Updated: Jul 16, 2020
“Good fences make good neighbors.” This famous line from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” is often quoted as a reason for constructing a barrier on a property boundary. No, I’m not talking about THE border wall. This post is about the fence in my own backyard.
I live in a part of the country where most houses are built with a wooden fence around the backyard. The fence may look nice when first installed, but the wood weathers quickly. It’s not long before the fence is dilapidated. City ordinances require homeowners to maintain their fence, and the fence is considered a mandatory amenity when selling a house.
The fence in my backyard is in poor condition. My spouse and I are discussing the need to repair or replace it. It’ll be expensive, so we haven’t been quick to do so. Instead, I’ve been looking at the fence and thinking about it. One day, while mowing the yard, I see a rabbit shoot out of a bush and run through a hole in the fence to escape the lawnmower. I’m struck by the realization that the fence isn’t just about me, or even about keeping people out of my yard. It’s much more.
On this planet, human beings are unique in our ability to affect the land in ways that have consequences beyond ourselves. In the U.S., the governing cultural view of land has been formed through the lens of the Doctrine of Discovery and Manifest Destiny. It’s reflected in the Homestead Act that tied land ownership to “proving up” the land, which meant putting the land in service to people. You could not hold the land for the sake of its beauty or its inherent worth. The utilitarian concept of land is encoded in today’s laws, written to reflect the value of land based on its “highest and best use.” The boundary fence becomes a visible sign of a person’s right to use the fenced property.
Fence or not, what I do on my land doesn’t stay on my land. Rainfall carries fertilizers or pesticides into creeks, causing fish kills that affect my neighbors, both the people who live along the creek and the creatures who depend on the life-giving water. Carbon emissions from my home’s energy use contributes to heat island effect in summer, which sends some of my neighbors to the hospital with heat-related illnesses. Loose items in my yard are blown by the wind into my neighbor’s yard. On a larger scale, what people are doing on their land has created conditions that scientists suggest may be the Anthropocene. It’s a period of time when human activity is altering atmospheric, geologic, biologic, and other natural systems. All our neighbors, human and non-human, as well as our children and grandchildren, are and will be affected by these changes.
Natural systems don’t respect human barriers. It’s a humbling reminder that the land was here long before me and my ancestors and will be here long after me and my progeny. I may pay money into a system that gives me privilege to use it, but I do not really own the land. Instead of proving my ownership, what a fence does is enable me to avoid my neighbor. I don’t have to discuss and negotiate where my activity begins to affect my neighbor, and vice versa. A critical reading of Robert Frost’s poem reveals this fact is at the heart of the poem. Contrary to our cultural use of the quote to support fences, Frost’s poem talks about the paradox of two men working together in a neighborly way to build a barrier that will enable them to avoid each other. The poem wonders why the separation is needed.
At their core, all the environmental challenges we face today are about neighborliness: being a good neighbor to other people and to the other creatures who live on this planet with us. The act of being a good neighbor takes practice. A fence denies me the opportunity to practice seeing my neighbor and confronting the effects of my actions on them. The fence allows me to avoid the fact that I may need to make changes to my lifestyle for the good of my neighbor.
As my spouse and I consider whether to replace our rundown fence or remove it, I realize I can’t make the decision until I remove the fence from around my own heart. It’s the fence of privilege that keeps me from considering wildlife and others who are affected by what I do in my backyard. It’s also the fence of fear that keeps me from talking with my neighbor about the old fence between our backyards. Removing these barriers within me and my backyard is a good start toward being a neighbor to those who live down the street, downstream, and downwind from me. For being a good neighbor is what society needs, if we are going to address the environmental issues that threaten all of us.