Hand tools and the skills to use them are the heart and soul of a small farm. Without a well-equipped resident carpenter and mechanic, productive activity would falter and eventually cease altogether, as one thing after another fell into useless disrepair. On our dairy farm, a variety of fix-it needs regularly arise, and must be met to keep the milk flowing to market. One week it's the compressor of the cooling tank, or the pulsator. Another time it's a tractor's clutch, or a broken chain on the manure spreader. A gate becomes unhinged as the draft horses rub up against it. A wooden partition along the feeding racks cracks under the pressure of browsing bovine heads.
Without routine attention to such things, entropy would win the day. Our animals, no longer in production and bored to distraction amid the wreckage, would drift through skewed gates to seek entertainment on nearby lawns, a vision neither we nor our suburban neighbors like to contemplate.
Carpentry and mechanical savvy are Charlie's bailiwicks, not mine. When he is away for longer than a few days, the signs of his absence accumulate: temporary baling-twine repairs where nails are needed, a few tortured nails where wood screws or even bolts are called for. In my first few years on the farm, before I knew even the names of many of Charlie's tools, we'd joke that if he ever "came up missing" (one of my favorite of his Southern-upbringing euphemisms), I'd be able to farm for at most two or three months on my own - largely by coasting from a mechanical standpoint. Then, facing inevitable breakdowns of this or that, I'd have to find a new source of reparative power either from without or within. I decided it behooved me to start from within.
Over the years, simply by watching and imitating Charlie, I've developed a small stock of carpentry skills that I can draw on when I'm occasionally on my own. If I could not farm independently (I remain blissfully ignorant of tractor and machine mechanics), I know that I could at least keep a stretch of fence and other necessary small structures in decent repair. The animals would be safe.
One proof of this pudding came when Charlie traveled east on a vacation, and I was alone in charge of the farm. One of our cows became wedged between two hay-rack dividers as she embarked, for inexplicable reasons of her own, on an ill-advised journey to the feeder's opposite side - where she could eat the same exact tuft of hay from the other direction. I not only freed her unharmed with a deft bit of sawing from an awkward angle, I also envisioned perfectly how the repairs to the damage should be made. I might have made them, too, had Charlie not been due back in a day or two. It could wait.
Truth to tell, I am more comfortable with my baling-twine skills than I am with hammer and nails, and I still call upon them now and then. Just a few weeks ago, I decided that the two youngest heifers, paddocked in a small outdoor enclosure, might like a rain shelter. It hadn't rained in weeks, and a part of my motivation was based on hope. If I built the shelter, would it come? It did, in fact, rain after I provided the heifers with cover. To my satisfaction, they found it to their satisfaction, staying snug and dry during a long and steady shower.
The new construction consists of a blue plastic tarp stretched taut among several trees and fence posts by lengths of baling twine. I also fashioned two weather-facing insulated walls by stuffing raked leaves and old hay between sheets of plywood and the woven-wire fence - the sandwich "glue" being (need I say?) baling twine. With a soft dirt floor cushioned with more leaves, the nook looks nice enough to bed down in myself. To believe that, you'd have to see it for yourself.
A visiting friend recently did just that. Eyeing the shelter, she struggled to keep a straight face, then asked, "Calves having a camp out?"
Did I ever claim to be a carpenter?
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society