Share |

Good Fences

Island Life

“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…”
            Robert Frost
            Mending Wall

Some of you may have noticed that I have not been contributing here for some time now. I cannot remember the moment exactly, but there was a point where I had said enough and set my cursor and keyboard to other uses. For the most part I did not miss it as I had plenty of other ways to occupy my time, but there is something about the exercise of writing that is important- perhaps even vital. It is a way to sit with oneself and contemplate what is passing by while testing those running waters for temperature, clarity and volume from the safety of one’s own space and time before perhaps leaping in or choosing to staying safe and dry. But there is something else beyond that, and that is that writing is a bike ride or a swim or a jog for the mind, and since I have been neither writing nor doing much bike riding as of late, I have felt the flab creeping in to all quarters, and it seems to be now time to drive it back out and away again.
As it was, a month or so back we were scrambling to put in a field fence around part of our back yard. The greatest motivation for this was a puppy who had recently joined on here with Team Black Dog, but who had not agreed to the terms of invisible fencing. As she had also taken a liking to following cars up to the Highway, it seemed that a physical barrier would be necessary to contain the puppy enthusiasm before that translated into having to endure more loss and disaster- perhaps more than one could bear.

There was also the issue of the intruding deer, which was the original reason that this particular fence project had been envisioned a number of years ago. There had been the chard plants that would grow and thrive and then one morning many of them would be quite a bit shorter and missing most of their leaves. There would be lush growth that filled the upper reaches of the dwarf apple trees that again, upon a stroll by where a day before all was well, one might pass a day later to find the branches snapped and stripped bare, and the thought would creep in about having to start things all over again, kind of like Sisyphus or life under Donald Trump. But we try not to think about that too much, and live in the hope that, although a six foot fence is only a slight challenge to a deer and no match for a cougar, at least our puppy is no longer tempted to roam, and is also no longer a slave to the probes of a shock collar that allows the invisible radio fence to do its insidious bidding out on the border.

But it was while the preparation for the fence was going on, which also involved the clearing of years of fallen trees from our pond as well as a fair amount of shrub clearing to make way for the fence to run through, that I once again heard the voice of Poet Frost in my head droning that line: “Good fences make good neighbors”. In truth, none of this fence comes close to any shared borders, and part of the plan in laying it out was to use whatever natural foliage was left after clearing the way to hopefully render most of the six feet of wire field mesh mostly invisible to us as well. As it turns out, at a distance even the exposed bits disappear into the background- we will have to wait till spring and the advent of the temptation of new growth to see how it is perceived from the outside by senses of marauding deer.

As is usually the case when I get something stuck in the gray matter I have to go and look into it, and so it was that a search of Robert Frost’s poems brought me back to Mending Wall. As is usually the case with revisiting experiences of the past, a rereading of Frost’s poem brought up many new insights and questions that I hadn’t thought of before- at least not that I remembered. What struck me the most initially was the difference in perception each of the two neighbors on their own sides of the wall had of  both the wall itself as well as the purpose of their individual tasks that day. It seemed that the narrator saw the process and purpose as a bit of a lark, setting stones back to a place that time and frost heaves had made them fall from. He notes that where they are walking and repairing there are apple trees to his side and pines on his neighbor’s and the likelihood of these trees taking advantage of any breaks in the wall to intermingle or eat of each others fruit is little to none. On the other hand, it is the neighbor that speaks of good fences as if this tumbledown collection of rocks in a line had the same powers as a great wall on a border in China or elsewhere. To the neighbor it is emblematic of an impenetrable barrier- to the narrator it is a reason to engage with the neighbor, even for just a day, in a common task.

And there seems to be the assumption that perhaps this wall has always been there, and that the ritual of rebuilding it has some sort of bearing on their continued existence. There is no mention of where this wall came from, as if it always was there and always should be. As this was undoubtedly a New England stone wall, the origin story of this and most others there had to do with clearing fields for plowing the soil and growing crops and needing a place to put all the rocks.

Another tale comes to mind in thinking about this, and that is a film titled ‘Monsters’ from director Gareth Edwards. It came out a few years back and tells the story of how space aliens found their way back to earth on a ship we had sent out and now they were wreaking havoc from the dark reaches of northern Mexico. In some ways it is a very telling allegory of another illegal alien problem, and significantly enough there is a vision of a wall between the U.S. and Mexico that is an eerie rendering of perhaps what someone has in mind as a solution to one of our perceived problems. There is a statement and a suggestion made by one of the two main characters as they view the wall for the first time that rings truer in these times than perhaps the director had anticipated- as it is key to the plot, you will have to see it on your own rather than my having to do the spoiler thing in these pages. Instead, I will leave you for now with the last lines of ‘Mending Wall’- they actually follow on, directly below the lines quoted back at the start. I have a vague recollection of the visage of Robert Frost reading a poem at JFK’s inaugural- perhaps if Frost were still around this could have been selected as one that was ripe for another go round at an inauguration soon to come.

“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 or shade of tree.
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.”