You may remember Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (1914) from high school. In it, the narrator describes meeting his neighbor at the boundary of his apple orchard to repair the stone wall that separates their properties. He refers to this as “spring mending time.” As the two move methodically along the wall, stacking stones that have been toppled by the weather or hunters flushing out rabbits, the narrator expresses doubt about the need for a wall at all.
“My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” But the neighbor responds tersely with his father’s advice: “Good fences make good neighbors.” The two square off like this with the narrator wondering how he might change his neighbor’s mind. “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” he muses.
What is this thing that doesn’t love a wall? We don’t know what Frost had in mind. He died without revealing much at all about the poem. “The secret of what it means I keep,” he insisted. But I will venture my own answer and explain why I thought it was important enough to write about in the first place other than that it’s springtime and apple trees are blossoming.
The short answer is space. I don’t mean space as in the size of your closets, but space as in miles and miles of it and don’t fence me in (see Mending Wall). When you have a lot of it, boundaries become less significant and an inverse relationship develops between the two. That is, the more space you have, the less you need boundaries.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall…
Now, don’t get me wrong. I am speaking strictly as a city slicker. This relationship doesn’t hold when the space is significantly larger than Frost’s apple orchard. Consider, for instance, the conflict between cattle ranchers and homesteaders in the Western United States at the end of the 19th century. They fought over space and access to natural resources like grassland and water. They needed fences. We may see similar conflicts over resources on a global scale before not too long.
But I also know what it’s like to live in a metropolis on top of other people–or below them (see The People in Apartment 22). The inverse relationship becomes even more important. In crowded conditions like that, walls keep those who may not have your best interests in mind at a safe distance. After all, you put two rats in a shoebox and they’ll eat each other. You skimp on insulation and tenants will go berserk.
Suburbs can be just as bad and sometimes worse. This week I had a problem with parking space and a neighbor’s perceived intrusion on his property. I say “perceived,” because apparently when you own a home you are entitled to the parking spaces in front of your house. At least my neighbor thinks so. This is beyond comprehension to someone coming from New York City, where I didn’t even own a car. On those occasions when I rented one, if I found parking within three blocks of my apartment building, I’d be ecstatic and feel lucky enough to buy a Lotto ticket, not that I ever won, of course.
This is partly about how people interpret “public” and public land even when that land is no more than twelve feet of chipped curb. The people in my neighborhood are closer to the neighbor in the poem than the narrator. They insist on clear boundaries even when those boundaries exist only in their imagination. Their stone walls reach to the top of my apple trees. Yet what is to be done? You can’t reason with the unreasonable (see Parking Space: The Final Frontier).
The irony is that even though I have had problems with neighbors over the years and have come to value concrete walls, padded floors, eight-foot fences, hedgerows, and burgeoning Bougainvillea, I don’t want to be a cynic. I’d rather be the narrator. Of course, it would be a different poem if the narrator were to convince his neighbor to demolish the wall. I don’t think I’d like that, either. I suppose the solution would be to muse till the cows come home about that “something” that doesn’t love a wall but to go on stacking stones, anyway. You know, just in case.
It’s mending time.
Image credits: feature, “The White Apple Tree” by Antanas Samuolis; grassland by Abhijeet Swarnkar on Unsplash. For secondary source material, see Interesting Literature and True West: History of the American Frontier. Want more? Go to Robert Brancatelli. The Brancatelli Blog is a member of The Free Media Alliance, which promotes “alternatives to software, culture, and hardware monopolies.“
Interestingly, I just had a fence issue. The fence between our backyard and that of the neighbor on the corner lot blew down. Then her front fence blew down, and every time I went into the backyard I could see all the way into the next street. Privacy was non-existent and I expected to see strangers milling about my yard whenever I took out the garbage. We finally came to an agreement on fence replacement, and up it went last Saturday. I definitely fall into the ‘love a wall’ category!!