Weeds: Barb wire a relic of old days


While combining corn this fall, I looked over at the outside row and saw something sticking up from the gathering chains. Instinct tells me to immediately and frantically shut down the header whenever anything is out of the ordinary. When it whirred to a stop, I could see an ominous strand of barb wire poking up.

It was the row up against the line fence. I imagined the worst: a length of incorrigible barb wire wrapped a thousand times around a stalk roll. It turned out to be not so bad. It was tangled under the snoot, but I wrestled it away with a pliers and only a bit of blood lost.

Through the years I have spent time untangling barb wire from most every piece of equipment I own. Rarely do I have gloves with me; usually my hands end up looking like they were in a fight with barb wire and lost.

There are hundreds of feet of old barb wire bordering our fields. It was strung on steel posts before my time. I don’t think about it much; it’s just been there forever. In spots, it remains taut and straight, four parallel strands with posts upright. More places now it is broken, posts bent or missing, wire partially grounded. That’s the stuff that ends up in my machinery.

It had a purpose once. It goes back to a time when most of the farm was pasture for the cattle and horses. Crops were intermittently grown on the higher ground.

When I was young we still had pasture, and I mended fence with my dad. But the remaining pasture was up near the barn, and that was electric fence. The barb wire on the farm’s far boundaries was left to keep the corn from getting up and crossing over to the neighbor’s field.

Line fences are a disappearing artifact in farm country. That has less to do with farms getting bigger (they are) and more to do with farmers wanting to get an extra row of corn or soybeans. About a third of my line fences are gone. In each case, the neighbor asked if he could remove it and I agreed. It is no small amount of work to do that.

Where line fences remain, I am fine to let them. Some critters live there, and tiny remnants of prairie exist. (Unfortunately, they have come to be a refuge for giant ragweed in recent years. Giant ragweed loves that small area that the sprayer doesn’t quite reach. It can grow the size of a small redwood tree during a growing season.)

As I lay on my back in the corn stubble dislodging the steel intruder from my corn head, I thought about barb wire. The full name would be “barbed” wire, but most of us shorten that. In some parts of the country, it goes by “bobbed” wire. Whatever one calls it, it is nasty stuff. Mine is all rusted, good reason to keep current on tetanus shots.

I suppose someday in a fit of ambition I could remove it all. The chore list around the farm is long, so there’s a good chance another generation will have this historic remnant to deal with.

Later I was reading about barbed wire. There were some rough types used in France early in the 1800’s. The first patent in America was granted in 1865. It played a large part in the movement of farming and ranching westward across the continent. Before that, a fence had to impede an animal by physically blocking them. Stone or wood fences took a lot of effort to construct.

At first farmer-ranchers were hesitant to use barbed wire, for fear it would harm their livestock. It became apparent that animals quickly learned to avoid it, and usage exploded. It is even blamed for a significant drop in the number of cowboys, as the need to herd cattle faded.

Regardless of its functional place in history, it’s not a very pleasant material. As my hands can attest, it succeeds by the possibility of inflicting pain. By threatening to cut and gash the skin, it uses some of the worst type of pain. Of course, the fenced-in animal can avoid that by compliance.

Out on my line fence, the jackrabbits and racoons go back and forth unharmed, and hawks set on top scanning the field. My farm equipment and my hands are about all the harm this old border-guard inflicts now.

It would be good if the story of barbed wire began and ended out on the prairies and western chaparrals, keeping animals in their place. Darker images come to mind when one conjures up barb wire though. It surrounds prisons where people, not cows, are meant to be compliant.

I picture barb wire in old war movies. My reading told me that it was used extensively in the wars of the late nineteenth century. This year, we remember our nation entering World War I a century ago. That cataclysmic event with its trenches and intractable battle lines became a gluttonous user of barbed wire. I suspect many of our grandfathers and grand uncles were haunted by visions of barbed wire till their deaths.

Flash ahead to the next war, and we come to the concentration camps surrounded by barb wire. There, it became a tool to aid in unimaginable atrocities.

It is like most everything human beings create. There are good and helpful uses for barb wire that can benefit mankind. Then it can be used for ill-intended purposes that bring harm. Sometimes I imagine God looking down on Earth shaking His head amazed at the evil things we find to do with the most incorruptible of materials.

In school, we all read the poem Mending Walls by Robert Frost, the one that ends with, “Good fences make good neighbours.” That poem begins with, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” It goes on to tell how nature and time and hunters work at sabotaging the stone wall that the farmer has worked so hard to construct.

Our old fences have also faced the ravages of nature and time. Farm machinery, not hunters, have caused damage. I guess something there is that doesn’t love a fence line.