“Good fences make good neighbors.”
This refrain, repeated by the poet’s neighbor, is the line most people seem to remember from Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. It is often quoted out of context and in ignorance, particularly by Republicans when they want to wax poetic over issues from immigration to closing the public out of public lands so private oil and gas interests can ravage what remains of our natural resources under the pretense of energy independence.
But Mending Wall begins: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” And the neighbor’s utterance follows Frost’s questioning of the necessity of the boundary between them:
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.”
The notion of metaphorical and literal fences maintaining peace—or breeding hostility—between neighbors has been around for centuries in both poetry and in practice. Poet-priest George Herbert offers this succinct variation in The Temple from 1633: “Love your neighbor, yet pull not down your hedge.” Sections of Rome’s Servian Wall, which was built in the 4th century BCE and withstood the forces of Hannibal, still stand.
I share a general attitude toward fences with Edward Abbey, whose characters in The Brave Cowboy (as well as its underseen film version, Lonely are the Brave) and The Monkey Wrench Gang cut down barbed-wire barriers to open space. As the human companion of dogs, I have also learned the benefits of fences.
We recently moved into a cozy home with a sizable yard enclosed on two sides by high plank fencing and along the back by chain-link. In our search for a house, “fenced yard” was top priority, above even air conditioning, a dishwasher and an actual house itself.
Over the weekend, I met one of our side-adjacent neighbors. She seemed very nice. We will not be able to converse over our fence. Although the fence does have the advantage of preventing her family’s shrill Chihuahua from accessing our yard (the same cannot be said of their enterprising Shi-Tzu).
As I type this, my dogs have charged the rear fence, barking sharply. They leap on and thrust their heads over the wire mesh barricade at the appearance of another neighbor. He is cautious of their energetic greeting and Frost-ian view of walls.
A good fence can provide peace of mind, privacy, refuge. A bad fence can isolate us, block our view of the surrounding world, impair our ability to communicate. A fence’s merits, or lack thereof, depend largely on who or what is on the other side.
At the very least, fences should be viewed with skepticism. However, fences, like politicians, are sometimes a necessary and practical evil. Fences are best built with the understanding that they must be occasionally mended and heeding Horace’s reminder that, “It is your concern when your neighbor’s wall is on fire.”