Unfolding the Map
As we leave the madness of Boston, we find walls in Wellesley. Why do we need fences, walls and barriers? It is the subject for a nice reflection on my part, as William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) heads southwest again through Massachusetts. Linger here and reflect with me, or hang out with the accomplished women of Wellesley College. Here is Wellesley on the map.
"...I found Massachusetts 16, a quiet road out of Wellesley, that ran down through stands of maple, birch, and pine, down along brooks, across fens, down miles of stone walls covered with lichens.
"Many New England stone fences built between 1700 and 1875 were laid by gangs of workers who piled stone at the rate of so much a rod. Edwin Way Teale says that in the latter years of the past century, before economic and social developments began obliterating some of the walls, there were a hundred thousand miles of stone fences in New England. Even today, for many of them, the only change has been the size of the lichens, those delicate rock eating algae that can live nine hundred years."
Blue Highways: Part 9, Chapter 4
One of my favorite cartoon strips in the 80s and 90s was The Far Side by Gary Larson, and one of my favorite cartoons in that strip showed a man pointing out the secrets of nature to his son. "And now, Randy," the father says, "by use of song, the male sparrow will stake out his territory...an instinct common in the lower animals." The pair are standing in their back yard, looking a sparrow in a tree in a neighboring yard separated by fences.
What is in a fence or a wall? A lot, I think. I have been pondering this question recently as I have watched our (as in society) collective efforts to individually and in groups define our territory and establish and maintain boundaries. While I understand this need and I know that reasonable boundaries are not only good but healthy, I find myself increasingly troubled.
I grew up in a world of fences. My parents' property was fenced off from the neighbors and, while my father was alive, was well maintained. There was a sense that this was OUR property, as opposed to our neighbors. Yet there weren't many prohibitions. We often walked through our neighbor's property and down their road as a shortcut to my grandmother's house. People walked through ours too on the way to someplace or another.
Yet, despite fences, my father was notoriously dismissive of others boundaries and fences. He was a poacher, and would often go under or around a fence that was meant to keep him from hunting deer on other's land. He was never caught, but he had a close scrape or two. However, that was his modus operandi. His personal fences were meant to keep people out but he was very good at crossing knocking down others' fences and disregarding their boundaries. That's part of the reason why, at age 48, I am still in therapy.
As I get older, this conundrum of fences, barriers, walls, boundaries and borders becomes more fascinating and more troubling to me, especially the clash between our desire to mark off what's "ours" and provide us with privacy and protection and the insistence upon personal freedom regardless of whether it affects others or not. We extol the virtues of the United States as if it still is a land where anything is possible, where free and open space is a resource to be exploited, and where anyone can do whatever they want. Yet, we wall, fence, make boundaries and borders, and put up signs warning people off with the promise of deadly force if they don't comply. I wonder if, in a land where once promise and reality were almost equal and where now promise and reality have a wide gulf between them, the freedom that we extol needs to be tempered or reimagined.
A few examples. I grew up in the era of the Berlin Wall, a large barrier meant to not only keep the West out of Soviet-controlled East Germany, but even more so to keep the East Germans in. Even as we exert our freedom to own property by fencing it off, East Germany used walls and fences to curtail freedom and limit their peoples' access to anything non-Communist.
Just down the street our neighbors fenced off their property in front with a large steel wall, about six feet high, that obscures a view of their house and front yard. Certainly it's their freedom to do so, but what does such a fence say? To me, it says "keep out." It says "we don't want to know you." To others it might say "we have something here that we want to protect." Or, "hey potential thieves, something valuable is here." I know the couple, who are very nice and very introverted. In reality, they probably just want their privacy. But the fence is a message, and that message can be interpreted in many difference ways.
In the past couple of days, this article was forwarded to me which frankly made me angry. The author argues that museums should not try to cater to young people's tastes because it is a waste of time. Older people with, what I assume at least, an appreciation for the "right" kind of art are more important. She is literally arguing for a kind of fence to be built that keeps young people away from the "good stuff," while not even deigning to think that perhaps young people are innovating and creating art of their own. I know older people who are patrons of classical music that find nothing worthwhile in newer musical forms. I know serious aficionados of certain types of jazz that are unwilling to give more than a passing nod to other forms, and God help you if you don't know what you are talking about with them. I know people who collect art and keep it in their homes, unavailable to the outside world unless they decide to lend it somewhere. Generationally, we all think that the ones behind us don't know anything, yet the vibrancy and the innovation of each generation is constantly recorded in history: a Warhol, pooh-poohed by the "serious" art lovers in the sixties are now almost priceless today among modern art aficionados; early recordings by The Beatles, considered "noise" by many music lovers of the time, are considered most valuable treasures today even as new forms of music are derided now though one day, they too may be considered classics. It's all fences and walls, put up by one generation against the "garbage" of those behind them, yet many times that garbage becomes pearls and jewels over time.
Different types of fences, two physical and one virtual. Two you can see before your eyes, and one you can feel in words and meaning. Yet, in my mind, they equally send a message. This is mine, keep out, you're not wanted unless I invite you in, whatever is in here stays in here.
The not-very-well-told and therefore unknown history of the western part of the United States has been one of fences, of free ranges divided and sectioned and protected by barbed wire. In west Texas, a war over fencing developed in the 1880s as "gypsy ranchers," who owned lots of cattle but no land, found their grazing ranges and watering holes cut off by barbed wire. Barbed wire went up with little thought to property rights and whole towns found themselves surrounded by barbed wire. A pseudo-war erupted, with vigilantes cutting barbed wire right and left. The "war" ended with the Texas legislature declaring fence cutting a felony, but it also meant the end of the gypsy ranchers and the idea of the free range so celebrated in American history. And, it further constricted the freedom of movement of Native Americans, who considered it "devil's rope."
Fences that were prevalent in the east, in areas like Wellesley, were low stone walls which demarcated property lines and whose use was imported from England and Ireland. I'll admit, there is something pleasing about the stone walls which make a statement of ownership and yet invite communication across them. Yet even these walls have had their critics. Robert Frost, in his famous poem Mending Wall, writes "Something there is that doesn't love a wall..." He also addresses the conundrum that puzzles me when he writes:
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.
In essence, fences and walls may keep things out, but they also keep things in. At what cost do we fence and wall? Do "Good fences make good neighbors," as Frost quotes his neighbor in the poem, or do they deny us connection? Are they neutral or do they rebuke or provoke? I have no answers, just questions, even though I am just as prone, in times of stress or in response to perceived slights or danger, to put up boundaries, fences and walls. I just question whether it is always the right thing to do.
Since my father died, much of the fences at our property are in disrepair. It's a good reminder that fences only last as long as they are maintained. Once someone stops caring for them or about them, they disintegrate. As history shows, over and over again, everything, including fences, are temporary.
I found two songs for this post's interlude, one about fencing oneself in, and one asking for freedom from being fenced in.
Then I went looking, and found this modern pop song by Paramore called Fences, about trying to keep the public out by fencing oneself in.
If you want to know more about Wellesley
Next up: Holliston, Massachusetts