(Today’s post is from my husband Charlie.)
Sometimes you just need a change. A reset. A new perspective. That’s how Nan and I felt after 2008. Having both had cancer in the same year, we felt a change was in order and decided that change for us would be a new house. So, after 20 years of living on the east side of town, we set off for the west side of Nashville! We found a small house on a few acres, just minutes from downtown Nashville. Located between two ridges and being both perched on and tucked into solid rock and surrounded by a fortress of hardwood trees, you’d think you were in the Smoky Mountains of east Tennessee if you didn’t know better. It was a much different feel from the 50’s and 60’s era suburban neighborhood of Donelson we were leaving behind. This new location also provided protection from, at some point, a most certain future zombie apocalypse. In Nostradamian fashion, our new neighbors Holley and Kim, being fans of The Walking Dead series, have already planned for that fateful day and have certain duties scheduled for our little community. They are nurses and can handle medical needs, our neighbor across the road is in construction, so he’ll be in charge of securing our structures and of course, we have a few hunters around to provide the food. Unfortunately, they’ll get the short end of the stick with us because all we’ll be doing is singing and doing skits in hopes that the same five routines will earn us a snack now and then! Aside from our own little zombie-free compound, the property also had a separate building that fit the requirements for a recording studio, so I was plenty happy with that. All in all, it was perfect – with a private, Gatlinburg-esque setting, an updated kitchen for Nan, a studio space for me, plus views of wild turkey and white tail deer walking through the yard on a regular basis, what more could one ask for? Only one thing… a fence.
We feel as pet owners, that it’s our responsibility to protect others from our little hooligans and to protect our little hooligans from themselves as well. While our main concern in the suburbs was them being run over by cars, on the ridge we have coyotes, rattlesnakes, and bobcats and our dogs would be no match for foes like that much less passing automobiles.
We moved with Molly, our older boxer, who never strayed far from us anyway, but then we added Jerry Lee Lewis to the mix as a companion for her.
Because Jerry Lee was true to his namesake, full of energy and enthusiasm, we kept our little Boston Terrier rescue on a leash for a few weeks until he understood or at least we thought he understood, that this was his new home. With a million things to smell, roll in, and eat-including deer droppings which he was fond of smelling, rolling in, and eating-we really didn’t expect him to have the need to go more than a hundred feet in any direction as this intoxicating delicacy was readily available in the yard! He was just 18 months old when he came to us and in addition to his affinity for White Tail delight, Jerry loved to ferociously dig for no reason at all and give short chase to the squirrels and chipmunks, which were always well out of reach. Little bulldog related canines like Jerry are full of big dog bravado for a few feet, but tend to leave the long distance chasing to those dogs better suited for such things.
After a few weeks of acclimating to his new surroundings, we gave him his supervised, unleashed freedom, hoping he’d learned some boundaries and wouldn’t feel the need to venture too far from the front door. At first he made short excursions up the ridge, a hundred feet or so up. It never worried me much as it seemed the sole purpose of these jaunts was simply to give a little something back to the deer in hopes that they would find his “business” as appealing to them as theirs was to him. How proud we were of his generous, reciprocal nature. But after a little more thought on the matter, as many of their “raisinettes and goobers” as he ate, I’m afraid Little Jerry was nothing more than a “re-gifter” in his own little southern Seinfeld episode.
One day on what I thought would be a usual woodlands deposit, something caught his fancy and he was off, straight up! With up to 300 million olfactory nerves and a sense of smell at least 10,000 times that of a human, there’s no telling what he caught a whiff of out there in the woods. With that kind of schnozzle strength, most of us would probably be completely grossed out by what dogs find scrumptiously aromatic. Whatever it was however, the chase was on! I knew that once he made it to the top, there was nothing but forest on the other side and I’d surely lose him. Of course asking him politely was no use, stubbornness being one of his stronger traits. He wasn’t moving too fast, but his four feet made it much easier for him to navigate the roots, rocks, and leaves that seemed to constantly give way under my two.
When something slipped beneath one foot that I thought was firmly planted, I only had one other foot to keep me from sliding backwards and that one foot didn’t have a lot of luck most times. Jerry Lee, on the other hand or foot rather, had three others that were like bulldozer treads and made short business of propelling his stocky little body right to the top with ease. As sure-footed as he was, it was like watching a National Geographic special on mountain goats in the Colorado Rockies. I was losing my breath and getting worried as he gracefully made his way to the summit, finding the best routes with ease while I struggled below. And then the worry turned into frustration and anger and I just stopped in my tracks with one hand clinging to the pencil-sized trunk of a sapling. I yelled out to him, full well knowing that his English was limited, “Dang it Jerry, if you don’t want to live with us, then just go on and see how life in the woods works out for you.”
There must have been just enough seriousness in my voice for him to comprehend that the game was over because he stopped, turned around, and looked down at me or maybe on me, feeling like he had proven to both of us that he was a superior climber. When he saw me turn and head down “the mountain”, whatever had initially caught his fancy, probably gave way to the thought that I might be headed for the cookie jar. That was enough to turn him around and he made a beeline for the house. Passing me like an Olympic down hill skier, he once again proved himself the superior inhabitant of the ridge by making me look more like a first timer on the bunny slope. In a black and white flash, he went straight to the deck-the upper deck- and out onto the roof of the house! But that’s another story. However if you need any roofing done, I will hire him out.
After that Nan and I decided that some sort of fencing was in order.
We started off with the underground fence mostly because of the terrain. When I say straight up, I really do mean it! Also, due to the layout of the driveway and the walkway that goes completely around the back of the house, there just wasn’t a lot of uninterrupted soil that could be used to enclose the property without having to cross concrete somewhere. At least with the underground fence, the wire could be run in the expansion/contraction joints of the concrete. But it didn’t take long before this electric fence became a nuisance. It worked, but to be honest, we hated that it did! He was only shocked once, but it was enough to put the fear of God himself in the poor little fellow. In truth it’s not all that bad-I tested it on myself to see just what he was in for, but then again, I am five times his weight. At any rate, we did not like seeing our “child” cower every time that collar chirped out it’s warning. It made him afraid to go outside many days and on others, he stayed far inside the boundary while constantly glancing at those little white flags that marked a terrifying fate if he got too close. Additionally, the pulse running through the wire was somehow frequently picked up by all the electronics in the studio and I constantly had to call Nan on the phone and ask her to turn the fence off in order to keep the weird noises off my clients’ tracks. Then of course, we’d forget to turn it back on and the next thing we knew, Jerry had wandered over to Phil’s, our neighbor on the other side, to see if he could possibly lick anything but the tin off the insides of the cans of tuna that were left out for Lavender, his “guard cat”. That’s another story too.
So, after five years of life on the ridge, I took the plunge and decided to figure out how to build a proper fence on at least some of the property so that Jerry Lee, our new-but-very-old adopted boxer Olivia, and our latest addition Nessie, could enjoy a little bit of “safe, unleashed freedom”.
I worked for a fence company during my summers off from college, so I knew the basics of fence construction already. I knew how to set the end posts, pull the string line as a guide for straight line posts, how to build and hang the gates, and then run and stretch the wire along the inside. I decided on a layout that went up the hill and through the woods then back down behind the house where the fence would stop at the edge of the rock face behind the retaining wall. The drop off would serve as a dead-end for curious pups.
I even figured out how to block the path behind the retaining wall that Jerry sometimes used to chase Gary, our resident groundhog, from one of his dens to the other. Everything seemed to be on track and I thought I’d have it licked in no time! And then I started digging and realized the real reason I hadn’t done this in the first place. When I said our house was perched on rock, I meant it!
It was laborious, exhausting, back-breaking digging. What should’ve taken me a day took three. The holes which needed to be at least 22 inches deep, were the hardest digging I’d ever encountered. I would chip away a few inches with the digging iron and then have to clean it out because the dirt/rock just turned to powder with each stab into earth. I stopped a few times to rest and contemplate whether or not this was just harder because I was ten years older than the last time I’d done it. Possibly, maybe a little, but hard digging is hard digging! On the upside, after dropping the posts in and putting the dirt back in the holes, it tamped down solid as concrete! I never used cement on split rail posts because first off they’re not that tall anyway and don’t really need the extra support, but secondly, it will cause the posts to rot faster, creating another digging opportunity sooner than I’d like. But this rocky, clay-laden soil packed down as tight as hardened cement and made for some sturdy posts without the concern of premature rotting. So, there’s always an upside to the toughest situation.
… and all possible escape routes addressed, we have a nice little playground for our four-legged crew.
In addition to creating safe spaces for your pups, fences can add to the monetary value of a property and can also create a finished, high-end look, too. In our case, I think the split rail in particular works well with the rustic nature of our little house in the woods. Of course the greatest asset for us is not having to chase Jerry up the ridge or wrangle Nessie from dining on persimmons that have fallen from the branches above to the driveway below-no matter how fresh or otherwise they might be.
During this 4 day dig, a song I recorded back in 1994, written by Mike Reid kept rolling through my head. It was titled The Hard Ground and the second verse was:
I would’ve loved to own a piece of rich black bottom land
Where the dirt’s so soft the work don’t raise a callous on your hand
But the Lord gave me a mountain that He knew I couldn’t climb
Then He helped me cut it down to size, one rock at a time
That song was on a tape loop in my brain as I fought that rocky ground and beat it into fence-post-hole submission. But for me, as much as I would’ve liked easier digging, there always has been and always will be a peace of mind that comes from hard work. Not just any hard work, but in particular hard work that involves your hands. Another favorite lyric of mine comes from Mac McAnally’s song Socrates in which a gas station philosopher asks his young customer, “Do your hands son, ever touch the soil?” I have to put my hands in the soil every now and then, literally. It’s grounding for me and keeps me in touch with what’s real. There is something that you cannot get from anything except putting your hands “in the soil”. Manual labor can be demanding, tiring, and yes, most times it doesn’t pay near as much as it should, but there is satisfaction and honor in a hard day’s work with the result being that you built something, fixed something, or maybe grew something that will make life a little easier for someone else. It also results in sleeping like a king or in my case, at the very least, a satisfying sleep in a king-sized bed!
So what’s the point of this story? I don’t really know, but the next time you need to hire someone to do some work for you, if they do a good job, toss an extra compliment or word of appreciation their way. Remember it’s not just the physically demanding part that you should be thankful they’re doing and you’re not, but the craft and skill that these tradesmen and craftsmen have acquired through years of honing. If I hadn’t been schooled on how to build fences properly by the guys I worked with, our new fence would not be as straight or as strong and it surely would not last as long. The hard work made me feel good and the fence has given us a new look and some long needed peace of mind. My dogs can play safely in their own yard, Nan no longer has to worry about them when they’re outside, and I got a chocolate pie out of it! So, I guess it’s true, hard work really does pay off.
…Jerry, and Nessie-all safe and sound.