Column: Sometimes a great idea ... isn't


Roger VanHaren

Sometimes I think I have a great idea and I sit down to write, and the more I write, the more I think, “Boy , this sounds familiar.” So I go back into the computer where the last 800 or so columns are stored, and do a search, and sure enough, I’ve written this before, and almost exactly the same.

That happened one day last week when I started to write about building fences when I was a kid on the farm. I found out that I’d written about that topic several years ago. So I abandoned that idea and went sorting through the minutia that’s stashed away in my gray matter in search of another one, and sure enough, I came across a different approach – still about fencing, but another kind.

I’ve written before about how my early years on the farm preceded the extension of electricity to the rural areas, but in about 1945, the REA ran power lines into our neighborhood and we got electricity. My dad, having read all kinds of farm magazines about pasture management and preservation, almost immediately went out and got an electric fence charger, and the concept of fences on our property changed drastically. Whereas our fences had all been barbed wire stretched on permanent wooden posts, they now became single bare strands of smooth steel wire attached to movable posts by glass insulators.

It was an easy task to move the fence anytime we wanted, so we could regulate where the cows would graze. The area they had just been in could grow again and then we could move them back. The pasture never got eaten down to the point where it could not recover; thus it lasted much longer. A great idea.

If you’re not a farm kid and don’t have a familiarity with electrical fences, here’s a very brief, unscientific “sort-of” explanation of how it works. Electric fences are designed to create an electrical circuit when they are touched by a person or an animal. At its origin, there’s a “charger” (back then it was about the size of a car battery; I don’t know how big they are now) that which sends a brief electrical pulse along a bare wire about once per second. Another terminal is connected to a metal rod that is stuck into the ground – called a ground rod.

When a person or an animal touches both the wire and the earth during a pulse, it completes an electrical circuit, causing an uncomfortable electric shock. The shock can range from barely noticeable to painful, depending upon the voltage, the energy of the pulse, and how much contact there is. As a kid, I found it strange that birds could sit on the fence with impunity until Dad explained that they weren’t “grounded.” But a cow’s wet nose or tongue against the wire resulted in a very surprised cow!

For us farm kids, the electric fence was a familiar thing, but for some of our city cousins it was a different story. The electric fence became our little stun guns. If we could convince an unsuspecting city kid to touch the fence, we’d get a good laugh when he’d get a shock and run yelling. Our morbid senses of humor – or lack of compassion and common sense, I suppose – were tickled when we’d see a cow or a pig reach for a stalk of grass on the other side of the fence (the grass is always greener, you know) and get stung by the fence.

I think it’s interesting that the concept of the electric fence has been modified in recent years to “invisibly” train pets not to stray from their own yards. Behavior modification by use of electric shock. Amazing!

P.S. Interestingly, the concept of the electric fence was first described (I think!) by my hero Mark Twain in 1889 in “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” where he described the electric fence as a defensive weapon.

Roger VanHaren can be contacted at