The Colgate Scene
March 2008

"Passion for the Climb" — it's what exemplifies the spirit of Colgate people. You share a thirst for a life of accomplishment and the will to do things right. In academic, professional, community, and personal endeavors, you relish the effort, the process, the journey, and care deeply about how you lead your lives, as much as you care about reaching the top.

We know there are countless ways in which the "passion for the climb" manifests itself in Colgate alumni, faculty, staff, and students. As part of the university's Passion for the Climb campaign, we are building a collection of these stories.

Our writing tips and guidelines are posted online. Send submissions to: sceneletters@mail.colgate.edu. Please put "Passion for the Climb essay" in the subject line and include your daytime phone number and e-mail address. Although electronic submission is preferred, you can also send typed essays, double-spaced, to: "Passion for the Climb" c/o The Colgate Scene; 13 Oak Drive, Hamilton, N.Y. 13346.

We look forward to reading your essay! Every essay we receive will be read and considered for publication. If your essay is selected, we will contact you.


[Photos courtesy of Dustin Gillanders '08]

Senior geography major Dustin Gillanders, who plays right wing on the men's hockey team, writes about his family, their farm, and local characters in his hometown of Kyle, Saskatchewan.

PRAIRIE IDENTITY

Tending fence is a job that is as regular as the melting of snow or the harvesting of crops. Each year I walk miles upon miles along barbed-wire fence. I check that posts have not rotted or been broken, counting the four staples that hold each wire in place, and ratchet the wire tight so that a single vibration can be felt a mile down the line. I trudge along beside this man-made control, usually tripping in a gopher hole or two, unseen in my clumsiness.

Tending fence means time alone; there is not a soul for miles and I have time to absorb my surroundings. The evenly spaced posts stretch ahead of me until, at some point in the distance, they blend into a solid line, a path I must follow for as long as it leads me. Check the post, count the wires, one, two, three, four, next.

See Also:

All essays in this series

The very idea of fences, at their symbolic level, is formed in complete opposition to nature. As the West was being settled, fences were the first signs of human encroachment upon the land. Grasslands were divided and dismantled into productive landscapes. In this context, I question my motives for maintaining the fence line as an idea rather than as a physical characteristic. The necessities of modern agriculture and the reality of an altered landscape keep me walking and tripping along. This may not be the nature that my ancestors saw the first time they ran steel plows into the ground, upturning long furrows of rich dark soil. Things have changed.

I no longer build a fence to divide and conquer the natural world. Rather, I am putting a fence around what I value most, holding back the fields and tractors, the plow and the people. I protect the soft hills of green and gray grasses, the spring flowers, and the small prairie coolies, valleys that have become a refuge for deer, fox, and coyote.

I must admit that this romantic view of my surroundings usually comes after a certain length of time. There is nothing glamorous about fencing in 30-degree (C) heat. That, combined with insects and the knowledge that my uncle is timing my journey to make sure he is not overpaying, can be exasperating.

As the sun begins to set, I have one post remaining to replace. I am tired and looking for an easy way to get done. Instead of properly hand-drilling a small hole, I skip to step two. I grab the 10-pound maul, its large head covered in scars and rust, a face that I know well. I climb on the edge of the truck box and prepare to swing at the post, which I stabbed into the ground about two feet away. My cowboy boots are slick with the dew that is forming. I stand for a moment, hoping that none of the neighbors drive by. In our small town, such a spectacle might make front-page news.

I lift the maul over my head and take my first swing. CRACK! Metal meets wood, sending small splinters into the air and echoes across the evening air. I lift the maul again, confident. As I take the second swing, the maul glances off the side of the post and continues downward, throwing me off balance. It is much too late to question my over-confidence. For what seems like several moments, I teeter on the edge of the box before giving into gravity and falling across the barbed wire, slamming into the soil below. I stare at the sky, back bleeding from the sharp barbs, shoulder sore from the unyielding ground.

In a moment when I would usually throw the maul, kick the tire, and run in circles, I begin to laugh. I laugh at my own stupidity and envision the newspaper headline, "Local Farmer Humiliated in Fencing Accident: Circus Revokes Multi-Year Contract."

I stand up and brush myself off, check the new rips in my tattered work shirt, and start over, drilling a post hole this time.

With the post finally in the ground and the wires fastened, I load the truck and stare west. I watch the sun fall from the sky, its fading light casting shadows and hanging on the dust that fills the air. This is my experience alone. As a fourth-generation farmer, I view this scene differently than all before me. My grandfather most likely would point out a job well done. A beautiful sunset, perhaps, but more likely he'd reflect on the years it took him to build his empire of dirt, proud of the life he built for himself and his family.

My father, a man of logic, constantly thinking and observing and tabulating his results, would discover that the remaining shafts of daylight are illuminating small white flowers in the field. He would stride waist-deep into the foliage, not to admire them, but to check what unwanted weed has brought them forth and what chemical application will most effectively deal with their presence.

My views will undoubtedly share some of their traits. But the fence is just a foreground. The sunset holds a promise of more to come. A sunset asks more questions for me than it answers. Where will I be for the next, or a thousand sunsets from now?

As I drive home, I am taking more away from the day than a few scratches and a job well done. The experience has left a mark on my character; the knowledge of my family has shaped how I viewed this sunset, and it will do so in the future. I have negotiated with the day, the job I finished, and the sunset. I have emerged, my identity slightly altered and more complex. As I head toward home in my beat-up fencing truck, clumsily shifting through its worn-out transmission, I smile to myself and say out loud a phrase borrowed from my grandfather, "How do you like them apples?"

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