Mending Fences


An old voice from the past came to me as I mended fence between our dry field of scant pasture and our apple/pear orchard after the Haflingers decided that no amount of voltage in the wire would deter them from  pushing it down and reaching for the sweet fruit they could see and smell just a few yards away–

“Good fences make good neighbors”

This wasn’t referring to hot tape and wire, but a stone wall in New England. Robert Frost wrote “Mending Walls” in 1913, a poem that I studied when I was 14 and which has stuck with me these 35 years.

Mending Wall (excerpts)
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.

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.

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.

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.”

I maintain wood rail and hot wire fences, in my haphazard and ineffectual way, pondering the necessity for them and marveling at the Haflinger ability to overcome them. Fences to keep the pines and the apple trees separate, as Frost muses, seems ludicrous. Frost didn’t know about Haflingers though. Fences to keep greedy horses from gorging on apples and pears and getting sick makes complete sense. Fences to keep my “happy wanderer” Haflingers from exploring the road and the neighbor’s fields is imperative!

As one travels across the plains and mountains of North America, fences are everywhere to be seen. Fences that are impressive and tall, stretching for miles, built to keep deer and elk off the roads. Fences that are old barbed wire, falling and decrepit, no longer effective, but still testimony to a determined farmer’s desire to section off his barren land from another’s barren land, or perhaps the requirement borne of the homesteading laws of the time. Frost’s poem spans the balance between man’s sometimes irrational desire for barriers, and the acknowledgement of the order that they bring to an uncertain and sometimes unpredictable world that lays beyond our walls.

Fences continue to exist in many parts of the world today, created out of political conflict and fear. New walls are going up between Israel/Palestinian settlements (even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon quoted Robert Frost’s poem in his justification of a new barrier). Much celebration accompanied the fall of the Berlin Wall after its years of imposing testimony to the lack of trust and understanding between people who were once relatives, neighbors and friends. The Great Wall of China still stands, now primarily tourist attraction, no longer serving any other useful purpose other than to illustrate the lengths to which man goes to barricade himself off from others.

So why maintain life’s fences, even if there may be no hungry horses to keep in, or predators to keep out? Even if the neighbors are best of friends and get along famously? Even if the building and maintaining of these fences seems a futile and foolish task when they are pushed down, blown over in the winds, with trees fallen over them, and overgrown with brush and wild blackberries?

Fences, like rules and laws, define order, and structure. They can bite back if they are breached. If crashed and broken, they are hazardous in and of themselves, not withstanding the potential dangers that lay beyond them. Remove them altogether and we risk chaos.

So, in the best of times, we are mending walls out of continuing need for contact with our neighbors. We meet across the barriers to shake hands and visit while we repair the fences together, leaving the barriers standing and strong. In the worst of times, we fortify and hide behind the walls, making them taller, wider, deeper, creating greater and greater gulfs between us and eventually losing touch forever as the walls themselves deteriorate without the necessary mutual “mending”.

So we must not love walls themselves, but must maintain them with our neighbor. We don’t worship the walls themselves but respect the foundation they rest on. We must accept our boundaries with humility, recognizing their necessity is due to our imperfections.

Now I just need to teach my Haflingers to do their part and put the insulators back on the posts and stretch the wire and tape tight. I know their teeth are good for something other than secretly smiling and constantly eating.