Staying in one piece with chainsaws and augers

Looking back over my shoulder, I’ve come to a sprinting stop halfway into the woods. My heart is beating fast. The 30-foot-tall tree I have been cutting down has fallen against another tree. Now it’s dangling precariously over a fence, the opposite direction from which I had notched it to fall. At this point, I am aware that my chainsaw is still idling–and hanging perilously close to my leg.
Recently I had a discussion with Cindy, trying to sell her on the idea that spending $2500 on a portable sawmill was a good investment. We can earn that money back with one good oak tree, I tell her. We will have a lifetime of well-cut lumber. I can quit my day job and cut lumber on other people’s property, I throw in hoping to persuade.
She says, “$2500. Hmmm … I guess that’s about the cost of one prosthetic limb?”
Equipment on the farm allows you to save time and energy (perhaps even money), but it is infinitely frustrating and dangerous. Soon after we bought the tractor-powered posthole digger, the nightmares began: Scarves, hair, shoelaces, fingers, all caught and sucking me into rapidly moving gears. Arms pulled out of sockets, wheelchairs, physical therapy, and charity stretching to the horizon. Pleasant stuff.
Hopefully that scarf, missing finger, empty arm socket, wheelchair, and an infinite horizon of charity will remain just a nightmare. But the frustration of dealing with cantankerous machinery or forgetting basic principles of leverage seems to be the rule in my life on the farm. And so it’s been since the beginning.
Cindy bought her first horse a week before we actually closed on the farm. Paint was very pregnant—a two for the price of one, an “offer we couldn’t refuse,” but we had no home to put her in. With the blessing of the man selling us the property, we headed out to build a corral. At that time we had neither fencing on our 70 acres nor the skills to put it up.
That first day on the farm, we brought in T-posts; telephone pole-size corner posts, posthole digger, a rented hand-operated auger, and enthusiasm. It was 95 degrees, the ground was baked, and the auger was missing a bolt. First experience with driving endless distances when you run out of something in the country, first experience with businesses rolling up their carpets at noon on Saturdays. Cindy returned with bolt an hour later, donated by an ATV repairman some miles down the road.
The auger is a dainty piece of equipment: a gas engine on top of a nine-inch-diameter, three-foot-long turning screw. The idea is simple. Start engine, hold auger away from privates, and drill hole.
Two hours later, both of us red-faced, our frustration level is very high. I have barely managed to dent the surface of the ground. I ditch the gas-powered auger. A couple more hours later, using a hand-driven posthole digger, I’ve carved out two holes barely deep enough to hold the massive corner posts. We manage in another few hours to set some T-posts and stretch some woven wire.
While this has been going on, our dear friends Jack and Deb turn up to see our “idyllic country place.” They just can’t understand why we have sold our restored Victorian home and moved to the sticks to live in a concrete-floored garage. Before their arrival, I had entertained hopes of boasting a healthy day of physical activity and a neat bit of fencing to show for our effort.
Instead, our tempers are frayed and my sunburn has turned to a nasty molten shade. I look at our effort, T-posts set out of line, the corner posts set too shallow, fencing already sagging, and I wonder, what in the hell made me think we could do this. My enthusiasm is waning as quickly as the setting sun.
A few months later, along with a 40-year-old tractor with a three-point hitch, we buy a tractor-operated auger. This single piece of equipment should allow us to (more or less) effortlessly drill holes all over the property.
The first time we hook it up to the old Ford, we are just starting to fence our first pasture. This is a small pasture below the barn that encloses about an acre and half. The fencing is woven wire. It was originally meant to protect sheep. (One day I’ll tell you the story of when I was in New Hampshire and Cindy pulled up the drive only to see our sheep-guarding dog playing catch with the head of a decapitated lamb.)
The first post for our new pasture system is to be set halfway down the slope of our lower fields. I stand ready to guide the auger into correct position as Cindy backs the tractor up and lowers the auger to the ground. Once the clutch pedal is depressed, the power takeoff (PTO) is engaged and the auger begins to turn, boring easily into the fertile soil. It drills down to its three-foot maximum, and Cindy takes her foot off the clutch. The auger stops spinning, and she pulls the lever that lifts the hydraulics. Nothing. She depresses the clutch pedal. The auger spins, but again it won’t budge. It is buried to the top by earth, and the tractor can’t pull it out.
I guess the easiest way to understand the predicament is to imagine a wood screw torqued into a block of wood until only the head is sticking out. No amount of brute yanking will budge it.
There is an acute embarrassment that comes with standing in the middle of a field, visible to all, at a complete loss on how to solve the problem. Hanging my ego out to dry in public does not build self-esteem.
So how to fix it? Getting out a shovel, I dig a hole three feet down and three feet in diameter all the way around the auger. Then, engaging the PTO, I yank the SOB out of the ground. We set our post. One post set in four hours.
Having found out that there is no “reverse” on an auger, I ask our neighbor Mr. Kyle for advice before we started the second hole. There is a trick, I’ve learned: When you engage the PTO on the tractor and the auger starts spinning, don’t stop. Don’t ever stop. Dig your hole and, with one continuous motion, pull out the still spinning auger.
We try this on our next hole. Again, the auger digs down. When it is down to three feet, we pull up on the hydraulics. As if to mock our farming ambitions, the auger continues to dig down, again burying the casing of the motor. Two hours later, I finish digging out the auger.
Four hundred dollars worth of auger, eight hours worth of work and we have set two posts. I dig the remaining 12 postholes by hand.
It was many months before we dared again to use the auger. Today, we are quite proficient. Cindy operates the tractor, and I handle the metal bar that guides the giant screw into the ground. The trick, we’ve figured out, is to keep it spinning, digging down one foot at a time, and then pulling it up. That way there is less resistance from the soil on the tractor’s hydraulics.
You know the old saw “That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”? Farm work is a lot like that; it offers plenty of opportunities to show your ignorance, as well as to run the risk of losing limbs. There always seems to be a tree falling the opposite direction from where I intended and a running chainsaw dangerously close to my leg.
But, I now can look at 70 acres of fencing, barns, chicken coops, equipment sheds, orchards, and gardens and say, “We did all that.” And as Robert Frost wrote, that has made all the difference.

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