Soulful ditches: A day of fencing

I am alone and I listen to the sounds of the countryside around me and in the distance

‘I check the time, and several hours have passed. I have more work to do but as I begin to drive a post into the ground I feel my strength giving way. It is enough work for one day.’ Photograph: Nutan/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

‘I check the time, and several hours have passed. I have more work to do but as I begin to drive a post into the ground I feel my strength giving way. It is enough work for one day.’ Photograph: Nutan/Gamma-Rapho via Getty

 

I am out fencing. My hands are covered in cuts and scabs for I have been at this work for many days now. I am in the bottoms as we call them, a place between lands, not quite fields and not quite bog. There is grass here, yes, but also many other things: rushes, blackthorns, sally and briars. These bottoms would, I suppose, be called bad lands were we in America but as it is Ireland I call them home.

Our mearning lines and ditches have become worn and weak and so I set to working barb wire and hammer to right them again. The ditches are thick in places and will not take wooden posts, and so I must weave the barb wire in and out through the blackthorn trees. This work is slow and soon fresh blood has been drawn between the trees and the briars that rule this place.

I am alone and I listen to the sounds of the countryside around me and in the distance. A dog barks, and I can hear the small echo of children some miles away. Some days in this farm one can hear the sounds of a nearby quarry and when they blast the rock you can feel a small shift in the earth, but they are not blasting today and the quarry is still.

They say a river is never the same each time a man returns to it; so too it is with a ditch.

My mind has quieted now and I think that it could be a few years if my job goes well until I am in this spot again. What changes will have been wrought then, what deaths or tragedies, what gains and joys?

They say a river is never the same each time a man returns to it; so too it is with a ditch.

I lever the wire with my nailbar and pull it tight and then holding the bar in my left hand, I begin to nail the wire in place with my hammer. The work is slow, and I must do it right but the nail is true and finds its home in the tough white torn wood.

The first strand of wire safe, I begin on the second. I repeat my task weaving the wire through the trees again, cutting myself anew. I curse and call the wire a rael bastard but slowly we, the wire and I, find our anchor point and then I begin my stretching.

It’s been some time since my book – The Cow Book – came out, and though it has brought me a new notoriety it has not changed me as a person and for that I am glad. There was a time that it should all have gone to my head but then in the not too distant past, I did not know myself. In knowing oneself the measure of a man becomes entirely internal, for we are all the captains of our own soul.

After the corner is worked I move to an old overgrown lane and begin to fix the wire on it

The wire is stret and I lever and nail it into place. I do not curse now but smile at my small job, a mini work of folk art – not that anyone will see it. The wire is green. I am not sure why, but it is pleasing to the eye, and perhaps the cows shall see it better next time they attempt to escape.

After the corner is worked I move to an old overgrown lane and begin to fix the wire on it. It is broken and down in places, and I shall have to repair the posts that have rotted over time.

This land once belonged to our neighbour Robin Ruske or, as I called him in my childhood days, Robin Redbreast. Robin’s family came to this land as settlers centuries ago and though their blood has been spent on wires and posts to keep this ground whole, they are no longer here. Robin died some years ago, and we bought the land.

I remember now my father inquiring from the Ruskes for the names of the fields of this new land so that we might remember them and keep them alive. We talk of Robin still and call the land Ruskes, so in a way though the man is wearing the suit of dale he is not gone, his impression still reigns in the visible work of this place. So it is with farming; we carry on the work with the ghosts of those who have gone before looking on.

But I remind myself this is my choice that I am here, and there is a pleasingness in the work

I carry my posts up the long mucky lane and beat them into the ground with a sledgehammer. It is slow and tedious work at times. I hit stones and this slows my progress. I will try harder, I tell myself, and think now of Orwell’s horse, that thankless creature who worked and toiled.

But I remind myself this is my choice that I am here, and there is a pleasingness in the work. The posts soon line up and then I begin to fix the wire. It is worn but not broken and for that I am glad.

I anchor and pull the wire and soon a newfound strength has come into the line that it has not known in an age.

“This will keep you right,” I tell the wire.

And it being good wire, it holds fast as I nail it to the post and put it into place. The line is straight and the posts are solid. The line is like life: it may become frayed, broken even, but with work, it can live again, take on new forms and hold new meanings.

I check the time, and several hours have passed. I have more work to do but as I begin to drive a post into the ground I feel my strength giving way. It is enough work for one day.

I pack my tools into the tractor bucket and make for home. I am the captain of the wire in the ever-changing world of the soulful ditches.

  • John Connell is the author of The Cow Book, an account of his life farming in Birchview, Co Longford, published by Granta
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