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Fences and Walls

A poem comes to mind — a controversial one — as I see new fences appearing on Pender, where there once were none. Or bigger, bolder ones replacing older fences.

It’s Robert Frost’s famous poem, “Mending Wall.” Read the full poem here. 1

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down …” it says part-way through. But if you read a little deeper, it’s not as simple as ‘all walls and fences are bad.’

Fixing a fence

The poem tells a story of two men, the poet Frost and a neighbour, walking the fence line that separates their properties. Together, they repair parts of the stone fence that have been damaged by winter frost heave or trespassing hunters and their “yelping dogs.”

It’s a warm description of their work. They each keep to their sides, moving boulders back into place, fixing the wall that divides them, together:

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.

The wall-mending here seems to be a form of bonding, a repair and renewal of something worthwhile between them.

But as they work, Frost questions the need for the wall in the first place. There are no cows or animals of any kind to keep out. There are only trees.

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.

The neighbour responds with the old phrase, “Good fences make good neighbours.” It carries the contradiction that some form of peace can only happen by delineating what is yours and what is mine.

Good fences make good neighbours

But I think this response hits Frost the wrong way. He’s suspicious of barriers that serve no apparent purpose. He is open to communication, new ideas and wary of anything that arbitrarily divides people, like this wall.

The poet asks:

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 offense.

He’s also put off by the neighbour’s rigidity, who seems pleased with the phrase or his ability to remember it. He sees wisdom in it. The expression, which holds some truth, also misses the subtleties of their situation, Frost chafes:

                           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 neighbours.’

Frost doesn’t disagree with the saying. But I think he feels a shudder as their connection, made warm by their shared work, is broken by the ‘good fences’ saying. Good fences also mean: ‘This is mine, and that is yours, and this fence keeps the line between us.’ And that is not what he wants.

This wall, as defined by the neighbour, gives offense to Frost. It mocks the naïvete of good neighbourliness, divides them, and Frost seems wounded, perhaps angry by the end. And that is where the poem ends. The neighbour is viewed in the darkness of ignorance, stubborn, incurious, trite in speech and crude.

Good neighbourliness

Robert Frost

On Pender Island, we erect fences to keep deer from eating our gardens, to keep pets in or out. Some don’t bother with barriers and are unperturbed by the wildlife. We accept fences, and they can be a source of discussion and joint enterprise between neighbours to keep them in good nick.

But gosh! The poem was published in 1914, the dawn of the First World War, a time of fierce European border disputes. Since time immemorial, building and confronting walls and fences have been part of the human experience — the Great Wall of China, Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall. And let’s not forget Trump’s border wall! 2

Walls, in this case, are symbolic or political and it’s easier to question their need if you tend to follow a “one world” philosophy, as opposed to fierce nationalism. Former President Trump called the border wall with Mexico “a big, beautiful wall.” Its appearance is nothing if not harsh, scarring of the landscape, vengeful, even violent. Depending on your politics, of course.

To whom are we giving offense

“What was I walling in or walling out, and to whom was I like to give offense.” This seems a good question to ask before erecting fences or walls.

Are we keeping the deer out, or our neighbours? Or are we keeping ourselves walled in?

And to whom are we giving offense?


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Moonset and high tide, South Pender Island at 3:50 a.m. 
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Moonset and high tide, South Pender Island at 3:50 a.m.
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In the early light of dawn, Mildrith oven-springs sourdough, caramelizes crusts gold and brown and leaves heavenly smells as evidence. Inside her hot clay dome, 12 boules of Salish Sourdough are on the final stage of their journey. Behold the steam rising out of the chimney!
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In the early light of dawn, Mildrith oven-springs sourdough, caramelizes crusts gold and brown and leaves heavenly smells as evidence. Inside her hot clay dome, 12 boules of Salish Sourdough are on the final stage of their journey. Behold the steam rising out of the chimney!
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  1. “Mending Wall” was published in 1914 in an early collection, North of Boston. It’s one of Frost’s best known poems, along with “The Road Not Taken,” “After Apple-Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile” among many others.

  2. In 1961, the U.S.-born Frost was chosen by John F. Kennedy to read the poem at his inauguration. Despite Frost’s caution against reading nationalism into the poem, Kennedy sent Frost to the USSR in 1962 on a “goodwill” mission. The poet met with Premier Khrushchev and read the poem in Moscow. The mission failed to have any calming effect on USA-USSR relations. Soon after, the two powers faced each other in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

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