Misadventures in Fence-Building

Mishaps plague the author's plan to build a simple wooden fence.

| May/June 1990

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    It's only a simple fence…what could go wrong?

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The quiet night before: "It's only a simple fence," I insist. "A day's work, maybe two. Three rails, and one top strand of barbed wire on the posts. Dig the holes, fling in the posts, slap on the boards, stretch the wire, and I'm done. What could go wrong?" Joy's eloquent smile says: We have seen these simple projects before. "Oh, any number of things," she replies. Recently, she's been reciting various subtitles from the law of Murphy every time I mention the fence project. "Remember," my wife quotes, " 'Something there is that does not love a wall.' "

Wall? Oh, that's right. It was always hard for me to picture New England stone fences. Growing up in the West, I imagined them to be of rail construction, but wondered what kind of lathe you'd need for granite. Robert Frost's famous poem opened my eyes: You stack rocks, apparently, into walls that annually collapse. This misconstruction was the salient point of the poem, I explain to her, and the work tuckered him out so completely that he hadn't the strength left to look for rhymes. "Wood fences take less labor," I quip happily.

"It's bad luck to make fun of Robert Frost, " Joy says, suddenly very solemn. A Vermont native born and bred, my wife considers Frost to be an American saint; one more irreverent word out of me and I'll have miles to go before I find a place to sleep tonight. A-yup. A-yup.

Next morning, I buy the materials at our little country lumber store: 15 fence posts, 45 pine 2 × 6s, gloves and two kinds of posthole diggers, clamshell and auger. The roll of barbed wire is back ordered, so I load up everything in my pickup, trade a few jokes with Hiram and Lloyd behind the counter and then stop on the way home to buy lemons. Nothing like a jug of really sweet lemonade with a pinch of salt in it, ice cubes and lemon rinds afloat; mulled maple cider doesn't make it in summertime Oregon.

From the magic wildwood behind our house, crows call playfully to each other as I work. The pleasant warmth of the day puts a manly sheen of sweat on my back. The first step in building any good Western fence: Dig holes, and dig 'em deep.

Just as I finish the third one, Joy notices that they're 10 feet apart. "That's right," I agree, wiping my brow. "See this string line, with ribbons every 10 feet? That's so the—"


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