I’ve come to the conclusion Dante was a farmer. At the very least, he had a nodding acquaintance with wandering chickens. It would go a long way toward explaining the inspiration behind the circles of hell in his “Inferno.”
In this particular descent, the warning over the gates leading to my barnyard Hades should read, “Abandon all hope, ye who believe instructions claiming a 12-year-old can do it.”
That’s a recipe for a divine comedy if ever there was one.
To recap for those readers just joining the party: Here at Rusty Metal Farms it has been a bit of a constant struggle to keep the free-ranging laying hens from ranging down and into the sled dog yard, a trek the flock makes with impressive single-minded determination whenever the coop door is opened to the world.
The answer, obviously, was a fenced-in yard for my feathered friends.
After consulting with my poultry pal Penny — the one who convinced me getting chickens was a good idea in the first place, which I guess makes her the Virgil to my Dante — I decided the solution was something called “poultry netting” easily available through online ordering.
Several days later a rather large box arrived containing two 162-foot-long rolls of the poultry netting.
If the chickens were going to have a play yard, I figured it might as well be a big one.
First out of the box were the instructions, written in surprisingly clear and grammatically correct English.
The opening lines were really quite encouraging describing netting as “simple & quick to install … 10 minutes is the average time to install a 164-foot roll of netting … 600-feet can be moved or installed in an evening by nearly anyone over 12 years old.”
What came next should have, in retrospect, sent up a red flag or two. A more detailed read of the instructions outlined a 12-step installation procedure, which was rather coincidental considering I was ready for a 12-step program once I was done.
I read and reread the directions, studied the accompanying photos of smiling fence installers, paced off the area to be enclosed, gathered the materials, took a deep breath and commenced to step one.
By step three, I was in big trouble.
Among the many virtues of this poultry netting is the fact it is one continual roll with all needed poles and connectors pre-attached.
All I had to do was untie the bundle, lift the attached posts as a group and the netting would then “unfold in front of [me] in a series of folded pleats.”
Come to think of it, I never did like pleats.
I lifted the posts, which instantly slid out of my hands, falling to the ground on top of the netting in a tangled heap.
Welcome to the first circle of hell.
If some fiend ever tried to combine macrame with origami, it would resemble that 164-foot section of netting that now was folded and woven into an irregular-shaped ball roughly 4 feet in diameter.
At that exact moment, the sun broke through the clouds here in northern Maine, the temperature shot up, and the black flies arrived, propelling me into hell’s next circle.
The 10-minute window of successful installation long past, I began untangling. Slowly and amid much under-the-breath cursing, I wove the poles in and out of the netting — and did I mention the poles each had 6-inch-long metal spikes at the ends?
Imagine a sadistic combination of pickup sticks and cat’s cradle, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how I spent the next hour.
But persistence, patience and cussing eventually won out and the entire 164-foot piece of netting — with posts — was flat out on the ground.
By this time, I’d deviated so far from those original 12-step instructions, I gave up and jumped straight to the step to install the posts by “picking up each post in turn and pushing it [6 inches] into the ground.”
Obviously, these instructions were not written with northern Maine in mind, where it is next to impossible to jab anything 6 inches into the ground before hitting rock or ledge within what had to be yet another circle of hell.
But after much poking and redirecting the fence line, the netting was actually upright, at which point I was ready for a break before tackling the next 164-foot section.
Sipping a glass of water, I again looked over those directions and noted a sidebar near the step on unfolding the fence indicating “this job is easier with 2 people.”
Clearly, reinforcements were in order.
Two phone calls later and my friend James was on the scene.
There were a couple of close calls — such as when he dropped the entire bundle of netting and found himself nearly encased like a fly in a web — but sure enough, four hands are way better than two when it comes to poultry netting.
It took a bit longer than 10 minutes, but with blessedly few tangles, the fence was up, the two ends connected and the chickens were out exploring their new yard.
But I couldn’t relax just yet. There was still one circle of hell left to breach.
The poultry netting is wired for electricity, which meant it had to be connected to a nifty electric fence charger Penny had dropped off.
Now, while I appreciate electricity, it remains one of life’s great mysteries. Suffice it to say, if it had been me and not Ben Franklin with that kite, we’d all still be eating by candlelight.
But one trip to the local hardware store, a half-hour of rummaging through my late husband’s extensive collection of wire and other electrical gizmos and a session with the cutting torch and a 15-foot piece of rebar later, I was ready to fire things up.
The first challenge was to pound the now 6-foot piece of rebar 5 feet into the earth to act as the ground rod.
Don’t ask me how, but I managed to find what has to be the only spot on the farm where that was possible, and with a foot of the rod left aboveground, I wired it to the ground connector on the charge box.
It was a simple matter to then run a wire from the fence to the second connection on the box after which I plugged it in and waited to see what would happen.
It was all pretty anticlimactic. I even tentatively touched one of the strands to make sure it was working, but felt only the slightest of tickles.
This would be about the time I learned that if rebar makes a good ground rod, I make an even better one, especially if one hand is holding the pen’s metal door and the other is lifting the netting out of the way.
The ensuing jolt was, to say the least, appropriately shocking.
Never one to take anything at face value — that would be the journalist in me — I again grabbed the metal pen door and the netting, just to make sure that jolt was not a fluke.
Nope, no fluke there.
On the bright side, while I was most definitely within that final circle of hell, at least I knew the fence was working and providing the chickens with their own enclosed piece of heaven.
Julia Bayly of Fort Kent is an award-winning writer and photographer, who frequently submits articles to the Bangor Daily News. Her column appears here every other Friday. She may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.