As we look to the new year and say “goodbye and good riddance” to 2020, we anticipate the building of bridges (even metaphorical ones) rather than fences. Or maybe even better, we will be mending fences. As Robert Frost once famously put it, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Fences can carry enormous symbolism, as well as purpose. Fences have their origins in the earliest civilizations—with “keeping in and keeping out” as their basic purpose. For me, one particular fence gave me a hard-learned lesson in civility at a time when I probably needed it the most.
There was a time when I wasn’t the fine, upstanding citizen that I am today. I chalk it up to callow youth. Truth be told, there was a period of my life in which I was a trespasser and a rhubarb thief, as well. It’s true. They say confession is good for the soul. So here goes. That lawless inclination presented itself when I was about 11 years old, as were my cohorts in crime. We were an often rowdy group of best buddies—three girls and two boys—all living in the same block.
No matter the weather, no matter the day of the week, when we had a few minutes of free time, we’d hightail it to a huge field that lay behind our homes. In the summer we’d erect teepees from old bedspreads and other castoffs in the tall grass and weeds. Or on sultry afternoons we’d seek the cool of the woods and a stream beyond. In the winter, we’d troop across that field, and make our way up and over the remains of what had once been part of the Grand Trunk Railway to a golf course pond beyond. There, we’d use discarded boards to scrape the snow-covered surface clear for ice skating. It was all quite free and rambunctious.
The only obstacle to our adventures was a series of fences that were joined across the back of our yards that obstructed our access to the field and the explorations that lay beyond. However, there was one property that had no fence, and it provided a clear, grassy path to the field and tantalizing woods beyond. Coincidentally, there also was a thick patch of rhubarb at the edge of that yard. We’d often grab stalks on our way through. We never lingered or loitered in that yard, we just used it as an avenue to our destination.
We rarely, if ever, saw either of the elderly couple who lived in the house. No one ever admonished us for our trespassing, nor our pilfering of rhubarb. But certainly the old couple saw us, and at some point they’d had their fill of our plundering their rhubarb and trampling their lawn. One day as we chattered and laughed and raced through the neighbors’ yard to the field, we were rudely interrupted by a length of wire that had been stretched taut across the edge of their yard about a foot off the ground.
It truly could be said that we never knew what hit us. But as we raced out to the field, we were suddenly jerked back by that taut wire, and we went sprawling. We generally got the wind knocked out of us. For a minute or two, we rolled about on the green grass snorting and cackling at the spectacle we must have presented, and eventually picked ourselves up. But the sobering reality of that wire made us realize our crime.
The “message” our elderly neighbor sent was received loud and clear, although somehow I bet the wife gave her husband a tongue lashing for his cunning trick because the next day the wire was gone. Even so, we continued to use his lawn, our only path to the field. But we never again snatched rhubarb, and we passed through quickly and quietly—fully chastised.
Since then, I have observed and appreciated a variety of fences, though none that left as indelible an impression as that simple string of wire did. I realize that fences can serve a number of purposes—practical, ornamental, or both. As gardeners we are no strangers to fences.
The concept of a “fence” is an old one that dates to early civilizations. The Greeks were among the first to make use of fences, a development that emerged from notions of agriculture, family, and property. The term itself is derived from the 14th-century word “fens,” a defense or protection. The dictionary defines a fence as a “structure serving as a barrier, boundary, or enclosure, usually made of posts or stakes joined together by boards, wire, or rails. It surrounds, separates, keeps away, it defends.” (There was that “wire” I’d experienced, right in the definition.)
For better or worse, fences can be credited with institutionalizing the collective recognition of private property. They make a visual and open declaration of intention, a commitment to the land, a proprietor’s self-regard, and responsibility. Throughout history, fences have been used to keep people or animals out, or in other instances to keep them in. Fences can also provide protection, separating people or animals from danger. In other cases, fences have been mainly ornamental, and in yet others, fences serve as screens. Fencing can direct movement and enhance the appearance of a space.
During World War II, many of the once-common, old, highly ornamental Victorian-era iron fences were donated for scrap for the war effort, along with pots and pans, bedsprings, and other bits and pieces of metal. The nation was pulling together, and people were doing their part. The few of these fences that remain are indeed prized.
Early fence materials were stones or Anglo-Saxon rough wooden rails, formed into a zigzag pattern and called “worm fences.” Over the centuries, fences have of course evolved and are now constructed from a wide variety of materials. During the settling of our West, fences became the catalyst for local skirmishes, and fencing elements like barbed wire became incendiary issues that sparked more than one range “war.” Our own electric wire fence does its job quite adequately to keep deer out of the garden. It is little more than a handful of posts and a couple strings of aluminum wires.
Today fences are often an integral part of our landscapes. Many reflect distinctly local resources and issues. In fact, their only limit seems to be the imagination. I’ve come to appreciate them, even though the grass sometimes appears to be greener on the other side.