My brother is a tree surgeon, forester and fencer (not the kind that dresses in white and brandishes foils, though he did once play the Admirable Crichton in a film and duel dramatically to the death. Sadly it was his, or at least the character’s). This week, he took me out to the field to teach me how to put up fences. I’d like to work in conservation and thought it would be useful to have more skills to bring to the table. After two 6 o’clock rises, rainy days and heavy lifting I didn’t regret it, but I did wish I had better waterproofs. And had spent the last five years learning to tie high tensile joining knots. And had arm muscles the width of fence posts rather than (as I concluded) of wires. Basically I wanted to be Pop-eye on a helluva dose of spinach.
To begin with, lifting things. The fence we were making had strainers (7 foot long, 8 inch diameter) and posts (6 foot, 4 inch diameter). The strainers bear the tension of the fence and the posts hold the netting up and keep it sheep-proof. To allow pheasants through, the netting we were using had six parallel horizontal strands rather than the standard eight. I have learnt so much about fences this week that I have started scrutinising the ones we pass in the car and pointing out their flaws. Basically, bear with me with the fence chat. I’ll get past it.
Anyway, my brother – with a suspiciously gleeful expression – told me to pick up one of the strainers. They’re taller than me, and I’m 6 foot 1. I looked back at him, and again at the strainer. I picked up one end, tried to lift the wood near the middle, failed. ‘No, not like that – you walk into it, you use its weight, you don’t try to lift it’. I nodded. Yeah. Like judo. Right. (I don’t do judo).
It took me about six tries before I managed to carry a strainer over one shoulder. At this point I basically felt like a god. My brother was unimpressed. ‘Right, we need to lay out all the posts next to the line – three steps apart – no, don’t lift them and swing them and drop them, let the trailer do the work’… and so we continued.
I picked out staples from fenceposts; drove a digger (woohoo!) and used it to pull rabbit netting off an old fence (‘Did they really think they were going to keep rabbits out of this field?’); rolled up netting into spiky bundles; put posts into the ground a centimetre from the wire (harder than it looks); rolled out the net beside the posts, tightening it and straightening it as I went; stapled the netting to the posts in four places, then the top wire; loaded and unloaded fence posts at the wood store (72 in one stint, and I felt each one); knocked fenceposts in using a tractor-mounted post-knocker (‘Don’t put your fingers in that bit or you won’t have any fingers’); and wheeled a measuring wheel 570 metres along the muddy edge of the fence (and then back again, for fear I’d not been accurate enough). It was mostly raining. I mostly took a few goes to learn how to do something, and when it came to the high tensile joining knots… well, apparently a lot of places just use staples, so that’s something. I was muddy, damp and incompetent, and while I may have become more competent I definitely became a lot muddier and very wet. ‘Baptism of fire’ said my brother’s colleague, who may or may not have been laughing behind his beard.
At brew time, we stopped and sat in the pickup with the heater full on, steaming slightly. We dried our hats and gloves, or at least warmed them, in the blast of warmth, occasionally gulping air from outside. My brother fished around in the footwell, emerged triumphant with a glass cafetière (miraculously unbroken) and a packet of filter coffee. He proceeded to patiently make three mugs – one for me, one for his colleague, one for himself. Coffee is important, the two men believe – and I don’t disagree. My brother will, they said, if offered coffee on a job, ask whether it is proper coffee or instant – and if instant, ask for tea. I am bowled over by his complete unselfconsciousness – I, who will eat or drink pretty much whatever the politeness of the moment dictates. ‘Oh, he’s a cheeky sod,’ agreed his colleague, ‘but it works out well for me – they ask if I’ll have a cup of filter too.’
We baked a little longer – in truth, it was more like poaching. Looking at me, my brother asked ‘Your feet wet?’ ‘Oh yes,’ I affirmed chirpily, ‘but there are worse things I suppose. At least it’s not cold.’
‘I hate when my feet are wet, I really hate it.’ A pause. ‘See these boots I’ve got, I’ve got two pairs, ex army issue, they’re really good.’ Another pause. My brother sat on his phone while I experienced boot envy and thought about how much I had failed to appreciate dry footed moments in my life so far. I wriggled my toes. They squelched. My brother put his phone down.
‘Right, I’ve ordered you a pair like mine. Well, not exactly like mine, but Goretex, brand new. Good boots.’ Sometimes I could hug my brother, but as hugs appal him I settled for a thank you and sat smiling for what remained of brew time.
We ate instant porridge for breakfast, drank our coffee, grabbed our hats and returned to working in the rain. Outside felt a lot colder in contrast but porridge and coffee and the thought of new boots will do a lot for the spirit.