I was mowing the lawn the other day and thinking about this, that, and the other. As I began mowing near the fence separating our yard from our neighbor’s (the one pictured to the left), the famous line/quote from Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” came to mind
"Good fences make good neighbors"
I began picking it apart and thinking about its implications both in my personal life and in our society.
Like so many others, I first encountered “Mending Wall” in my Am. Lit. class in high school. Along with “I took the [road] less travelled” (from “The Road Not Travelled”) and “But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep” (from “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”), this simple phrase has highly penetrated our American culture, our values, and our perspectives on reality. Because they are so ingrained into our self image, because they were spoken by the iconic Robert Frost, and because we (most likely) first met these ideas in our youth, we tend to accept them at face value as deep truths.
But today was different. Today I actually asked myself, “why do good fences make good neighbors?” and, more importantly, “Do good fences really make good neighbors?” Yes, I understand the historical basis for the rationale. In a world where our financial well-being is tied to our land and to the resources that grow on it or can be extracted from it, it makes sense that a clearly marked delineation would reduce or greatly eliminate conflict and the resultant strife and ill-will. But in today’s world this doesn’t seem to hold as much water? Fences are probably still a good idea if you have a dog you need to keep in your yard, have young children you need to keep from wandering off, own a pool and need to protect the neighborhood kids from drowning themselves, or are trying to keep deer from devouring your vegetable garden. But, do any of these reasons make good neighbors?
I live on a suburban street with 30-40 houses on it. The street is in a community of 20-30 such streets. For the most part, each of our yards are nicely defined with a split rail fence (as prescribed by the HOA). When we first moved to the neighborhood, we knew our neighbors to our right. We moved here partly because they knew the prior owners of our house and connected us with them to avoid the 6% real estate agent fee. But, they have since moved away. Despite the large number of families living in such a relatively small track of land, hardly anyone actually knows his neighbors beyond face recognition and general daily pattern of departure and arrival. As a society, we have taken Frost’s admonition to build fences to build good relations with our neighbors too far. We have built not just physical fences to define our property rights. We have built social fences that define and delineate “us” from “them.”
But the particular fence in question (the one pictured above, the one that started me thinking about fences in general) happens to stand as a symbol of good neighbors. If you recall Tim Taylor and Wilson on the television show Home Improvement, you have a rudimentary glimpse into the relationship I have with my neighbor. At one point in our history, I’m certain we exchanged names… but for the life of me, I cannot recall his name and I suspect he no longer remembers mine. We address each other simply as “Neighbor.” And this is ok. We are not friends. We are neighbors. But we have a good neighbor relationship. We have spent hours talking about our yards, our neighborhood, our families, our jobs, and yes, the weather. He is probably 15-20 years older than me. When we talk about our families, it is with a generation shift. When we talk about my kids, I gain the insight of someone who has been there and he gets to relive some of those moments of when his kids were teenagers. When we talk about his grandkids, I get a glimpse of the future and he gets a chance go light up and share one of the current joys in his life. But its not just about chewing the fat. When I noticed that over half of one of the trees in his yard was dead, I came over with my chainsaw and we took down the tree together. When he mows, he routinely takes care of all the grass between our properties, even the grass which is “properly” ours. When it snows, my son will often go over and shovel for them. In a nutshell…
We have taken down our fences.
We have crossed the property lines.
And in doing so…
We have become good neighbors.
by Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”