Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Fences and neighbors

It's been a lovely, long ol' day. I got a lot of work done, including mending some fence on the south unit. It's a fence shared with a neighbor, and as I worked I kept seeing signs of the neighbor's contribution to maintaining the fence. Which made me think long and hard about about the beauty of having neighbors.


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.
Mary Benefiel
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 (actually yards) 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.

Some years ago a neighbor’s (Same fence and neighbor from today) 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 had our own bulls, our own breeding program, our own carefully selected genetics. The same was true for the neighbor. He had no desire for his bull to mix with out cattle, nor for our bulls to mix with his cattle. This is why we shared, and still 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. 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 love 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 ultimate message is that good neighbors make good neighbors. And that together, good neighbors do remarkable things. Remarkable things that most people rely on, but only rarely understand.


Be well and embrace the blessings of liberty.


  1. A thoughtful analysis of a poem I vaguely recall from an English class in a previous century.
    Those New England dry laid stone walls always impress me. Neatly laid, symmetrical, and beautiful workmanship. Even running through what are now woodlots and abandoned fields. At the time, they were probably the result of decades of sweat labor trying to get the big pieces out of the rocky soil in hopes of coaxing crops to spring forth to get a family through another year. They never seemed to run out of rocks..

    Hey, how did you end up with A-6 rides? Win or lose a bet or something?
    John Blackshoe

    1. I agree, those walls are impressive. As is the fact that nature is always leaning on everything. Our works are ephemeral, only casting an illusion of permanency. The generational continuity of labor and building and growing is linger lived though.
      Ah, the Intruder. I was in the right place at the right time to leverage reputation, hard work, and perseverance into a trial enlisted B/N experiment. It fizzled out eventually but I got to do cool stuff with cool people in Grumman Iron for a while. Those were the days!
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting John!

  2. My mother was fond of describing glamorous cowboy occupations as fixing fence and stacking hay. Guess that is why the Army made me a combat engineer so I could string barbed/concertina wire and stack sandbags.

    1. The reality of the thing is the main reason I don't wear a cowboy suit. Glamor is an illusion. Hard work is it's own reward.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Frank!

  3. Had a bad neighbor type running around the county where I grew up. Got on everyone's nerves. He was doing his usual bad neighbor thing in town one day and one of my cousins, a VERY even tempered guy, ended up knocking him on his keister. Doubt my cousin will ever need to pay for his coffee any time soon.
    Another Frost line for thinking on - "I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep."

    1. There are always a few bad neighbors around, or more precisely, people who choose to behave badly. They live miserable lives but provide a vital example of how not to behave.
      "Stopping by Woods" is delightful. Much of Frost's work resonates with me. "Acquainted With the Night" and "Reluctance" spring to mind.
      Thanks for stopping by and commenting Frank!