what was colloquially known as “Etienne Hill”, named after the family that owned much of the surrounding land. A mile down the hill, the Ohio River bent south and then west again, while tugboats chugged along the muddy waters.
Together with another couple (close friends of ours), we had purchased 80 acres which adjoined the national forest at the back.
Half of the land was arable, while the back was forested and converged into a gully. Walking a few hundred feet off the property line and into the national forest, there was a small waterfall which trickled over a sheer rock face, and a creek which wound its way deeper into the woods.
Excited with the prospect of land ownership, we had taken the weekend to drive down to survey the land a bit more and make our barn-building plans. I love imagining and dreaming best of all, so this was probably my favorite part of the whole process.
So, on a Saturday morning, my wife Leah and I piled into a truck with our friends Tim and Nicol, and made the drive from Cincinnati, Ohio to Magnet, Indiana. After 3 hours of being crammed together in the truck, we pulled off the scenic byway and on to the gravel road which fronted the property. We stopped, and let the truck idle.
In the past, a local farmer (Freddie) had maintained the front 10 acres, alternating between corn and soybeans. Now, the acreage had gone fallow and was overgrown. Normally, we would drive through the field and park at the first fence line.
However, the past several days had dumped rain across Perry County, making the land a soggy mess. Undeterred, we revved the engine of our little 2 wheel drive company truck, and plowed into the field. We weren't halfway through before we got stuck.
The wheels just spun, but couldn't find any purchase. Tim shifted into reverse. The wheels spun more. Each attempt to free our truck from the mud just sunk the tires deeper.
I recalled that there was a pile of chopped logs near the back of the property (where the tilled acreage met the woods), and suggested getting some to provide some leverage and traction. Iclimbed out of the truck, into the mud, and trudged off toward the log pile.
While I was on my little sojourn to the back of the property, Tim doggedly persisted to spin the tires in an attempt to get out. Forward and reverse. Back and forth. Back and forth. Forward and reverse. Back and forth. Until, with enough friction (despite the water and mud) the weeds erupted in flames.
With brush fire leaping out from under the truck, everyone quickly scrambled out.
They stared at the fire with incredulity. It had been wet enough to get the truck inextricably stuck, but the weeds had caught fire nonetheless. They stood in the muck and mire, watching more weeds erupt in flames.
“You should move the truck”, Leah suggested (briefly forgetting what had gotten us into the mess in the first place).
Tim gave her a withering look.
Leah nodded. “Oh...right.”
Terrified at the prospect of having to explain to his boss why the company vehicle had blown up, Tim leapt into action. He dove toward the fire, wildly flinging his arms at the flames, in an attempt to put the fire out with his arm hairs and damper the fire with sheer determination. Nicol and Leah stood, watching as Tim beat himself against the fire.
It didn't take long to realize that Tim's efforts were insufficient. Out of corner of her eye, Nic saw the tell-tale signs of a vehicle. Over the tops of the brush and weeds, a dust cloud was slowly making its way down the gravel road. Nicol sprinted (as well as you could sprint in mud and weeds) toward the road.
Leah remained near Tim and the truck with a full gas tank sitting on top of flames. That was when Leah had an epiphany. She plunged her hands into the muddy ground and yelled at Tim, “Mud! Mud!” Expecting another helpful “you should move the truck” comment, Tim didn't pause from beating the flames with his arms ... and then her suggestion sunk it. They both dug down and started flinging clops of mud at the flames.
Nic was already out of earshot of the “plop plop plop” sound of hurling mud-balls. Having reached sight of the gravel road and the car meandering by, Nic made a last mad dash. In her rush to flag down the passing car, she had forgotten about the ditch. Nicol stumbled forward, lost her footing, and nosedived into the road. She landed in a puff of gravel dust. At the site of a girl flying out of the brush and belly-flopping into road, the car did, indeed, stop.
As Nicol stood up, fine chunks of gravel fell off her, while other bits clung tenaciously, still pressed into her flesh. In a tone born of panic, she frantically told them about the brush fire. Calls were made, and within minutes, locals had converged on the scene, to help the city kids and watch the now smoldering remnants of a brush fire.
By this time, whistling blithely, I had returned to the scene with the blocks of wood (it takes awhile to walk to the back of the property). I was pleased to see that others had stopped to help us get our truck out of the mud. The slight smell of smoke and singed arm hair still hung in the air. Happily ignorant of what had transpired (and oblivious enough to not notice the scorched and blackened earth spreading out from under the truck), I dropped the logs and joined in on the conversation.
It was a strange (if slightly embarrassing) way to meet our neighbors, but it couldn't have been more opportune. It was our first introduction to the Etienne family, with whom we became fast friends. They weren't just neighbors. These were people who would work nearly as much as we did, building the barn. These were people that would take 5 young kids (strangers, at the time) into their house, and let them spend the nights in their basement every weekend over the course of the summer.
And it would prove to be a very long summer.
Dan Adams presented workshops at the Puyallup, Wash. 2012 MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR and will be at the Seven Springs, Pa. FAIR.
Please visit the FAIR website for more information about the Seven Springs, Pa., FAIR Sept. 24-25. Tickets are on sale now.
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