KIMBALL, Neb. – Just like the frog in a pot of slowly heating water, I don’t really notice as the air temperature warms over time. When I began my labors, it was still early and the mercury read barely 65 degrees. By midafternoon, however, I realize that it’s hot out. My phone tells me the temperature is nearing 100 degrees.
It’s a day of fixing fence on the ranch, just a normal summer chore. Cattle will be rotating into a new pasture in a few days and this is an opportunity to tighten and nail winter-loosened wire. As usual, there are a couple of stretches that require more than stretching and nailing.
Posts have shifted across a couple of gully bottoms. As I survey the state of the fence I realize I’d better re-set the shifted uprights and replace a bit of wire. It seems like I just repaired this stretch, but a bit of pondering reminds me that I did that chore about 8 years ago. Barbed wire fence is a dynamic structure, living in a dynamic world.
As the hours pass I dig out the old posts and prepare new post holes. For only 10 or 11 posts, it’s not worth the time, fuel and effort to fire up the skid steer, so my tools are spade, digging bar, and “Armstrong” post hole digger.
This is the kind of physical work that takes a lot of effort and produces a lot of sweat. It’s one of those “love-hate” chores; miserable and tiring and sweaty and dirty on a hot day, but also a chore filled with satisfaction in the doing. As I toil away I’m thankful I’m not trapped in an office with a time clock to punch. There are much worse things than hard and honest labor.
As I bake in the stifling heat I suddenly grin and laugh to myself as I realize once again how much I love this chore, even though I hate it from the bottom of my heart. Such contradictions are part and parcel of ranching.
Finishing a chore is a sweet reward. The more miserable the chore, the sweeter the reward. I turn and look at the wash I’ve just climbed out of and pause to admire the straight, tight section of fence I’ve just completed. The deepest satisfaction follows the hardest chore.
And it is a hard chore. There’s only the barest hint of a breeze, and then only occasionally. The air is mostly still and close and hot, and more humid than normal because the lush grass and sweet clover are transpiring, sucking in carbon dioxide and exhaling oxygen and water vapor. I feel the weight of the atmosphere bearing down from above, wrapping me in a hot, wet blanket of misery.
Sweat pours from my skin and my clothes, boots and gloves become wet and sodden. Perspiration fairly pours from under the sopping ball cap on my head, running in a steady stream past the sweatband, into my ears and over my face. The sweat rivulets wash bug spray from my forehead and wash it into my eyes, where it stings. In the bottom of the wash, kochia and mustard grow rank and wild, six feet tall and more.
The wash is a hellish place. Stiff stems and leaves claw and scratch at my arms and legs and snarl the four strands of barbed wire. Sorting the wires out is pure misery in the wash-bottom oven. The wire seems to be playing a rude game, dodging away from my sight and grasp, then suddenly snapping back and biting my arms until the sweat runs red.
Cloying, choking pollen fills the air and makes me cough and sneeze and wheeze and gasp. At my feet, hidden in an impossible snarl of weeds and wire, there is a sudden harsh buzzing sound. I jump and yell instinctively, fearing the sound means snake, even as in mid-jump I realize it’s only a grasshopper.
Time seems to stand still in the wash. My world becomes very small – only me, my fencing task, and natures efforts to defeat me. I persist, and keep working, despite a deep desire to give up and leave the wash for another time, another day. Slowly I gain the upper hand, get the wires unsnarled, staple each to the appropriate spot on the posts. After what seems an eternity I scramble up the other side and emerge triumphant. Breathing heavily, with sweat pouring and eyes stinging, I look back and grin.
The misery of such labor is just that – misery. I hate it passionately – the heat and the sweat and the coughing, the close, stifling air and the stinging eyes and biting barbs. At the same time, however, the victory is sweet and delightful. I don’t think I can describe it adequately, but it includes the deep satisfaction in having struggled mightily and persevered and won out by finishing the job and doing it well.
I learned about fixin’ fence and learned the love and the hate of the thing when I was a youngster. Those memories are never far away when I’m doing the chore, and they’ve always been close and served me well whenever I’ve struggled with other hard tasks.
During the harsh physical regimen of boot camp, for instance, while other tough 18-year-olds were falling out and giving up, I knew I could persevere and dig deep for untapped reserves. They’ve always been there; the well has never run dry.
The lesson is not just about toil and perseverance, though. It’s about doing good work and contributing to an enterprise, of being part of something larger and longer-lived than oneself. There’s somehow a solid comfort in sharing the sweat and toil of my forebears on the same land and for the same reasons. One of those reasons, and perhaps the most important, is preserving the family ranching heritage for generations to come.
I turn and move along the fence line once again, bending and grasping and nailing, with the hint of a smile lingering on my still-sweaty face. The breeze picks up a bit and a cloud passes over, providing some much needed and wonderful shade. Delightful. Then the sweat bees show up.