Thursday, May 26, 2005

The Zen of Fencing

The biological science lab is a world of preciseness, detail, tedium and long thankless hours. Expensive equipment used to tease out complex patterns in molecular interactions, endless experiments, data sorting, charts and graphs. Composing the entire history convincingly to appease fickle reviewers is sometimes less than rewarding for that passionate idea that hatched over a glass of wine at the dinner table. The chance of making a slam dunk in the basket of a high impact journal is more elusive than reaching Magic Johnson’s scores.

Some of us scientists have hobbies that provide us with periods of relaxation. Where we can breathe slowly, allow our minds to wander at will, conduct internal dialogues, fantasize about retirement, or just sing a favorite tune. There are no emails to sort through, no phone calls to field, no buffer recipes to double check. We enter that private Zone where we are reminded that we exist for whatever purpose we choose at that moment.

My current focus of relaxation is also work, but of a different color. The conditions strikingly contrast the environment of the scientific lab: it’s hot, dirty, sweaty, requires a great degree of physical labor, using less expensive power and hand tools, preciseness is flexible and forgiving, and the results are long lasting. There is no recipe or instructions. But just as at the lab bench, the process is most important.

Recently having dismantled the chaotic mess of a fence around an acre plus of pasture, the replacement is a long and laborious project. Stubbornly dedicated to constructing a better and stronger fence than its predecessor, all the post holes were precisely measured and dug. Now the process of putting in the new posts commences. That process is enabled by intuition and faith. It is the Zen of fencing.

Fencing is no stranger to me, having fenced in many acres of sheep pasture in Oregon. But this is new territory; this is Texas. The soil type changes nearly every 50 feet, ranging from grey river bottom loam, to red hard clay under six inches of orange sandy loam. The most challenging is what locally called “black gumbo”: blackish alkaline clay that resembles dyed hard sticky putty when wet. The local wild vegetation varies, but in the undergrowth of the oak trees are sharply barbed vines, the most irritating nemesis. Gloves are a necessity. The battle scars at the end of the day are welts and scratches on any exposed skin. Separating proteins in a gel by electrophoresis is eating chocolate cake compared to this.

The holes in the ground wait patiently for their mates. Each hole is different: too shallow, too deep, roots to trim off, crooked. But they are all forgiving and surrender to the post hole digger as it scoops, straightens and cleans the hole. After confirming the proper depth of the hole, the pressure-treated post is sized up and down for flaws, bends, knots, checking, and general sunny attitude. And the process moves forward to the next step.

The pasture face of the post must align with the string stretched across the entire fence line. Just like any good soldier, the posts must also be plumb up and down. Temporarily attaching stakes to support the floppy 4-inch diameter posts in a 9-inch hole, I systematically check the little yellow bubbles on my level on all four sides of the post. Adjust here and there, and stabilize it with the supports.

Now comes the fun. Carefully open pour a bag and a half of dry premixed cement into the hole without disturbing the post. It’s an acquired art. Fill the hole with cement, recheck the pole for plumbness, and stab a stick into the hole to settle the cement around the post bottom. Then slowly pour in a bucket of water. Wallah! Another soldier set in it’s bed of concrete, joining the ranks of The Sentinels.

I step back and scrutinize my work with pleasure. Then start on the next hole and post. Meanwhile, as I pause to swat the mosquitoes or swipe away the rivulets of sweat and sun block running down my chest and arms, the growing sense of satisfaction fills me. And I look at the line of soldiers that will guard the pasture for the next 25 years and wonder if the next person will swear at me like I did at the former occupant who slapped up the fence I tore down.

Time and creatures are my peer-reviewers. The landscape is the journal and I am the publisher. The impact factor is how well the fence withstands storms and scratching horses. All the wood and steel posts are my colleagues and their common fabric will be the mesh wire attached to their bodies. These are The Sentinels, the soldiers and my friends. We share the Zen.

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