February 23, 2020

Cultivating the Unexpected

• By John F. Chisholm •

Farming is cultivation of the unexpected.

Yesterday, while walking from the garage to the house, I heard the snap of our electric fence grounding. It’s a distinctive noise, a Van de Graaff generator attached to a metronome, repetitive, regular and, in every previous instance, bad news. I grimaced and swore.

That’s because that noise indicates there’s a problem with our fencing: Perhaps a deer has run into the wiring at speed. Depending on the direction of travel, inside out or outside, in, that can be a very time-consuming repair. Maybe coyotes have been hunting our sheep and received a jolt for their efforts. Unfortunately, they snapped an insulator in the process. Then again, a tension spring might have worn through its support wiring, falling across the other circuits. Has vegetation grounded the fence? (Crown vetch is the worst culprit.) This list continues. Worse, all these things have happened. Over and over. They show no signs of abating despite my innumerable and careful repairs of our fencing.

Consequently, when I heard those grounding sparks, I expected something along these lines. I swore again before sighing. Fence maintenance maybe an on-going task but, believe me, still far preferable to chasing stock.

I changed course and followed my ears toward the sound. I’ll be honest; sometimes I have to do this job at dusk. When the damage is subtle, an insulator cracked or wiring merely unfastened, my ears can’t always find the exact location. (My hearing isn’t what it used to be.) If I save the repair until dusk, I can actually see the sparks. That’s a rough trade however. Sure, I find the ground fault more quickly but I have to carry a flashlight in addition to all my other tools.

Invariably I need quite an assortment to repair our fences. In fact, I have a bucket all stocked and stored in the barn, ready for exactly this activity. There are screwdrivers, a hammer, wire cutters, wire, insulators, fasteners and cable hooks all inside and ready to go.

I waved at the deerflies irritably, swore louder ― and even more ineffectually ― and searched through the tall grass for the issue.

When I found it, I cried out in astonishment. This was new. In fact this situation wasn’t even on my list.

A garden slug had crawled up a blade of grass. Its weight bent the stem until it landed exactly between a metal fencepost and one of the hot wires of our fencing. (Shocking, but true!) That created a ground, killing the slug in the process.

What’s so amazing about that?

Hundreds, literally hundreds of other slugs, bent on profiting from their comrade’s demise, crawled up to feast and were electrocuted in turn. (Serves them right!) Even in the broad light of day, I could see the sparks race over the surface of hundreds of congregated slugs. They made a soccer ball-sized bolus around the fencepost and the wire. All were dead, but more were on the way.

I looked at the mass for a moment. Wow. And okay, I admit it: I’m a gardener. As such, I’m not a big fan of garden slugs. No. (Are you?) But who could have foreseen this? It was a first in my long annals of fence repair.

I debated whether the drop in voltage was worth the demise of so many slugs. Eventually I decided that it wasn’t worth the risk of the stock escaping and, grabbing a stick, cleaned the fence.

I shook my head in wonder on my way back to the house. I doubt that I’ll add a wooden lath to my tool bucket.

Still, one conclusion is inescapable:

Farming truly is the cultivation of the unexpected.