You may recall that Robert Frost (1874-1963), one-time Poet Laureate of the United States and recipient of four Pulitzer Prizes for his work, penned in 1914 a poem called “Mending Wall.”
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,…
Frost was describing the stone walls of New England, walls which marked property boundaries and kept livestock within the bounds of the owner’s land.
In this part of the country, we have fences, but, walls or fences, the purpose is the same.
So to is the heavy hand nature lays upon a fence or a wall. Frost spoke of ground heave disrupting a wall and necessitating annual repair. Here on the High Plains our fences suffer from ground heave too, as well as from wind pressure, wood rot, rust, and gravity. In Frost’s poem he also describes the ravages of hunters, who tear holes in walls to more easily pass (as well as to “…have the rabbit out of hiding.”
Modern “hunters” have torn down miles of my fences. Such people most assuredly do not deserve the noble title of hunter. Frost seems to have held such hunters in small regard as well.
The wall Frost’s poetic character shared with a neighbor was not a livestock barrier. Perhaps this is why he didn’t comment on damage wrought by livestock. Or perhaps livestock can do little if any damage to a stone wall. In my mind’s eye, stone is much sturdier than stranded barbed wire stretched between wooden and steel posts.
Livestock can certainly damage a fence, though.
Last week a neighbor’s bull pushed his way through an aging (but to the eye, still sturdy) six-wire fence to join the yearling heifers in our adjacent pasture. In the wake of his fence-passage, he left snarls of wire and broken posts. He made, in fact, not one passage through the fence, but three.
We didn’t want the neighbor’s bull in with our heifers. We have our own bulls, our own breeding program, our own carefully selected genetics. The same is true for the neighbor. He has no desire for his bull to mix with out cattle, nor for our bulls to mix with his cattle. This is why we share a sturdy fence.
But if a fence has a week spot (or two, or three) a bull in pursuit of heifers in estrus will find it (or them). It’s what they do. We clever humans try to prevent cross-herd genetic flow with our fences. But, to paraphrase Frost, something there is that does not love a fence. Wire rusts, posts rot, staples heave themselves from posts over years of freeze-thaw cycles.
In “Mending Wall,” Frost puzzled over the motivation of his neighbor, who insisted on maintaining the shared wall even though Frost’s poetic narrator saw no need, and would have preferred ready access to his neighbor’s land – to wander unimpeded where his poetic muse led him. He saw his neighbor as an ancient, fading farmer, unable to break the time worn habits of the past:
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
…Good fences make good neighbors.
Still, Frost not only shared the annual backbreaking labor of wall repair with his neighbor, he initiated and coordinated the chore:
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.
Here on the High Plains, where fence repair is somewhat less taxing than rebuilding a stone wall, there’s seldom need for neighbors to meet and share the labor. A few hours suffice, and the neighbor who discovers the problem generally fixes it.
The wayward bull was eased back into his pasture where he could attend to his own responsibilities, and the fence was quickly repaired. As I repaired the fence I marveled at the ravages time had wrought upon the fence. In places the oldest wire had corroded to almost nothing, and in other places, sturdy wire was the only thing holding base-rotted fence posts aloft. Indeed, …something there is that does not like a fence.
Though Frost used the line “Good fences make good neighbors” twice in his poem, and though countless college professors have made much of this, carefully explaining to their students that fences clearly serve to keep people apart, I read in the poem a far deeper understanding of nature and of people than most professors will ever be able to achieve.
In my mind, Frost was describing the very real beauty of the relationships between men and nature, men and their tough agricultural pursuits, and between men and men – neighbors if you will.
Though the lettered demand that Frost was railing against divisions between men, it’s clear to me that he was observing and reporting the simple beauty of human existence on the land, and on the remarkably special intersections where men and toil and nature meet.
Though Frost’s character repeated the phrase “Good fences make good neighbors,” it’s clear to me that his penultimate message is that good neighbors make good neighbors. And that together, good neighbors do remarkable things. Remarkable things that most people rely on, but never understand.