Hanging the steel gate was the easy part. The hard work was clearing the new approach into the South Ravine Pasture.
Each sub-section of our North Country farm has acquired a name, an identity, over the previous 35 years: the South Woods, the Sheep Pasture, the Big Hayfield, the Small Hayfield, the Kennel Yard, the Goat Pasture, the Hilltop Garden, the Old Garden, the West Bluff Woods, the South Ravine Pasture. The only tract that has not been tagged with a descriptive title is the four-acre tangle of scrub woodland at the far northeast corner of our place. We should probably call it the Trip and Fall Woods, because that’s what I do every time I blunder onto its rocky slope.
The South Ravine Pasture is particularly well-named, a steep hillside that tumbles down to the edge of a sheer and bare-walled ravine of fissured limestone. This fractured framework of rock underlies the North Country’s landscape. Torturous formations of sandstone and limestone, some stacked in cracked and shattered layers, some thrust upward to form misshapen, hulking monoliths the size of a house – these are never far beneath a thin skin of soil.
Known as Karst topography, the jumbled layers of stone are the bedrock of the Driftless Region (technically the Paleozoic Plateau of northeastern Iowa and southeastern Minnesota), an area that owes its name to the lack of glacial deposits (drifts) because the glaciers of the most recent Ice Age did not advance across and scour this 20,000-square-mile dome of land. The terrain is unlike any plains country you have seen, rugged and crisscrossed by steep and deep coulees and dozens of streams that wend their sinuous way to the upper Mississippi River. The rocky bones of this land often jut through the flesh of the earth, raw and exposed, the petrified skeletons of a herd of gargantuan creatures tossed and broken by some cataclysm that shook the prehistoric world.
Fascinating as our regional geology may be, I do not often wander into the Ravine Pasture. It is a difficult walk. To enter, you must either climb a four-strand barbed wire fence or struggle through a thicket of buckbrush, prickly wild raspberry stalks, and tangled cedar boughs – a challenge when you are wearing snowshoes. The exertion is seldom rewarded. Compared to the sweeping view of the river valley from the topmost height of the hayfield, this rock-sided ravine studded with gnarly old oak trees is drab.
Rarely do I see any wildlife on these Pasture walks. The North Country’s prevailing wind is from the northwest, which carries my scent and sound far in advance of me, warning the resident deer and foxes and most other animals to go into hiding. I’ve tried to enter quietly on days when light winds come from other points of the compass, but the ravine somehow causes swirling and eddying currents of air that still alert every animal except the dull-witted raccoons. If I could sit quietly for 20 minutes most of the wildlife would reemerge, but I do not have the patience to do that.
All that changed in April when I took a new approach into the South Ravine Pasture.
We have never permitted hay harvesting in that Pasture because of its steep slope and the deep waterway that divides it in the center. Not a lot of grass there anyway because that piece of ground is only four or five acres. But last autumn we did allow it to be grazed by the cattle from a grass-fed beef and dairy farm, and that was good. Livestock makes the place feel more like a real farm.
The Ravine Pasture fencing had to be patched and mended for the cattle, and a gate had to be mounted at the west end to haul in water. Wire-wise, the Jersey and Devon heifers and steers did not try to push through the electric wire strung along the brush-clogged 50 yard pasture boundary by the Hilltop Garden. But we plan to put sheep in there late this summer, so more fence work is necessary. Sheep, especially lambs, are notorious for discovering and escaping through the smallest holes in a fence.
I set to work building a sheep-proof fence. Once upon a time there were scraggily strands of barbed wire running through the brushy tangle at that northeast corner of the Ravine Pasture, strung between cedar trees and clipped to a half-dozen metal posts that staggered erratically across the gap. That fencing is long gone, except for the chunks of wire that snared my chainsaw and tangled my bushhog mower and sent sparks (and curses) flying when I attacked the thicket as a prerequisite to replacing the dilapidated fence.
The project started as a quick-fix chore, but as these small tasks often do it became, in my mind, a sacrosanct mission ordained by the holy doctrine of North Country farming. Why build a clapboard chapel when a granite cathedral is the true vision? Or in this case, a cathedral built of seven-foot, creosote-treated posts.
By the time the job was completed, there was a huge pile of brush, five new and one old wooden posts with cross braces and wires, five metal posts standing straight in perfect alignment, four taunt lengths of barbed wire, and a brand spanking new eight-foot tubular steel gate. Best not to calculate the cost-per-foot of rebuilding this section of pasture fence.
But there were unexpected benefits that went beyond money.
What used to be a prickly thicket is now a mowed lane through a smooth-swinging gate into the South Ravine Pasture. That New Approach has given me a greater appreciation for that four-acre hillside tract.
For one thing, the bluegrass and brome and fescue have dominated over the invading wild raspberry, buckthorn, gooseberry, goldenrod, and wild grapevine, with no mowing or other assistance from me. In the Sheep Pasture, the Hayfields, and the Goat Pasture the cool season grasses are losing this battle. We have never burned the Ravine Pasture, so its sun-drenched, south-facing slope may have aided the preeminence of the grasses.
Also, the Ravine is not nearly so devoid of wildlife as I formerly thought. On this evening’s walk with my French spaniel Abbey, I counted seven different species of song birds, a pair of soaring turkey vultures, one red-tailed hawk, five squirrels, a couple rabbits, and I am sure I heard a whitetail doe and her fawn crashing through the undergrowth.
There may be a larger lesson here, a learning moment for me. After many months of apprehension, worry, and melancholy during this time of pandemic-mandated separation from family and friends, a new approach and a different view can contribute to the transformation I must go through to adjust to the “new normal” of day-to-day life. There is no going back to the comfortable familiarity of the Old Garden. The rugged topography of the South Ravine is likely to be the landscape I must deal with for a long while.
Time to build a gate to make the passage easier.
To read more essays and stories about life in the North Country, visit the Author Page where my books are listed for sale in paperback or e-book format.