Musings of a fence painter

WHEN I was a young girl and cared about the boys, painting our white picket fence led to my first date to prom. ``He'' came by . . . 6 foot 2, blond, a basketball hero, and he wanted to know, did I need some help? Another brush was found, a can for paint, and the whole world glowed in the noonday sun. A quarter of a century down the road, 1,000 feet of faded horizontal boards framed our Midwest farm. It was the first time I'd lived in the country, and I made painting that fence last through the warm, sunny days of spring, summer, and early fall. I absorbed the sights and sounds and smells of the flat farmland I came to love.

The rewards were not so glistening and explosive as when I was 16, yet, in a sense, they were more spectacular. It's a matter of point of view.

My dog sprawled beside me, and we listened to a foolish rooster crow in midafternoon and watched fat geese waddle in the yard. A woodpecker I dubbed Don Quixote made a dreadful racket tapping on a metal fin of the windmill. The growing things bowed before the winds that swept across the prairie.

And our neighbor, George, waved each day from his tractor. The drone of his machine grew alternately louder and softer as he traveled to and fro cultivating the long rows of corn.

I recall my concern when bristles of my brush reached into crevices where boards were nailed to the post and loosened paperlike cocoons. I hoped I was destroying some dreadful pest and not denying a beautiful butterfly his day in the sun. In looking back, I think I was breaking my own cocoon.

When you think about it, there really is no earthly time but the present -- the past is gone, and the future is pure conjecture. A task like fence painting kind of rolls it all together, removes the boundaries, lets you float free as you remember yesterday, visualize tomorrow, and relish today. Times like that are precious few.

Those years on the farm came when I needed them. They followed a difficult and painful period. And there was that fence just sitting there waiting to help me put things in order, to discover new priorities, to see through and beyond the fences we build in our mind.

Now we've moved to Colorado to a mountain house with faded deck floors and railings. This summer is another painting time.

``Don't you get bored?'' my husband asks. Bored? Well, I know what he means, lots of menial tasks are boring. But applying pigment to fences, deck floors, or railings -- now there's a noble occupation! And what better way to get to know the territory?

Midwest hummingbirds weren't musical. The metallic clatter of tiny wings on their way to the feeder is eerie -- like sleigh bells emitting a supersonic jingle. And Colorado grasshoppers have very noisy motors. Maybe it's the extra energy expended at high altitudes? I listen to the squawking crow, the scolding magpie, or steller's jay, and an occasional shrill whistle I can't identify. Rocky Mountain squirrels -- black ones with long, pointed ears -- provide a steady background chatter. These creatures talk to one another, I'm sure. Even about me, I suspect, although I've not decoded their conversation.

The heavy spring rains have filled Turkey Creek and given it, too, a lively song to sing. A bee buzzes too near and hovers too long. I remain very still. It makes its way to the flowers.

I must get a book on mountain flowers. Far below me on crusty ground, covered with moss-rock outcrop-pings, fallen pine cones, and brown needles, a profusion of wildflowers grows. No manicured yards here, but there are purple bells, small clusters of yellow-gold, flowers with broad white petals, and tiny blue ones. I feel a little ashamed for not knowing the names of the birds and the flowers, then wonder why we feel we can't fully appreciate a thing until we know its name. After all, it was before we gave it a label, so that doesn't really change anything, does it? Something there is within us that demands a naming.

Often I begin my work early when the day is new, cool, and quiet, and a silver sliver of moon hangs in the west. One morning from my knees I looked up over the mountain and there was a big red and yellow balloon. I let out a silent whoop. You can't look at a balloon without feeling good, and wishing you were in it.

I was thinking about that when I painted the posts of the railing today and I decided to write it down.

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