Good Neighbors Make Good Fences


It begins with walking. We walk back and forth between each others’ houses to share food or sledding invitations or canning efforts. We walk to the top of the hill to pick rocks in our fields. Living in a rural area, the only destinations within walking distance are our neighbors’.

Our neighbors, Sue and Neil, teach high school chemistry and physics. Their interests complement our medicine and ecology backgrounds so that we form a quartet of science lovers, energetically farming and raising kids alongside other jobs. As our kids discussed things the other day, I overheard their son, Thomas, tell Sam, “I’m not officially a guest. I’m your neighbor!” And that’s how we feel too.

A farm cannot exist in isolation from the people and landscape that surrounds it. Air and soil and water ignore boundaries of property ownership. Plants spread seed and grow across fences. Wildlife traverses. Kids toss baseballs and footballs and sticks for the dog. Our farm’s ecology—human and otherwise—seems most healthy when we commute and communicate across boundaries.

fencebeforeWalking the edges of our field—the five acres that lie between our house and their cow barn—Neil’s long strides measure a perimeter distance. Then he walks across to our door, sits with us at our little oak kitchen table, and we scheme over the constant peeping from the chick brooder.

Our neighbors raise beef on grass, and they’ll need more grass this summer for their growing herd. We, at this stage, raise grass, with no ruminants to graze it into meat. This situation is a match, we decide. All that’s missing is a fence to keep their cows in our pasture.

fenceafterSo we walk again, choosing a path for this fence. There is always walking, to place stakes and to stretch string and to measure, to talk with each other at each corner. Neil and his tall son, Andrew, dole out fence posts along the line. We are following relatively new boundaries, since our properties were once one larger farm, and our property has no fences. We are inventing the future.

We walk behind Eloise, which pulls a beast of a post-pounder, stopping to drive each post solidly in the ground. We are a slow procession, a parade with the music of the two engines and percussion so strong it vibrates your feet standing nearby. My dad drives the tractor; Neil’s dad lines up posts. Finding plumb takes a team, each eyeing the post from our own perspective and talking in sideways nods and hand signals to get it straight.

A few weeks later, with grass thickening the pasture, Neil and Andrew stretch the last piece of woven wire. Their hands are stiff and nicked from twisting wires. It’s demanding work—needing attentiveness and strength—to weave two separate pieces together into something stronger. It’s the right kind of work.



Marriage of Rocks and Trees



On our fifteenth wedding anniversary, we pick rocks from our freshly disked field. I keep Eloise the tractor at a slow purr while Andrew grabs any rock larger than a sandwich and chunks them into the trailer. Our rough fifteen-acre field adjoins our neighbor’s field, and, thanks to them, the whole area will be a hay field later this summer. We’ve had rocky times before, but this is different, I grin to myself.

photo by Stella

It seems right that we are practicing attentiveness to hard things emerging from deep places. Sometimes I hop off the tractor to help. Together, we pry out and lift a toddler-sized rock. A few times, the stones are just too heavy, even for both of us, and we mark them with flags—get help here.

The whole project—this farm, this marriage—has flags all over the place, but not the red flags that shout warning or danger. These are flags in my mind, marking places where special attention has been given or where our community has helped us move the heaviest stones.

There are also flags marking new trees, so tiny that stepping on them by accident is a real possibility. Down beyond the north end of the barn, eventually forming a windbreak, flags march across the damp area between marsh and drier pasture. Flags cascade across one-third acre of previous scrappy thicket in our woods. After shearing the thicket, Andrew has flagged the layout of our future forest. These flags mark our path forward. They create a connect-the-dot image of how our lives here in twenty or thirty years might look.

On this evening two weeks after our anniversary, our kids romp at the edge of this eventual forest. Stella hugs the dog and plays teacher under a pine tree. Sam balances on logs and turns a branch into a blaster. Andrew wiggles the dibble in the dark soil, leaning the narrow spade back and forth to create a space for bare roots.

Most of these trees are smaller than their roots, so we mark each one with hot pink flagging. As we plant them, I tally the kinds and numbers. We—mostly Andrew—will have planted white pine, Norway spruce, tamarack, paper birch, yellow birch, black walnut, red oak, white oak, sycamore, wild black cherry, silky dogwood, nanny berry, and several pears and apples.

“Whoa. That just added up to 518 trees,” I tell Andrew.

“And that’s just phase one!” he says.

We are laughing at the ridiculous scale of our visions and at our good fortune to be here. We are shoving the dibble back into the earth, tucking in the branching roots, closing the soil around some optimism, some big dreams, some tender seedling.