Walking the Line

If you’re going to take a walk, you might as well walk the fence,” he said. “And I know it’ll be down, so better take clips and a hammer and nails, and a spool of barbed wire in the Ranger, and I better come with you.”

I put my book away, switched out my boots, and got a hat and gloves. 

The thing about fencing is you have to keep so everlastingly at it.


We had saved our trees and money on fence posts by running the fence through the woods. This was what one might call a heart and not a head decision, and we’ve paid for it with our hands. Trees fall, limbs break and you can add barbed wire to the list of things that aren’t what they once were. If we find an old line from a hundred years ago, we can often still use it, but our new lines may not last ten years. The cows walk the fence looking for a weak spot, and when they find it, they lean on it. It is such a peaceful form of undermining–just a weight and a give in the line, day after day until the line sags and the smaller ones get through. Then, all hell breaks loose.

But you don’t know any of this is happening, or about to happen, sitting in the air-conditioned truck on the road. You have to walk the line.

If you’ve never run a barbed wire fence, this is how it goes: You start with a big spool of heavy, twisted wire with sharp barbs every five inches. There are usually just two of us ranchers: the Foreman and the Hand. If the Hand is only a measly hundred pounds, the Foreman will have to look out for her, or else she will quit and walk herself home. The Foreman runs a metal pole through the spool. One end of the pole rests on a suitable tree and the other is held by the invaluable little Hand. But let me share with you an important secret: That spool can travel down the pole when it’s pulled, so the Foreman gets a clamp and places it between the Hand and the spool. This gives them peace of mind. Otherwise, the Hand will only be thinking of her knuckles and knees.

Once they are certain the spool is secure, the Foreman takes the end of the line and starts to pull, walking the length needed, but it’s never easy. The barbs catch on each other and the job of the Hand is to both free the line and keep from getting hurt because there’s no crying allowed when running fence. As the spool gets lighter, the barbs catch even more. Once he has his length, the Foreman wraps the end around a tree and walks back to the beginning where he cuts the line from the spool and nails it up. Then, from tree to tree, the two ranchers work together to pull it tight with two hammers–one for nailing and one for pulling back with a barb wedged through the “V” in the hammer. They keep at this until the Foreman says it’s quitting time. 

We have thirty-six head of cattle now. We started with seventeen heifers three years ago. (A heifer is a female that hasn’t had a baby yet.) We’ve had twenty-four babies since then, eaten two steers (which are castrated bulls), and lost three full-grown cows (females that have had calves). By lost, I mean that two died and one disappeared clear off the face of the earth. 

I’ve learned several things about Longhorn Cattle through all of this: 

One, they want to get out. It’s their heart’s desire. 

Two, they are flexible. 

Three, they swim. 

There’s another thing— a fourth: they do not respect your fencing.

And here’s what I’ve learned about fencing: As long as you have livestock, you will have to have fences, and as long as you have fences, you will have to be thinking about them. 

I believe it was Chesterton who said that art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere. I’d like to add farmers to that company of artists and heroes, for they draw bold lines all over the earth in barbed wire and go back everlastingly to draw them again. 

Are we true farmers? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. It takes three years to grow out a Longhorn steer. It will be many years before we reach a profit. In the meantime, the cows will be walking the fence line. But then, so will we.

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