On a ranch in Snelling, California Photo: AM Hall
It’s hard to know where to start with a fence. Maybe with the domestication of large animals, though now that seems more like an end than a beginning. When the European immigrant flood began, following the journeys of Columbus in the late fifteenth century, the “settlers” understood their first chore to be the subjugation of the native peoples. Some thought this might happen by remaking Indians in a European mold. Some thought to isolate Indians on reserves. Some thought to exterminate Indians physically, though this seemed too brutal for most people to stomach. In the latter third of the nineteenth century the American Army Generals Philip H. Sheridan and William T. Sherman both supported the slaughter of the western buffalo herds as the quickest method for destroying the Plains Indian way of life.
Truth to tell, the buffalo slaughter wouldn’t be enough in itself to subjugate the Indians. Nor would removing horses from their Indian riders. Or dressing Indians as Europeans or forcing them to speak English or converting them to Christianity. What it would really take was the slaughter of the land as a living whole—the introduction of the fence. As an exhibit panel for the Smithsonian Institution traveling show Between Fences puts it, the fence allowed for the transformation of private property from an abstract concept to a living force. Here’s the fence and on both sides of it is private property, the natural order of human life.
Running through Marion County, Kentucky
Where does the fence line run? The first step is to define property clearly, to survey it and mark it on a map as having distinct definable boundaries. And so the Europeans began their furious expeditions across the American West during which they carried sextants and chronometers and telescopes and barometers with which they would measure longitude and latitude and altitude, and so be able to make maps that marked where one piece of the earth ended and another began. Once you knew this, you could put up a fence. You could begin the transformation of Indian America into the New World.
I imply that it was really the fence that marked the end of the Indian way of life. It’s tempting to say “yes, that’s it” but I know it’s not that simple. Just as the destruction of the buffalo herds wasn’t enough in itself, nor the imposition of European languages, nor Christianity, neither was the construction of fences. Fences were part of a larger experiment in which Euro-Americans have for hundreds of years been anxiously awaiting or tearfully regretting the end of the Indian way of life. But it hasn’t ended. It’s just there on the other side of the fence staring into the distance, mostly not making eye contact.
“Fences stand for security”¦” the Smithsonian tells us, and in the Between Fences exhibit visitors are encouraged to “feel the significance of a crucial aspect of their personal and national heritage. Fences, like barns, are tools that embody a culture and its values.” Here, we’re offered a neutral, almost cheery, conclusion–if we better understand fences, we will better understand ourselves as Americans.
But only a portion of self understanding is offered. It is the portion that leaves out the fence gone berserk. That fence was seen in the Maginot Line and the Berlin Wall. It was seen more recently in the suggestion made by the administration of President George W. Bush that the United States could solve many of its problems in the (at the time of this writing) nearly five year long war in Iraq by building a series of fences to isolate neighborhoods in Baghdad. The fence gone berserk is currently seen in American support of what the Israeli government calls the Israel Security Fence. When completed, this fence will be a sixty to one hundred yard wide combination of barbed wire and chain-link fences, ditches, roads, twenty-five foot high concrete walls, concertina razor wire, watchtowers, cameras, and electronic sensors to support a high tech intrusion-detection system. While many have condemned the Security Fence, many have also pointed out that the United States has a similar fence along stretches of the Mexican Border and seeks to extend this fence the entire length of the border. The fence gone berserk.
It’s a far cry from our idea of the white picket fence, the fence that the Smithsonian exhibit describes as being a decorative structure that is as much a part of the landscape as trees and flowers and that, having played a legendary role in the United States is “the very symbol of home.”
Our feelings about fences reflect our ethical sensibilities. I want to end by taking a go at fences and values through the vehicle of two poems: Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” and my own “Fixing Fence.”
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 out-door 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 offence.
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.”
In “Mending Wall,” two men, neighbors, spend some time each spring repairing the wall that divides their property. The narrator claims that before he built a wall he’d want to know what it is he was walling in or out. His neighbor merely says, “Good fences make good neighbors.” When goaded, the neighbor repeats his mantra and the narrator tells us that this man is like a savage who, unable to go beyond the thought of his father, and liking his viewpoint so well, can only repeat it. So Frost opposes the fence.
But the narrator who has made fun of his neighbor for repeating a well worn truism, begins his poem by saying, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,”¦” After goading the neighbor, he repeats this line, his mantra, his own well worn truism. He indicates the things that want the wall down—frost heave, hunters, elves—and tells us he follows to pick the stones up and put them back in place. So now Frost stands with the neighbor in favor of repairing the wall. But, look, the narrator has also pointed out that there are no animals here to wander over the boundary. The two men are herders of pine and apple trees and the apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under the pines. So Frost opposes the wall. On the other hand, it was the narrator who called the neighbor to tell him there were gaps in the wall that needed repairing. So Frost wants to maintain the wall.
Snowy in southern Wyoming Photo: Jim Taylor
Writers often like to have it both ways. To have their cake and eat it, too. Here’s what happens when Frost is moved from New England to Wyoming, and when the wall becomes a fence.
Nobody I know loves fixing fence,
setting creosoted posts into ground
hard as rock, stretching barbed wire taut
to sing in rising wind and burning sun.
In the fall when hunters come
it’s worse, wind-drifted snow, gates
left open and wire cut.
They would make for themselves
a straight line from kill to truck
and drag the carcasses across the ground.
Sometimes I miss these cuts and find
weeks later a band of sheep far from home.
Sometimes I find the cuts after a storm
when the trail is clear and it is cold.
Often enough it is a fence not solely
my own but one I share with a neighbor
and so I go and speak to him and we meet
on a day when the cold will freeze our feet
and hands. We wrestle with the wire
and the come-along and curse together,
saying “sonsabitches,” then again,
We find a fence post driven over
and splintered and I go to the truck
for another and we have to use a pick
and a bar in the frozen earth.
We put our backs into it
but it’s no go and we decide
to use magic—the levitation trick.
Instead of setting the post into the earth,
we let it float above ground,
held upright by wire pulled tight
on either side, rocks stacked around.
It works. “Sonsabitches!”
We drink coffee from a thermos.
In the cold I pull off my gloves
to set the fencing staples and drive them in,
to release the come-along and start again.
My hands are so dry the skin cracks
around my fingernails and I bleed.
This happens every winter.
I put bag balm on the split skin
and wrap it tight using cotton wads
from the top of the aspirin bottle
and a strip of greasy masking tape
I found in the jockey box of the truck.
Gloves back on I complain
but it is fine, the bright sun
and glittering snow, my neighbor
who I like plenty well enough
and who does this work with me.
He is a smiling fat man—cattle
while I am sheep. When I say I’m sorry
about the cut fence, he looks up and says,
“Hell, don’t bother me none. “˜Sides, ain’t
your doing, damn Eastern hunters.”
I’m grateful he trusts me and believes
it is the hunters and not me cutting the fence
myself to let my stock onto his range
where they can get some free feed. “What
d’ya spoze them assholes is thinking anyway?”
“I don’t know,” I answer, “But I can bet
not a one of “˜em ever fixed fence.”
And I lean back and slam a staple
into a splintery post so cold
the creosote smell is gone.
Even in this cold I’m sweating
and I take off my hat to wipe my forehead,
feel the sweat freeze there. “Fences.”
“Once upon a time,” my neighbor says,
“There weren’t no fences in this country.
My granddad can tell about it—
how there was herders everywhere,
every herder with his sheepwagon and dog,
some of “˜em with a horse. You remember
that herder busted both his legs and somehow
drug hisself up on a rise then got his horse
to stand there on the low side and he slid
onto the horse and it walked on into town?
Resourceful son-of-a-gun.” And he hits
the post again with a hard blow of the hammer.
“Fences. Always fixing “˜em. Always
will be. Makes me think of how a big storm
comes and the wind drifts the snow
over the fence lines and sheep’ll
walk right up and over into the next county
and on south. That’s why I run cows
even if I know them old-time gods
don’t want no fences anyways.
Knock “˜em all down if they could.”
Again, the hammer blow and the smile
and I look at my neighbor and realize
that he’s a friend, hammer in hand,
staples in his mouth. We work through
the short near-solstice afternoon.
When the sun drops behind the rim
of the mountains, the cold comes on.
“Better go in,” I say, and he says,
“I’ll just get this and we’ll be done.”
So we work ten more minutes–
snowbank and shade, ice and light.
“Ok, then,” he says, “looks good enough
for now. We can set that post
when the ground thaws.”
“When the ground thaws?”
“Yeah.” He laughs, “Next spring.
I’ll see ya then.”
Note: David Romtvedt recently edited Wyoming Fence Lines, in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s tour of Between Fences through the state of Wyoming. The show opened in Sheridan January 19, and travels to Meeteetse and Sundance later in the year. David writes and fixes fences in Buffalo, Wyoming.