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Bounded People, Boundless Land
Eric T. Freyfogle
Like many of Robert Frost's poems, "Mending Wall" is a study in contradiction (Frost 1969). Set in rural New England, it is a narrative poem about boundaries and walls in nature, culture, and the human mind. As the poem opens, spring has arrived in the rocky farm country, and with it has come an annual ritual: the mending of the stone wall that divides the narrator's farm from his neighbor's. Choosing a date as they have done before, the adjacent farmers together walk their shared wall, each replacing the stones on his side. As the work proceeds, the narrator engages us with various musings, about the rocky wall, about his stern neighbor, and about the jumbled ways that people and land fit together. From the neighboring farmer directly we hear only a single sentence. Twice repeated, it is the line of the poem that has become best known: "Good fences make good neighbors."
Our culture has latched on to this proverb, no doubt because it captures so well a number of our foundational tendencies and assumptions. We like fences and erect them often, routinely separating mine from yours. We like to divide land and instinctively think of land as parceled and bounded. Frost, however, did not mean to endorse this adage outright, and the narrator in "Mending Wall" is intent on challenging it. "Something there is," the narrator tells us, "that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down." "The frozen-ground-swell" of winter "spills the upper boulders in the sun, And makes gaps even two can pass abreast." Nature, it seems, dislikes this stone wall. Freezing and thawing work against it, and so does gravity. Wandering hunters also play a role, knocking down stones to "have the rabbit out of hiding." Then there are the more mysterious forces that seem secretly to pull at stone walls. Elves at work, the narrator speculates, "but it's not elves exactly." However caused, the wall's gaps appear yearly: "No one has seen them made or heard them made, But at spring mending-time we find them there."
"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down. Good fences make good neighbors."
As Frost's narrator relates his tale of labor shared, he argues for his side of this age-old issue. The stone wall has no purpose, he points out. The neighbor's farm "is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across, And eat the cones under his pines...." Walls make sense when there are cows, "but here there are no cows." So why do fences make good neighbors? the narrator demands to know—asking of himself and of us, but not, importantly, of his neighbor. "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." As the poem continues the narrator presses on, to the point of questioning his neighbor's intellect and modernity. The stodgy neighbor, he contends, appears like "an old-stone savage armed" as he approaches the wall, stone in each hand. "He moves in darkness as it seems to me, Not of woods only and the shade of trees."
Until poem's end, Frost seems tilted toward the narrator's view of things, yet it is the tradition-tied neighbor who has the last say, the neighbor who "will not go behind his father's saying" and apparently has no appetite for springtime challenges. "Good fences make good neighbors," the neighbor says again, proud that he has thought of the idea. There the poem ends, and the mending work goes on.
Following the Ripples
"Mending Wall" is a useful place to begin an inquiry into stewardship across land boundaries. The poem sets up the central conflict, leaves it unresolved, and in doing so provokes us to dwell on the subject, to consider how boundaries have arisen out of our culture, how they influence us in thought and deed, and how we have used them, for good and ill, to shape the land and our lives. "A good poem," Robert Penn Warren once said (1989), "drop[s] a stone into the pool of our being, and the ripples spread." In the case of "Mending Wall" the ripples set loose are many, and they spread in varied ways—outward across the land, backward into our history, and inward, to our nature as cranky, proudful, and yet hopeful human beings.
In "Mending Wall" Frost is clear only on one point: nature has no need for walls, stone or otherwise. To build a wall is to rearrange the land in a way that nature begins at once to resist. When it comes to the needs of humans, Frost's story is more complex and he does no more than frame the problem suggestively. Cows have a habit of wandering; for cattle owners, at least, walls are a positive good. For hunters, walls are a nuisance, if not a danger; game animals do not respect them, so hunters will not either. Orchard owners, needing no walls, think of them mostly as aimless work, although Frost's narrator can view his enterprise with light heart, as "just another kind of outdoor game."
With these points made, Frost has covered the practical aspects of walls: They are useful for some purposes, bothersome for others. As readers we are left with the issues of human character, cognition, and yearning; we are left to consider why we like walls so much and how they reflect and shape who we are. For Frost's narrator, his neighbor's love of walls has an unnaturalness to it. There is a darkness, a lack of enlightenment, to the neighbor's desire for distinct boundaries, a territorial longing with roots that reach back to the stone age. So vigorous is this tradition that the narrator has trouble even questioning his neighbor's wisdom in conversation. In the end, despite his speculations, he bows to tradition and never makes his points aloud.
Frost leaves us to reflect on all of this, to follow the ripples set in motion by his fictional farmers. Why do good fences make good neighbors, if no animals need control? Is there something within us that makes boundaries essential? Is there something in our ability to witness the land, to grasp it in our minds, to sink our roots into it and take responsibility for it that somehow drives us to divide the land into distinct pieces? Nature may need no boundaries, but what about us?
"Mending Wall" achieves as much as it does because it brings together so provocatively the several traditions that underlie our talk on landscape-scale issues. There is the obvious tradition of building walls, marking off territory, and protecting turf, a tradition summed up in the neighbor's "good fences" adage. In this strand of thought, land parcels are discrete things, managed separately, and connected to one another only at the edge. Frost's narrator, in contrast, identifies himself with an alternative tradition, one that has to do with practical judgment, questioning inherited wisdom, and adhering to old ways only when they make sense. Less interested in the human psyche, this pragmatic tradition pays closer attention to the land and searches for better ways to get things done.
Implicit in Frost's poem, unspoken of by either farmer, is a third tradition—the equally vital tradition of communal cooperation, of neighbors identifying a shared need and stepping forward to labor for the common good. We see this tradition in the spring ritual of mending the wall, which carries on for yet another year. We do not quite know why Frost's narrator never questions aloud the good-fences proverb, but his reticence likely has more to do with this third tradition, with the maintenance of communal bonds, than it does any pleasure he gets from his "outdoor game."
As Frost brings together these three traditions, he heightens the contradictions, giving shape to an especially fine poem: Inherited ways versus questioning and novelty. Independence versus neighborly cooperation. Liberty versus solidarity. Boundedness, of land and people, versus the unboundedness of the organic whole.
Ecology and the Old Grid
Particularly in landscapes controlled by private landowners, the old grid mentality of separate land parcels retains a firm grip in American culture. Activities in one place, we know, do not stay within boundary lines: flowing water pays little attention to land deeds, which means pollution does not either. Wandering animals are no more heedful, so that their survival depends on many land managers. We have recognized this blurring of boundaries and long talked about the challenges posed by land-use externalities. But externalities always were viewed as the exception, particularly in economic models. If they were not modest enough to ignore, they were things that we could halt by appropriate technology or "internalize" through regulations or financial arrangements. They posed no threat to the regime of separate land management.
Whatever else ecology has done, it is causing us to rethink this heritage of discrete land parcels. It pushes us to consider new visions of private ownership and to think seriously about community-based land management (Freyfogle 1995). The cardinal rule of popular ecology, that everything in nature is connected to everything else, contains a measure of exaggeration, but the links in nature nonetheless are pervasive, cumulative, and illusive. The closer one looks, the less separation ones sees in land parcels and land uses. Connections simply are too ubiquitous for us to treat them as lightly as we have. To start from the opposite side, to assume the interconnection of land parcels is to think of the land as a unified whole rather than as a collection of distinct pieces. It is to conceive of landowners and land managers not as independent operators coincidentally working nearby, but as co-workers in a larger single enterprise, dependent for their success on a common goal and in continuing need of shared guidance.
As ecologists have talked about the land in organic terms, they have danced around the idea of land health as an overall management goal (Costanza et al. 1992). Many scientists see intellectual sense and practical utility in this idea, and they have begun articulating what land health might mean in practice, in particular settings. Landscapes can be more or less healthy, in terms of the many elements essential to bountiful life, even as their resident species change over time. Aldo Leopold believed this when he wrote A Sand County Almanac (1949); in essence, it is Leopold's meditation on the subject. When Leopold talked about land health, he focused on the basics: conserving soil, maintaining water flows and water quality, and mitigating significant, human-caused changes in species populations. Land health was not a purely scientific concept for Leopold. It reached beyond that to include his seasoned intuitions and his long-maturing ethical values. For Leopold and others, land health became a way of referring to a more sensitive, more humble means of interacting with that mysterious organic unity that he called "the land."
Today we know more than Leopold did, but land health as a purely scientific term remains imprecise and hence, for many scientists, suspicious. Ecology now appears dominated by population biologists and other scientists trained to look at nature from the bottom up, beginning with individual species (Pickett and Ostfield 1995). As often as not, scientists with this perspective find more chaos and change in nature than do scientists trained to look from the ecosystem level down, at energy and nutrient flows, at soil and biomass retention, and at hydrologic flows (Worster 1993). To the outside observer, recent shifts in ecology suggest a dialectical interaction between top-down and bottom-up approaches to the study of the land community; between talking about the coherence of communities as a whole and focusing instead on the sometimes radical incoherence of their constituent members. Academic fields often progress by precisely this type of indirection: swinging one way, then another, with direction best seen by stepping back for the long view. Dialectical shifts are particularly common when our knowledge is radically incomplete, as it is in the case of natural functioning. Over the long term, one might predict, both top-down and bottom-up approaches will retain value in our continuing effort to make sense of nature's ways. More certainly, the land community will retain mysteries that we cannot solve.
Observers from outside ecology have had less trouble embracing land health as a management goal, largely because they have felt more comfortable using ethics and practical reasoning to shore up science's gaps (Westra 1994). The elements of a land community typically interact in ways that are exceedingly complex and well beyond our full comprehension. To deal sensibly with such a community requires us to acknowledge and embrace both of these realities—nature's complexity on the one hand, and the vastness of our ignorance on the other. Science alone cannot bring these realities together, for science proceeds solely from the known and speaks only about the known. To deal with ignorance we need to mix science's lessons with a heavy dose of ethical reasoning and include a strong sense of caution and humility.
Land health has become the most common way today of talking about this mix. It draws on the best of our science and blends it with our ethical sentiments and conclusions (Callicott 1996). To give land health greater clarity, then, particularly in the field, we need to keep working on our science, making it as good and as pertinent as we can. Yet we also need to keep working on the ethical side of things, deciding what we value in nature and what it means to live virtuously on the land. In general terms, land health is our shorthand way of describing what the land would look like if we stopped degrading it. It is our way of bringing together and acting on our senses of moral value, particularly the moral value we perceive in other species. It also has become our way of talking about our duties, perhaps profound, to future generations. The process going on here, it needs to be clear, is not a simple matter of proceeding from the "is" of nature to the "ought" of ethical norms. It is something more complex. We simply do not know the "is," and we continue to struggle with the "ought" as a matter of widely shared, maturely considered ethical values. Land health combines these two elements. It is ethically guided science; it is scientifically informed ethics. And we must recognize that it is a vision that will keep changing as we continue to move toward it, learning more, talking more, and striving to become better than we have been (Lee 1993).
As environmental thought has focused on land health it has assumed an increasingly communitarian tone in language and reasoning (Freyfogle 1996). Environmental writers now speak more confidently about the moral value that resides in the collective whole, even as they acknowledge the moral value of individual pieces, particularly the human pieces. Environmental thought places greater weight on the preservation and enhancement of natural ecosystem processes, both because they sustain the land community as such and because they are useful (or more) to the long-term prospering of humankind.
As a vision of what the land ought to look like, land health pushes us to transcend our grid mentality. It asks us to center our sights on nature's organic wholeness and to downplay or eliminate artificial boundaries. It pushes us to side with Frost's iconoclastic narrator and to ask hard questions about human-drawn lines on the land, whether they be ownership lines or the limits of political jurisdictions. Restoring the integrity of large river systems, for instance, is a kind of work that cannot be done, or even envisioned, in disjointed pieces. Biodiversity issues are similar: We cannot talk about protecting species, particularly wandering ones, without looking beyond the horizon (Noss and Cooperrider 1994). On these issues and other matters of land health, a wide view seems essential.
Yet, despite the value of this organic vision, despite the organizing unity of land health, we have good reason to go slow. However confident we are in our ability to combine science and ethics, we need to pause before pulling out our erasers and getting rid of old lines. Land health as vision may have no need for boundaries, but the practice of land health raises different concerns, ones that we cannot wisely ignore. Land management is an activity engaged in by people—people who inevitably possess limited abilities, people with ingrained values and attitudes, people who usually can know well only a few places and whose love of the land can stretch too thin. Before erasing boundaries, we need to think about these people and about the alternative traditions identified in Frost's poem. To look only to land health is to ignore Frost's persistent, tradition-driven neighbor and to ignore, too, the potential benefits of the cooperative spirit that he helps sustain. Bounding the land, whatever its costs, has long had something to do with focusing and encouraging a landowner's care. It has had something to do, also, with the promotion of local community, which in turn has helped foster land health.
Excerpted from Stewardship Across Boundaries by Richard L. Knight, Peter B. Landres. Copyright © 1998 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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|Ch. 1||Bounded People, Boundless Land||15|
|Ch. 2||Ecological Effects of Administrative Boundaries||39|
|Ch. 3||Social Dimensions of Boundaries: Balancing Cooperation and Self-Interest||65|
|Ch. 4||Laws and Institutions in Cross-Boundary Stewardship||87|
|Ch. 5||Boundary Effects on Wilderness and Other Natural Areas||117|
|Ch. 6||Outdoor Recreation and Boundaries: Opportunities and Challenges||141|
|Ch. 7||Boundaries or Barriers: New Horizons for Conservation and Private Forests||159|
|Ch. 8||Boundaries Between Public and Private Lands: Defining Obstacles, Finding Solutions||175|
|Ch. 9||Big Cypress National Preserve: The Great Compromise||199|
|Ch. 10||Managing Grazing and Recreation Across Boundaries in the Big Cimarron Watershed||217|
|Ch. 11||Overcoming Boundaries: The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem||237|
|Ch. 12||Partnerships Across Park Boundaries: The Rincon Institute and Saguaro National Park||257|
|Ch. 13||Wilderness and Working Landscapes: The Adirondack Park As a Model Bioregion||279|
|Ch. 14||Cooperation: A Strategy for Achieving Stewardship Across Boundaries||299|
|Ch. 15||The Continent Indissoluble||325|
|Ch. 16||Integration: A Beginning for Landscape-Scale Stewardship||337|
|About the Contributors||347|
Posted May 1, 2009
This book will be a reminder and guide for action for professionals in the fields of managing designated USFWS and State Game and Fish areas, especially for those in close proximity to other State and US designated natural areas, such as, refuges, national monuments and parks plus BLM. The book can also provide the nonprofesional interested in enjoying and preserving the designated natural spaces with insights into the challenges and opportunities facing the decision makers managing and protecting as well as promoting our natural environments.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.