STAR Story: Fence Scrubbing

Heavy rain brings thoughts of dirt, algae, and horse manure to my mind. This association comes from a single Saturday in spring, summer, or fall when I was anywhere from ten to fourteen. The specifics didn’t matter. What did matter was that my family was going to a service project that day. We’d planned to go to a farm to wash fences that originally gleamed white, but over time had collected the residue of life: dirt, algae, and horse manure. They needed to be thoroughly scrubbed to restore their previous pristine perfection.

We’d predicted a large, enjoyable service project full of families enjoying the soapy water and the farm’s fresh air. But that morning, the sky let loose all her sorrow in flat gray sheets that would soak anyone in a single second. The water plummeted from the sky, rushed through the gutter, rattled through the bushes, and shook the leaves like maracas. But although the rain gushed and I begged, my parents insisted we serve.

As I, dismayed, stared out the rain-streaked car windows at a flooded farm, we rolled into the gravel parking lot to discover just a couple cars. Apparently I hadn’t been the only one disheartened by the weather that morning. It seemed grim, but we were already at the farm so there was nothing left to do but leave the car’s safety and go to work.

All decked out in ponchos and boots, we sloshed to the fences with buckets full of soapy water that seemed to mock us. If the world is a waterfall, what’s the point of trying to contain it in a bucket? But I tossed this irony aside. There were fences to clean.

So, I scrubbed.

In the cold and miserable rain, I scrubbed. Standing calf-deep in a brew of water, mud, and horse manure, I scrubbed. When the family who’d come with small children went home early, I continued to scrub. It was cathartic: this scrubbing, this sensation of pushing all the power in the muscles and tendons of my shoulders through the sponge and onto the fence, this labor as the rain pounded down. I laughed for the wildness and honesty of it all.

We didn’t come close to the number of fences we might have scoured in balmy sunshine, but we did clean some of them. We’d accomplished something despite the weather’s urgings to stay home, read a book, bask in the doldrum of doing nothing at all.

Toward the end of the service project, another family arrived, bearing hot chocolate. Abandoning our fence posts, we huddled under a pavilion to drink a cup of warm, sweet magic. I shivered, but giddiness from surviving the elements overcame me. I felt washed clean and connected to the earth.

When we drove home on the flooded streets—my fingers pruned and chilled, with dirt, algae, and horse manure under my fingernails—we turned the car’s heater up as far as it would go. I’d never felt so dry and so warm.