homesteading, homestead,

I reflected it was an odd way to spend a morning. Crammed in a bulldozer cab, my bottom perched on a side molding of the inside cab and my legs draped across the lap of a Mennonite man from Belize I had met only two hours prior.

We had hired out a company to clear twenty acres of bush and trees for us and then, after all the debris was in windrows, we’d begin fencing. The twenty acres would be our pastures for the animals that we had already purchased, their homecoming imminent; Dexter cattle, Berkshire and Tamworth pigs, sheep, donkeys, horses, chickens, they’d all be sharing this future green space at various times.

When we bought our land it was February, never a good time to do anything outdoors in Manitoba, Canada. After post-holing through the deep snow the quarter-mile to where the landlocked property began (uphill, ironically, but at least not both ways) we were greeted by a sweeping white expanse with undulations indicative of rolling land; a rarity in this part of the country. One-quarter of a mile wide by one-half a mile long, these eighty acres would be the site of our future home and more importantly, in my eyes, our little farm. As the fierce winds whipped the words from our frozen lips, we knew we’d found home.

We were ditching the urban existence and moving out to the country (much to the chagrin of parents and friends, all firmly ensconced in urban modus vivendi). Many papers were signed, a few tears shed, and several small impediments to our bucolic dream occurred, but in the end, we got our property.

Once the spring thaws came, before building began, we would take the kids out for picnics and walk around our land. Our land. We never tired of saying it.

Of course, these early walks were hardly leisurely strolls along wide, groomed paths, but more of a sampling of itchy bushwhacking. We learned early that the rare gravel and sand ridges which gave our property its lovely rolling feel were the ideal habitat for a very vigorous species of poison ivy to which we were all very susceptible.

Laying in bed, listening to the noise of traffic from Portage Avenue (a very main thoroughfare) and the drunk across the street trying to convince his equally inebriated girlfriend that she shouldn’t leave him at 2:00 in the morning, we couldn’t wait to move. It was in the comfort of bed, scratching at the calamine coating on our various walkabout wounds that we decided upon the name for the farm. Incorporating one of the rarer landscape features of South Eastern Manitoba, the hill, whatever name we chose would have to reflect our luck at possessing land with this exciting (to prairie dwellers) feature. There were many truthful adjectives we could have chosen to pair with it: oak, sandy, hazel, but the one we thought of almost simultaneously as we scratched was “ivy”. It sounded lovely, “Ivy Hill Farm”. It conjured up restful images of lush, verdant English-type countryside. No one but us would know it was really “Poison Ivy Hill”, and once the noxious weed was eradicated, the name would cause us to remember the humble beginnings of our little farm.

Ivy Hill before

The house was my husband, Adam’s, project. A “green”, ultramodern affair we laughed in our certainty of it being the most unique farmhouse in existence. Dubbed “The Zed House” by the few trades we had in, as well as the inspectors, our house (by chance, not design) was shaped like the letter “zed” (“zee” to my American counterparts) if it were to be viewed, theoretically, from above. This was to take advantage of the change in grade as we built on the biggest hill, as well as preserving the largest oaks on the house site by its meandering footprint.

The animals were my passion, and so the task of planning, organizing, and executing the pasture and paddock layouts fell to me. Initially, we had planned on doing all the fencing ourselves, but, as week after week of unfortunately-timed rainy weather postponed the clearing, we were finding ourselves at the eleventh hour, with most of our animals coming within the month, and no land cleared or fenced as of yet. Not since my early-motherhood days of perpetual sleep-deprivation had I slept so badly, only this time it was stress and worry that caused me to toss and turn on the mattress next to my peacefully slumbering husband.

At last, the rain stopped for three days and hasty arrangements were made for a bulldozer and operator to come out for the day and push the bush down and into long piles known as windrows. These would be left to dry/rot for a couple of years and then would be burnt, in theory leaving us with smooth pastures, after seeding of course.

Burning brush and stumps

As the dozer operator wasn’t expected until 11:00 a.m., I arrived at the property by the clear, morning hour of 6:00, accompanied by my dogs. We had seen several fresh bear scats on our hikes around the property and, despite the bear spray I carried, I was terrified of being in the bush alone lest one eat me; the dogs at least would provide a distraction while I picked up my legs and ran fleet back to the car.

The construction boss had told me to mark the perimeter the bulldozer was to take, and so armed with my GPS, a roll of surveyor’s tape, the bear spray, and a long buck knife in my rubber boots, I was soon swallowed by the trees.

Once inside, the greenery closing solidly behind me, I realized I was about to try to perform a near impossible task. Despite the aid of the GPS, the thickness of the growth made me turn one way or the other with each step and soon the trail I had marked lay serpentine behind me. Realizing this would never do, I backtracked and began to re-tie ribbons here and there. After almost losing my boots in the muck twice, being bitten by countless mosquitoes, and slashed by thorns and deadwood I had made next to no progress although I had been at it for hours. I climbed to the crest of the hill at the road to take advantage of a cell signal and phoned the construction foreman, explaining my inability to mark a proper perimeter.

“Just wait till Abe gets there,” the man said. “The bulldozer cab seats two and you can just use your GPS and guide him left or right. Abe’s from Belize, he only speaks Plattdeutsch and Spanish.”

Thinking to myself how fortunate I was to be Spanish, otherwise, I have no idea how I would have conveyed ‘dozing instructions to the man, I amused myself by picking wild strawberries (avoiding the poison ivy as best I could) and set myself to wait.

A short time later Abe showed up, driving a semi with a bulldozer loaded on a flatbed. It seemed so strange to my senses to hear Spanish come from the Teutonic-looking man’s mouth, but after he unloaded the bulldozer we realized there was a problem. I had explained to him his boss’ suggestion that, as I couldn’t mark the path he was to take, that I was to ride in the cab with him, giving directions as he pushed the trees down. Smiling apologetically, Abe gestured to the cab. It was a one-seater with no place for anyone else to sit.

I chewed my lip for a moment and decided as I couldn’t strike out in front of him through the thick growth, I would trail behind, over the debris, and he would look back every few moments to see my gestures of “right” or “left” but—mostly—keep a straight line. He shrugged in agreement and we set off.

Using my first few ribbons for the line, the bulldozer roared off at a fast walking pace. It was barbaric yet impressive to see how the bulldozer effortlessly pushed the trees and bush down, flattened as easily as you or I might flatten blades of grass.

I, however, was finding it quite a bit of effort to keep up with Abe, although he looked over his shoulder every few moments faithfully to take his cue. The flattened trees and understory made a springy carpet over two feet thick with leg-grabbing gaps and boot-puncturing points. As I half ran, scrambling and falling continuously, I had serious doubts as to the wisdom of this course. I pride myself in being able to endure a lot of physical hardship. For many years my husband and I were avid rock and ice climbers as well as serious trekkers, and the years had toughened us considerably. Nevertheless, as I scrambled behind the bulldozer, legs bruised beyond belief (I didn’t have time to take stock of injury, but knew what I would see when I removed my pants and boots) and breath ragged in my throat, I felt I couldn’t do much more. The whole half-mile I followed the bulldozer, over the worst terrain imaginable, and at the end of property I waved him to stop. He climbed from the cab concerned as, hands on my knees, I struggled to get my wind back.

“I can’t,” I gasped. In particular, my right calf had been raked very painfully by the sharp point of a broken log as my feet had plunged to the ground when the branch I had been striding across snapped. The calf was now incredibly tender and had swelled tight to the top of my rubber boots.

“We can both fit,” Abe said, gesturing to the cab. I had my doubts, but I knew I could neither lead him the remaining way in front through the bush nor could I continue to follow over the unnavigable terrain, and so I shrugged and climbed up.

I felt sorry for Abe as I was filthy, with bits of bark and mud clinging to my sweaty face and clothes as well as boots caked in muck, and once in the cab I saw there was really no place for me to sit. After some embarrassed shufflings I managed to perch myself in a corner just off his seat, but with no place at all for my legs to go, I had to drape them across his lap. I was certain it must only be me that felt strange about it, because after all, there was nothing alluring about me after my now eight-hour ordeal in the bush, but it seemed Abe shared the thread of my thought and, holding himself as stiffly away from my legs as possible, we continued on.

bulldozer in mud

Awkward position aside, I was so glad to be off the ground in no time I was enjoying myself immensely, my injuries forgotten. It was really impressive to see how the trees and bush just fell before the blade. I had a vantage point from the high cab that enabled me to see farther ahead, and we were in terra incognita now, despite the fact this was still our property. I instructed him to leave tall oaks and poplars alone and as the vegetation began to indicate wetter soils, I bade him steer around a cluster of tamaracks and then we suddenly lurched to a halt.

Cursing in what I supposed was Plattdeutsch we struggled to disentangle ourselves and he climbed down from the cab. The bulldozer’s tracks were mired deep in the mud. This part of the bush hadn’t been included in any earlier reconnaissance and had been included as part of the pasture on paper only.

Weary and sore (at least I was), we bushwhacked back to the road. It took almost an hour as the bush was very thick in places and the going not easy. As well, trying to keep a steady bearing proved difficult when all we could see around us was green, the sun obscured by clouds, and I’m sure our path was not the most direct.

At one point, despite the great noise we were making as we lurched through the understory, I felt fear seize me when we came upon a steaming pile of bear scat. The bear was so close we could smell him (or maybe it was the combination of the smell of my own fear and the smell of his spoor). From then on we carried on a shouting conversation between the two of us, sounding (I’m sure) like lunatics had there been anyone around to hear.

Ivy Hill after

When we regained the road it was almost 4:00 p.m. I had been engaged at this same task for almost ten hours now and was heartily sick of it. I phoned in Abe’s distress to his company, waited for a worker’s truck to show up and then left them to it.

Never pay for a job by the hour, if you can help it. A flat rate for a job done is a much more comforting arrangement, so we were very surprised when we received a bill from the construction company not only including the previously agreed upon fee for clearing twenty acres, but also for the mileage, gas, and rental of the second bulldozer that had to be summoned to remove the first, mired in our back forty.

The cleared land looked post-apocalyptic. An ugly dark slash in the verdant woods, with broken trees like jagged bones sticking up here and there, and long leg-catching windrows. When we showed the results to our family we could see doubt in their faces. You really had to use your imagination at this point to see it as pasture. Time heals all, and with an obscene amount of labor, the fencing and seeding and harrowing was completed, and the animals introduced to their new homes.

I think I ran into Abe the other day. It’s been a few years but I’m pretty sure it was him, it’s a small town. I, however, was dressed for town rather than farm and I think he wasn’t sure why I seemed familiar. Had I sat on his lap like he were Santa Claus, my guess is he’d remember.

The cattle enjoying the new pasture.
The cattle enjoying the new pasture.

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