Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Good Fences & Good Neighbors

We have all heard the expression, "good fences make good neighbors."  In fact, if you google the quote, you will find over 400,000 references to it online.  The line comes from Robert Frost's blank verse poem entitled, The Mending Wall. 

The poem is about two men, neighbors, who every year fix the stone fence between their properties.  We at The Neighborhood Fix wanted to know- what does it mean?  Do good fences make good neighbors?  For the sake of Mr. Frost, let's take a look at the poem:

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
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”.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
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 offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

For those of us who aren't poetry buffs, it may be a little hard to decipher, but that's what the author intended.  *Frost said he consciously used his "innate mischievousness" in setting up the argumentative dialogue in order "to trip the reader head foremost into the boundless."  The poem is about so many things: boundaries, barriers, (in)determinacy and conventions and also about tradition, innovation, (dis)agreements and individuality… and community, property, behavior, communication, knowledge, and folk wisdom.

Good fences make good neighbors. 
This proverb is passed down from generation to generation.  And it exists in many cultures:
  • "There must be a fence between good neighbors" (Norwegian);
  • "Between neighbors' gardens a fence is good" (German);
  • "Build a fence even between intimate friends" (Japanese);
  • "Love your neighbor, but do not throw down the dividing wall" (Indian [Hindi]);
  • "Love your neighbor, but put up a fence" (Russian).

Proverbs are not universal truths, just simple statements to help us deal with multifaceted issues.  Ask yourself: What is a good neighbor and how does a fence help you in becoming one? 

It is up to you to be a good neighbor- a fence cannot do that work for you.  I think we can all learn a valuable lesson from Mr. Wilson from the show Home Improvement!  Was he a good neighbor because a fence separated him from Tim “the tool man” Taylor? NO- it was because he looked over the fence at the real person on the other side.

*Thompson, Lawrance, ed. Selected Letters of Robert Frost. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964