Sometimes good fences require good neighbors

It was our first summer in Maine, and we were feeling the pressure of time. In just four weeks I’d found and started a job as a physician, we’d bought and closed on a house,  packed up our entire household into a rented truck with our car in tow, and driven to Auburn, Maine from Madison, Wisconsin. All this with a toddler in tow. We’d moved everything, that is, except our horse. She was due to arrive in less than a week, and we weren’t ready.

I needed to fence two acres of pasture, frame a stall in the bottom of the barn, and build a runway and paddock linking the stall with the pasture. 

Over the course of Friday and Saturday I had marked the corners of the pasture and laid out a generous rectangle for the paddock and  runway, creosoted the posts (which I had hauled in multiple trips from the lumber yard in the trunk of our old Volvo), and used a rented gas powered posthole digger to put in the posts around the pasture. The pasture used land that had been tilled for potatoes in the past and consisted of about two feed of loam, a variable layer of hard clay, and then sand, with the occasional rock. Having accomplished this in two days, I was confident I would finish posting the paddock and stringing wire with time to spare. 

Early the next morning, I put out my posts for the paddock under the watchful but silent eye of Jim, our nearest neighbor and an old time Mainer who seemed drawn to my projects like a moth to a flame. He couldn’t resist the struggles of the young in-migrant.

I started up the posthole digger and set to. New England soil is famously rocky, but this was beyond anything I had ever imagined. Rather than the occasional cantaloupe sized rocks I’d had to haul out of my pasture holes, the first two I encountered were suitcase sized. The third required that I dig a pit next to the hole and lever the beast it into the pit with a pry bar before continuing to dig.

Jim watched impassively for more than an hour as I struggled to complete the first hole at the near corner of the paddock. Frustrated - and despairing of finishing -  I announced to no one in particular, that this must be the rockiest soil in Maine.

Clearing his throat and looking past me at the woods across the field, Jim said slowly, rather like a teacher patiently explaining a basic concept for the 27th time: “Well, it sure don’t help that yer diggin’ on the old ice house foundation.”

“HUH? How far do I have to move the line?” I asked.

His directions were painfully laconic: I pointed until he gave a barely perceptible affirmative nod. “This better?” I asked.


After moving the paddock lines about three feet north and east, the remaining holes were easy. I had time to enjoy a couple evenings admiring my work before our mare arrived.  The next summer, I had the opportunity to tell him I was grateful for his help. When I pointed out that he might have saved me some agony had he spoken up sooner, all he said was:

“But you didn’t ask.”



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