Barb ‘n’ me

Barb and me. Me and barb. Barb Wire.

It is not a good relationship. I hate barbed wire, and all available evidence would indicate that it hates me.

Over the course of 35 years I have probably strung two miles of barbed wire on our farm. Now I am pulling much of it out, along with another few miles of “subterranean” wire that generations of farmers before me have strung for cattle fencing, wire which long ago collapsed and is hidden along the brushy borders of pastures and hayfields that have changed boundaries.

Yes, I know those old cattlemen couldn’t keep cows and calves in a field without sturdy barbed wire fencing (at least 36 inches high, four strands, steel posts, solid wood post corners), but there’s been many a day I wished electric fencing had been invented a hundred years ago. Or that American tastes had preferred mutton to beef.

Every stretch of barbed wire that I unclip from bent and broken posts – or excavate from beneath root-bound sod – increases my loathing for this stuff, and there are days that I regret my decision to stop mowing the hillside pasture. Let me explain.

We have a three-acre hillside that is lush bluegrass, brome, clover, birdsfoot trefoil, and some goldenrod, but it is much too steep to mow and bale hay. When we bought the farm, the hillside was covered in sumac, burdock, nettle, thistle, and scattered stands of white elm and boxelder saplings. It looked like a scab on a badly scrapped knee.

So I mowed it. With a walk-behind mower. Three or four times each summer for 35 years. The transformation of that hillside was wonderful and rewarding. There were evenings I would walk to the top and sit gazing out across the waving grass that stretched down to the edge of the wooded ravine on the east and think, “This is one of the most beautiful places on the farm.”

But came the day when I had to concede that I was no longer young and spry enough to continue mowing it. A solution presented itself. With the generational transition of the farm adjacent to ours, the new owners brought on eight Suffolk ewes and a ram. Following the birth of twin and triplet lambs this spring there are now twenty sheep. Add half a dozen Devon cattle and – with most of the land in row crops – there was a shortage of pasture ground.

We proposed to them a free addition of three acres of excellent pasture, for the price of keeping it grazed down by their sheep. We would split the cost of fencing 50-50, and by mid-summer this mutual benefit agreement would make us all seem clever and resourceful.

Wooden posts and three steel gates and a pair of thick leather chore gloves set me back about $700, and although my old pickup groaned and complained, all of it was hauled uphill and dropped off in a day’s work. About 50 or 60 yards of the proposed fence line ran through the woods, tangled and brushy with buckthorn, gooseberry, small elms, and grapevine. Another two days’ work with chainsaw and machete and DR mower cleared an eight-foot wide path.

Everything was ready to begin building the new fencing. Except for playing de-fence: the removal of about 200 yards of old barbed wire and woven wire fencing. But how difficult could that be? A single day of work, I estimated.

No. Playing de-fence is difficult. Extremely difficult. Like two or three days of hard labor difficult.

The woven wire along the bottom of the old fence line was a cinch. Use a pliers to remove the fence clips from the bent and pushed-over steel posts, use a lopper to cut the brush and grapevine that had grown through and intertwined with the wire, attach a length of chain to the tow-bar of the pickup, weave the chain into the wire, shift into four-wheel-drive, back up slowly, and voila! Fifth yards of crushed-down and rusted woven wire fencing is pulled free. Then it was a simple task to roll it up and set it by the driveway.

This whole de-fencing project was going to be easy. I sat on the tailgate of the pickup on a glorious blue-sky June afternoon, congratulated myself, drank a quart of water, and smoked a cigar in celebration of my ingenious accomplishment.

Pride goeth before the fall.

The three strands of barbed wire awaited my sorry attempts at removal like an entrenched Japanese infantry division on a Southwest Pacific atoll. No surrender.

Reprising my technique with the woven wire, I hooked the chain through a twisted loop at the end of a length of barbed wire, fastened the chain to the pickup, and slowly backed up. The wire snapped and tangled itself into a knot. No worries. I’ll try again. Same result. Worse tangle.

Not all the wire can be like that. I’ll try a different strand and leave that weak and rusted one for last. All the strands were weak and rusty.

One broke, snaked way wildly, and disappeared into the weeds and brush. The lowest strand, I discovered, was embedded under the sod for most of its length. I conceded that the only way to remove all three strands would be foot-by-foot tedium, pulling and yanking it free by hand, cutting it here and there when necessary, and coiling it in loops.

That worked well. No, it didn’t.

My newly purchased leather chore gloves were soon shredded, and so too were my hands. I broke one set of pliers, dug through the tool box for a wire cutter, and quickly dulled that as well. Back to the garage for the heavy-duty fencing tool with the wire-cutter-on-steroids. That worked well, except…

…even though the old barbed wire was rusty and prone to break, it was still surprisingly springy, whipping free when I cut it, flipping up once to slice my forehead and knock off my hat, uncoiling several times to gouge and scrape my arms, snapping at the exact moment of my full-force pull to dump me on my keister and send my eyeglasses flying into the high grass.

The glorious blue-sky June afternoon became uncomfortably hot and sweaty. My salty sweat sought out the deepest of the wire gouges and slices. I was panting and exhausted and weary. My forearms looked as though I had been groping for feral cats in a burlap sack.

But this was war. It was possible that removal of all the old barbed wire fencing could be the death of me, but I would rather die than admit defeat. With shovel and lopper and wire cutter and pliers, I fought on. And I won. But it would be difficult to determine who was in worse condition – the rusty old wire, or me.

Today is a day of victory and rest. The old fencing is gone. Now all I have to do it dig 11 post holes, set and brace the wooden posts, mount three tubular steel gates, drive 90 steel posts, and unroll and attach about fourteen hundred feet of brand new 48-inch woven wire fence. And maybe a strand of electric wire.

But no barbed wire. No. None. I refuse.

Fifty or a hundred years in the future, I do not want the owner of this farm, whomever he or she may be, to suffer a similar fate: barbed wire – The Death of a Thousand Cuts.



About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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