A builder’s guide to handbaskets for a world that is going to hell

Basket weaving. I should probably learn the intricate skill of basket weaving. But I do not have a craftsman’s manual dexterity or an artist’s innate sense of creativity and elegance. Nor do I have the required patience or painstaking attention to detail.

The world is going to hell in a handbasket.

Nevertheless, I should invest the time and effort to learn the basics the craft, because anyone paying the slightest attention to current events can see the world is going to hell in handbasket, and I should be prepared for that fiery descent in a custom basket of my own creation. Ultimately, there may be no advantage to Hades-bound, wicker transportation built to my specifications, but at least I will have the satisfaction of knowing that mine is more comfortable than those cheesy, mass-produced handbaskets that people are grabbing off the shelves for the ride to perdition.

Basket weaving. Why not? It would be a logical extension of my frenetic preoccupations during the previous 18 months.

Over the course of this calamitous year and a half, I have done several other major and minor construction projects: small plywood storage boxes, crude stone masonry, metal roofing, farm fencing, and yardwork with landscaping timbers. When stress and anxiety beset me, I build stuff. It’s what I do.

And this has been a time of extreme stress and anxiety, ranging from a deadly pandemic that swept the world and killed more than 4 million people, more than 600,000 in this country, to the worldwide rise of repressive nationalistic movements, including the attempted overthrow of the federal government by a mob incited by president Orange. Add to that the daily reminders that the world is blundering into environmental disasters of our own making for which we refuse to prepare – or even to recognize.

This building mania may be a type of occupational therapy, keeping busy to assure myself that the madness will subside and life will return to some semblance of normalcy. Subconsciously, the goal of these projects is my attempt to set matters right, to get back on course. These things I build, I want them to endure as an assurance that there is a brighter future and it will be good for future generations, specifically for our children and grandchildren.

Sheep are more easily herded than goats, but they do not eat the thistle and nettle in the pasture.

If I remember correctly (and I often do not in these, my senior years) this frenzied construction marathon began with sheep, and it has perhaps run its course with goats. Those sheep-to-goats bookends contain an odd and diverse set of volumes that have one common theme: our farm as a place of refuge during this era of tumult and trepidation.

About 14 or 15 months ago the sheep, Suffolks, 11 ewes and 10 lambs from a larger flock owned by our neighbor on the adjacent farm, were in need of pasturage. With ever increasing numbers of acres of North Country farmland being converted from pastures to row crop fields, there is a dearth of ground suitable for haying and grazing.

We offered him our three-acre hillside pasture, and the offer was immediately accepted.

Building and repairing fence for sheep and cattle grazing was the first of the projects.

As much as I would like to claim altruistic motive for this neighborly gesture, the truth is that the steep hillside has to be mowed three or four times each summer to keep down sumac, thistle, burdock, nettle, and wild carrot– with a walk-behind mower. Turning sheep into the pasture was more to my benefit than his. The catch was that it had to be fenced to his specifications: 42-inch-high welded wire fencing with steel posts every 12 feet.

Because the hillside has two field access lanes, three 12-foot tubular steel gates also had to be mounted. Add a trio of wooden posts at each corner, and that’s 18 eight-foot long, six or five-inch creosoted posts.

Three trips to the local farm supply store to load and unload fencing materials had me wondering if mowing was a more sensible solution than sheep. But it was all completed in a couple weeks, and pay-back on the costs of fencing versus mowing should balance out in less than eight or nine years. Not including the cost of my labor.

And that labor was wearisome. But after two weeks of sweaty, backbreaking toil – voila! The hillside was tightly fenced and gated, and if I do say so myself it looks professional quality. Better than most livestock fencing in the hills, coulees and bluffs of the broken landscape of the North Country. It has also confined two flocks of sheep these two summers with only one wether lamb escaping, and he cheated by wriggling under a gate.

Regardless of how gentle , cattle enjoy testing fences.

I was emboldened to attempt more projects.

Next on the list was the repair and replacement of barbed wire fencing for another neighbor’s grass-fed dairy and beef heifers and steers: Jerseys and Devons.

That required hanging two more gates, using a post hole digger to set seven more wooden posts, and pounding in about 30-40 steel posts.

Compared to the welded wire fencing of the sheep pasture, that project was easy. A dozen barbed wire cuts on hands and arms (and one on my forehead – don’t ask) did make my beautiful blonde wife insist that I get a tetanus booster shot.

The next project was replacing the compost bins that we unintentionally burned down over the winter. Do not dump lives coals from the woodstove into the compost (read: Fire in the compost bin! ) Building with eight-foot length, green-treated landscape timbers I’m at the top of my game, mostly because those timbers are rough-cut and frequently warped, and I can blame all irregular shapes and dimensions on the lumber.

Over the winter, we burned down the old compost bins, unintentionally, and they had to be replaced.

In hindsight, these bins are oversized because we fill them not only with kitchen scraps and autumn leaves but also with grass clippings, and there have been few grass clippings in this year of drought. Maybe next year – if it ever rains again.

One feature I am proud of: the top-hinged doors that make it much easier to shovel compost out of these bins. The old bins had side-hinged doors. What was I thinking when I built those? Reason enough to burn down the troublesome things.

With the completion of that chore, I was ready for a brief pause in the pandemic year construction projects, but we somehow became enamored of a gabion retaining wall to border the concrete pad that we had poured 30 years ago to set up dog kennel runs.

Building a gabion wall requires a lot of rock. Move all the rock a wheelbarrow load at a time and you lose enthusiasm for gabions.

We had four or five bird dogs back in those long-ago days when I was an avid hunter of pheasant, quail, prairie grouse, woodcock, and ruffed grouse, but we are down to one dog now, Abbey, and she lives in the house with us.

The kennel runs are gone, but the concrete pad is a good place for campfires with grandchildren and the monthly gatherings of the Over The Hill Gang, and it needed some sprucing up.

A gabion is essentially a cage to hold a “rubble rock” wall, less expensive than a poured concrete retaining wall, I built the gabions with heavy wire hog panels, dug a trench, set the cages in place, and filled them with rock, some slabs of limestone and some crushed rock. Not pretty, but serviceable.

Much on-the-job training was involved. About the time I was completing this project, I knew what I was doing. The next one I build (if ever) will be much better.

Not pretty, but functional.

The gabion wall demanded that I fare it into the foundation wall of limestone slabs that I originally constructed 30-plus years ago. That old rock wall, dry-stone-laid with no mortar, has sagged and slumped over the years, but I like the Scottish field-border look of it and do not want to dig it out and replace it. I did mix and use about 10 gallons of mortar to bond the new corner’s slabs of limestone because I could not securely tie them in with the gabion wall. The result was truly ugly, but so is the rest of the crumbling original wall. I’ll learn to love it.

Project completed. Time to rest.

Sitting by the campfire pit on the rock-walled concrete slab late one evening, smoking a cigar and drinking a beer, my eye fell on the other pair of kennel runs in our north yard. Built into the hillside limestone foundation of a 100-year-old granary, these had the appearance (in my imagination) of the century old kennel at Auchmull Lodge on the Gannochy Estate in eastern Scotland. They are not quite the oak and wrought iron kennels at the North Sea shooting estate where the English gentry enjoyed the sporting life in the late 19th century because I built them with green-treated pine 4×4 lumber and fenced with six-foot chain link. But this is as close as I will ever come to the landed gentry life, so they will suffice.

The kennels now stand vacant, but I can still hear the excited barking of my English springer spaniels from autumns past when I let them out for an early morning run before a day of pheasant hunting in the North Country. Those times are over, but looking back upon the glory days of Molly, Pete, Herco, Jessie, Annie, and Sasha, I regretted not being able to afford roofing for those kennel runs.

Well, better late than never. The roofed, open-fronted shed could be used for storage, and there is always the chance, however remote, that someday it would resound with the barking of birddogs again.

Framing up the former kennels for metal roofing was splice-scab-and-splint carpentry work that I hoped no true craftsman would see after the steel roof panels were in place to conceal my makeshift design. Functional, not glamorous, was the goal.

Corrugated steel roof is like the Sword of Narsil: still sharp!

The real trick was aligning the free-standing kennel structure, anchored only against the back wall of the foundation, so that I could squarely fit the unforgiving corrugated metal roofing panels. I attached a come-along cable and pulley to the uprights in the southwest and northeast corners and slowly cranking the winch until the frame creaked and yielded. It worked! The cross-measurements were within an inch, and the final sheet of metal roofing had to be trimmed only three-quarters of an inch.

Sometimes I am an amazingly clever monkey. Not often, but sometimes.

Half of the shed I designated for firewood storage, the other half for weatherproof equipment that was accumulating in an already overcrowded garage. But it was meant for birddogs, and I still have my fantasies.

The roofing was solid, it did not leak, and I called time-out and relented from any more major projects.

Yes, there was a plywood box that was built to hold the 12 books I have published (three novels, five Old Coot story anthologies, three North Country anthologies, and the worst children’s novel in the history of juvenile literature), but that was a mere two days of work, all in the comfort of my workshop.

Hardly counts. I build a lot of boxes. I understand that craft, know from experience how it’s done and how to proceed. No challenge. No danger. Productive work, but routine.

Then came the day in June that I tripped and fell on the stone stairway that leads from our upper yard to what we call the apple tree yard. “Stairway” is a generous term for this flight of broken, sunken, tilted, misshapen, and slippery chunks of limestone. Since I still have the quick and sure-footed reflexes of a cat, the fact that I could fall on these jumbled stairs was an obvious indication that they were a deadly hazard.

This called for immediate action. With a crowbar and a sledge hammer.

Having completed the de-construction in a fit of pique, the huge stones scattered about in both the upper and lower yards, it seemed wise to begin planning how the stairs were to be replaced. Over the past few years we have had several discussions about this, without arriving at any definite conclusions. Now, because of my temper tantrum, something definitely had to be done.

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley.

Rebuilding the limestone stairway was out of the question. My crude attempt to reconstruct a rock retaining wall was clear evidence that I had not achieved the necessary masonry skills. Steps with uniform risers and treads – this was beyond my capability. We thought about hauling in precast concrete steps: too expensive. Hiring someone to lay paving stones: even more expensive. The only choice was to fall back on what I know: landscape timers and packed earth.

We measured the height of the hillside, about eight feet. Then the length of the slope: about 18 feet. Putting pencil to paper, I figured I could build a flight of steps with seven-inch risers (conveniently the exact height of a stacked pair of timbers) and 20-inch overlapped treads (even more conveniently, one timber could be cut into two pairs of sideboards for the treads).

I drove to the local lumber yard and bought 16 timbers. “What are you building this time?” the yardman asked. “A hillside stairway,” I said. He paused and looked at me searchingly. “Vaya con Dios,” he said.

The design was simple. Executing the design was complicated. The slopes of our North Country hillsides are not smooth and regular. Humps, lumps, holes, bumps, ruts, rocks tree roots, mole tunnels, ant colonies – all of these obstacles awaited my excavations beneath the innocent looking sod. By the time I was digging out the trench for the fourth step, I began to refer to my woeful attempt at civil engineering as The Underground Railroad.

Complications slowed my excavations.

Advice: use a mason’s level as you build each stair. Pack down the base securely and level it carefully east-to-west, north-to south, side-to-side, front-to-back. And also diagonally. An uneven base has a way of exponentially increasing its irregularities until it resembles something from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. You start up the stairway with a gentle climb and end with a mountaineering ascent that requires cables and pitons.

The stairway design called for 12 steps. Over the course of a week I completed 10, and then the rains came. If I had known that digging into our hillside would open the skies, I would have done this sooner in our summer of drought. Playing in the mud of a slippery slope is not the best idea. I am waiting for the ground to dry before I build the final two steps.

The stairway seems solid and stable and comfortable. Time will tell. Frost heave can change things.

This brings us to the other bookend, the final project of the summer: the goats.

The goat project. This trio kept us running.

The goat experiment was more-or-less contemporaneous with the landscape timbers stairway. The construction work was frequently interrupted by bouts of goat herding, lassoing, penning, and erecting electric fence. Variety in a day’s work is good.

A month ago we remarked to our neighbor that the only way we could keep ahead of the brush clearing on our farm was renting a herd of goats. This was a joke, I assure you. A week later he arrived with a small trailer, a 10-by-10 foot pen, three billy goats, and a scheme for brush and weed removal. The goats were small, Nubian dwarf breed, about 24 inches at the shoulder, 30 or 40 pounds, and horns they are learning to use. These are young goats. Gentle and a bit skittish. The breed description says they will grow to more than a hundred pounds and 32 inches in height. Our hope is that they remain gentle.

Our hillside as it appeared pre-goats.

We set the pen on a brushy area alongside the driveway, herded in the goats, and let them do their thing. In one day the pen’s interior was barren ground. We moved the pen every day for five days. The goats ate everything inside. Everything. Every single form of plant life.

This was brush and weed control success beyond our imagining. But moving a pen once each day was not the best idea. Allow any gap on uneven ground and the goats escaped. They could be coaxed back into the pen with a scoop of corn. We were soon used to seeing them by the front door asking for handouts.

Hence, the final project: erecting electric fencing. Supplied by our neighbor, I was given a 160-foot roll of moveable fence, plus a charger that sends jolts of electricity through the wires. I erected the fence around a section of steep hillside, and the goats, we were assured, would soon learn to stay inside. After a long day of chasing and herding that resembled a Mack Sennett silent movie slapstick comedy, they did indeed consent to remain within the fence.

The hillside, post-goats.

Our French spaniel Abbey was curious and touched the hot wire with her nose. One time. In the rain. I inadvertently touched it twice. Neither of us has any intention of repeating our folly.

After four days on the hill, the results are astounding: all the weeds and brush are grazed down to nubs and the bare earth is ready for me to rake in grass seed. I ordered another roll of fencing online, and the goats and I will play leapfrog along the hillside to clear it all. Note: sheep will not eat thistle, but goats love thistle. I do not know how they do it, but they eat thistle and nettle and wild blackberry like candy.

So that is pretty much the end of the farm projects story. I have survived the summer and revived my spirit. Until the credit card statement arrives, I am upbeat and optimistic. Life is good.

But, you know, I am thinking about whitewashing the cellar under the house during these hot days of July and August. I will let you know how that project goes.


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.

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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1 Response to A builder’s guide to handbaskets for a world that is going to hell

  1. I’m exhausted just reading this and I am the mother of young children. Good work, Y.

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