Thursday, July 2, 2009

Barbed Wire Road Trip

Lyn and I have been working on our joint project, an interdisciplinary look at barbed wire in three contemporary literary works and at the nineteenth- and twentieth-century origins for the literary usage. She's mostly the expert on historical research, and I'm mostly responsible for the literary aspects. But it took both of us to drive through west-central Utah and east-central Nevada the last couple of days in search of images and ideas for the paper.

Near Oak City, Utah, just east of Delta, we found the "Fool Creek Flat" sign, welded together out of steel pipe, steel chain, cut steel plate, and steel barbed wire. It rises up next to the barbed-wire fence that is ubiquitous in the west, and that, in this case, has gathered a second rank of defense -- a knee-high layer of thorny tumbleweed (my legs will bear the scratches for the next week).

The sign signifies, at least as we read it, a Western cowboy toughness that tends to the scratchy.

If you're going to graze cattle and horses over wide swatches of ground, there's no real option but barbed wire. And if you're going to have roads through the country, the Nevada Department of Transportation will have to line them with barbed wire.

One of the benefits of research that requires traveling is that there are unexpected sights. After a long, wet, cool spring, the high mountain valleys east of Ely, Nevada, are brilliant with yellow composites and blue lupine and larkspur tucked in and around the sagebrush.

It's not easy to keep a wire fence taut, but you can tighten it by inserting a lever between two strands of the wire and twisting. A steel come-along helps with the dangly gate.

A barbed wire fence can also function as a gallery, as it does here at "Major's Place" on Highway 6 between Ely and Great Basin National Park. The fence flaunts a row of deer and pronghorn antlers, with the bighorn sheep skull in the center. Although we're trying to make sense of the disturbing practice of displaying killed coyotes on fences, this array at Major's Place seems at least partially an aesthetic exercise, and not just a statement of violent power.

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