Walls: Enclosure and Ethics in the Modern Landscape

Walls: Enclosure and Ethics in the Modern Landscape

by Thomas Oles


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226199245
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/08/2015
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 1,278,658
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Thomas Oles is lecturer in landscape architecture at the University of Edinburgh. He has taught and practiced landscape architecture in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States and is the author of Go with Me: 50 Steps to Landscape Thinking.

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Enclosure and Ethics in the Modern Landscape

By Thomas Oles

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 Brian Thomas Oles
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-19938-2


Good Fences, Bad Walls

"Good fences make good neighbors. Fences don't make bad neighbors." This is what one United States senator said in spring 2006, justifying the amendment he had recently submitted to a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The amendment ordered the construction of 370 miles of triple-layer fencing, along with roads, lights, and sensors, on the boundary between the United States and Mexico. "Go to the San Diego border and talk with the people," he told the chamber. "There was lawlessness, drug dealing, gangs, and economic depression on both sides of the border. When they built the fence and brought that border under control, the economy on both sides of the fence blossomed, crime has fallen, and it is an entirely different place and a much better place. That is just the way it is."

Not all the senator's colleagues were swayed by this reasoning. One dismissed the fence as a "symbol for the right wing in American politics," while another condemned its "'fortress America' approach to real world problems." Immigration reform died in the House of Representatives several months later, but a new bill was put forward the following autumn. It more than doubled the length of the fence as originally proposed; one section would extend, unbroken, nearly four hundred miles. That bill passed both houses of Congress by wide margins.

The senator's rhetoric was typical of the moment. The phrase "good fences make good neighbors" was invoked again and again during the summer of 2006, a mantra of national enclosure chanted by politicians, the media, and ordinary citizens. One of the senator's colleagues in the House told that chamber: "I recently returned from a week-long trip to the Mexican-California border, and I am convinced of one thing. Good fences make good neighbors." "People may not always like fences," an engineering magazine instructed its audience, "but good fences make good neighbors, as other nations around the world are realizing." A reader of the Miami Herald wrote to "remind people who think that closing our borders is cruel that 'good fences make good neighbors.'" There was remarkably little difference, it seemed, between steel bollards and barbed wire separating two countries and an old hedge pruned by amiable suburbanites over the years.

These comments were mere drops in a global ocean. The phrase "good fences make good neighbors" routinely appears in a wide array of rhetorical contexts. In recent years it has been used to argue for marking the border between China and India, and to justify Australian naval maneuvers along that country's maritime boundary with Indonesia. It appeared, in English, in an Albanian newspaper detailing the state of that country's border with Greece. It was employed to explain relations between Singapore and Malaysia; the ethnic conflict in Kosovo; the Israeli occupation of the West Bank; and even fiscal policy in the United Kingdom. And of course it appeared in reference to fencing disputes of every conceivable kind, from a "VIP enclave" in Pretoria, to a walled dormitory in Montreal, to the fence built by a celebrity politician around her yard in Alaska. "Good fences make good neighbors" seems to be far more than a proverb. It has become one of the "metaphors we live by."

The transformation into metaphor is very recent. Throughout most of its history, when public order and even survival depended on separating livestock from crops, "good fences make good neighbors" was an axiom that simply stated common sense. The proverb was first recorded in Blum's Farmer's and Planter's Almanac, published in North Carolina in 1850, but it was centuries old even then. For his Elegant Extracts in 1797, English essayist and minister Vicesimus Knox translated the Spanish saying una pared entre doz vezinos guarda más la amistad, common throughout Spain and its colonies in the Middle Ages, as "a wall between both, best preserves friendship"; Ralph Waldo Emerson later transcribed the entry in his journal. Two centuries before that, the Reverend Ezekiel Rogers had touched on "the business of the Bounds" in a letter to John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rogers wrote, "I have thought, that a good fence helpeth to keepe peace between neighbors; but let us take heed that we make not a high stone wall, to keepe us from meeting." A good fence, in Rogers's estimation, was one that kept fields free of errant livestock but did not prevent contact between the people who tended them.

If good fences were associated with social harmony and public order, bad ones were widely taken to mark their absence. "Poor fences ever tell a sad story," wrote the Boston Cultivator in 1851. "When we see a farm with fences all going to decay the conviction is irresistible that some shocking legend is connected with its history." Emerson's friend Henry David Thoreau, in his own journal, defined "bad neighbors" as "they who suffer their neighbors' cattle to go at large because they don't want their ill will,—are afraid to anger them." He called people who failed to maintain their fences "abettors of the ill-doers." Good fences, in short, equaled good citizenship.

Yet people who say "good fences make good neighbors" today are unlikely to have this long history in mind. Instead, they are quoting, wittingly or unwittingly, a poem that is barely a century old. Since its original publication in 1914, Robert Frost's "Mending Wall" has all but merged in the popular imagination with the phrase that forms its twenty-seventh and forty-fifth lines. While this has assured the proverb a permanent place in American—and world—idiom, it has tended to reduce the poem to little more than a half-remembered apology for walls and fences everywhere. The words of one newspaper columnist during the debate over the United States border fence were symptomatic: "'Fences make good neighbors,' the poet said," he told his readers.

But he was wrong. The poet did not say, or mean, that at all.

Something There Is

New England soil is a bottomless reservoir of stone. In garden and park, yard and field, each spring thaw brings up a new supply of granite, gneiss, and schist, one infinitely small installment of the inheritance left by the Laurentide ice sheet as it made its retreat ten thousand years ago. Like their predecessors in all the rocky places of the world, New England farmers piled boulders into mile on mile of walls along fields, roads, and woods. The walls were continually being brought down by harsh winters and wandering livestock, and remaking them was one of the unavoidable, unceasing tasks of rural life. By the early nineteenth century, large parts of New England had been deforested, the landscape transformed into a lattice of walls draped over gentle hills.

Within a few decades, however, farmers, drawn by fertile lands to the west, abandoned all their work. The woods returned, blanketing almost all the lands that had been cleared. Walls that once divided fields and enclosed paddocks now crisscross woods or decay in stands of maple and white pine behind housing developments, shopping malls, and vacant lots. Like church steeples and town commons, the New England stone wall has become an icon of a lost and better time, enshrined on calendars and computer screens worldwide.

"Mending Wall" is rooted in this history. At first its subject seems quaint, even banal: two rural neighbors meeting in the first days of spring to fill the gaps that have appeared in the stone wall between their two properties. The opening lines alert the reader, however, that this will be more than a threnody for the practices of a bygone age. The poem is supposed to be about repairing a specific wall, but it begins by evoking a mysterious force that contrives to break apart walls in general:

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. (lines 1–4)

The awkward rhythm and contorted syntax of these opening lines heighten the strangeness of the "something" in question, a force that conspires to undermine language as much as things. But there is nothing mystical about this "something." It is frost, and the pun seems to ally the poem's narrator and author with nature itself against this and every wall. But there are other wall breakers in these first lines, too, hunters who leave "not one stone on a stone" (7) in their efforts to drive rabbits out of hiding (9). Whatever natural or human agents lie behind the wall's disintegration, their existence is attested only by the gaps they leave, which the narrator and his neighbor discover when spring comes ("No one has seen them made or heard them made, / But at spring mending-time we find them there" [10–11]).

"Mending Wall" thus opens not with the strength of walls, but with their essential fragility. Solid granite, it turns out, is no match for a cold snap or a determined hunter; without constant care, walls will always fall into ruin. The rest of the poem depicts one of the rituals of such care, the two neighbors slowly walking the length of the wall, gathering and replacing the boulders that have fallen out of it:

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. (13–16)

These parallel, end-stopped lines are very different from the poem's opening. They suggest not instability, not fragility, but steady and purposeful labor; the men have performed this ritual many times and need not speak to each other to do it right. But if the narrator and his neighbor know their task equally well, they understand it in very different ways. As his neighbor works on in silence, the narrator begins to wonder why this wall is necessary at all in a place devoid of livestock, when neither of the two men is a farmer:

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. (23–26)

The neighbor answers this witticism with five simple words: "good fences make good neighbors" (27). The blunt syntax of this phrase contrasts sharply with the verbal contortions of the poem's opening lines and might close the matter on a colder day. But "spring is the mischief" (28) in the narrator, and he presses on, albeit now in his own head:

... 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. (28–38)

This passage yields the second pun in the poem, even more outrageous than the first, and adds another agent, this time super natural, to the forces that want walls down. For the narrator, such play is all in the spirit of the thaw, mending wall "just another kind of outdoor game / One on a side" (21–22) in which the men must cast spells and issue threats to make the semi-animate stones remain in place ("Stay where you are until our backs are turned!" [19]).

But there is method in this play. The narrator wants his neighbor to justify the wall, to argue for its existence when the need that gave rise to it has vanished. He is not interested in swaying his neighbor through argument; he prods him so he will acknowledge "for himself" the absurdity of repairing the wall year after year. But the neighbor refuses to play this game. His only response is to quote again, because "he likes having thought of it so well," the words he has inherited from his forefathers: "good fences make good neighbors" (45). This obstinacy reduces him, in the poem's final lines, to a state of near barbarism in the narrator's eyes:

... 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. (38–42)

Like the wall itself, the neighbor is a remnant of an older, darker world, one where words are only repeated, never invented. The narrator wants to flood this world with light, to break apart its walls of language and stone, but his efforts run afoul of the neighbor's proverb, the poem's last line. "Good fences make good neighbors" is thus not the moral of "Mending Wall." It is the wall that bars the two men, and the poem, from going any further.

And yet this cannot be quite right. It is certainly too easy to reduce "Mending Wall" to the neighbor's proverb, as is widely done. But it is equally mistaken to read it as a denunciation of every wall as "primitive, fearful, irrational and hostile," as Monarch Notes would have readers think.

This becomes clear when the actions of the narrator are considered alongside his words. Despite his alliance with forces and beings that "want walls down," it is the narrator, not his neighbor, who initiates the mending ritual every spring ("I let my neighbor know beyond the hill" [12]), and it is he who fills the gaps left by hunters during the winter ("I have come after them and made repair" [6]). Not once in the poem does the narrator consider dismantling the wall or letting it disintegrate. Instead, he returns year after year to "walk the line." And while the neighbor might initially appear taciturn and, by poem's end, even prelinguistic, a closer reading suggests the narrator is the less communicative of the two men, his thoughts only one time emerging as speech. If only by repeating his favorite proverb, the neighbor does more to break the wall of silence between the two men.

If the wall embodies a darker, less civilized world, why does the narrator want to repair it? Why not simply let frost, hunters, elves break it apart? After all, there is no longer any practical need for the wall: cows no longer wander these fields, and apple trees do not leap across boundaries to eat pinecones. "There where it is we do not need the wall," the narrator reminds his neighbor (23). But this apparently straightforward statement begs an essential question. What, exactly, is a "need"? Saying that a wall no longer does one thing it once did is not at all the same as saying that it is no longer needed—and the narrator knows it. He returns to mend the wall not because it continues to serve some original purpose, but because for him the wall's utility, and its value, lies elsewhere.

The difference between the characters in "Mending Wall" is not their desire to mend the wall, then, but their reasons for doing so. For the neighbor, the wall is an object fixed in space much as a proverb is fixed in time, a guarantor of cordial, duly distant relations between the two men. It would be all to the good, no doubt, if the wall could continue to stand without human effort. For the narrator, however, the wall is something else entirely. It is less an object than a set of practices; less piled boulders than the walking beside them, the placing and replacing of one atop another every spring. For him the wall's value lies precisely in the fact that it does disintegrate. Its "function" is not, indeed perhaps never was, to separate livestock or define the boundary between two properties. It is to occasion the yearly ritual between the two men.

This is the heart of the narrator's grievance with his neighbor's proverb. It is not that the words "good fences make good neighbors" harbor no truth. It is that they are too easy, too automatic, too unthinking, that the neighbor will not "go behind" them, pull them down if only to put them up again for another year. It is this rebuilding, this breathing of new life into old forms of stone and language, that draws the narrator and makes him summon his neighbor year after year. It is no accident that the title of the poem is a gerund. Good fences do not make good neighbors; mending them does.

Finally, "Mending Wall" is less about two different men than about two parts of a single man. This reading is borne out by Frost's own words about the poem. "I've got a man there," he told one interviewer late in his life. "He's both of those people but he's man—both of them, he's a wall builder and a wall toppler. He makes boundaries and he breaks boundaries. That's man." Later, asked about the omission of the poem's first line from a Soviet anthology, Frost said: "I could have done better for them, probably, for the generality, by saying: 'Something there is that doesn't love a wall, / Something there is that does.' Why didn't I say that? I didn't mean that. I meant to leave that until later in the poem." Frost called the first and last lines—"something there is that doesn't love a wall" and "good fences make good neighbors"—"detachable statements" that one must read together in order to fully understand the poem. Thesis and antithesis, they express two impulses that coexist, often uneasily, in all people: the desire to enclose and the need to connect. Every wall or fence implies its own destruction, the persistent "something" that "wants it down." But this something must be reconciled, again and again, with the equally potent thing in us that wants it up.


Excerpted from Walls by Thomas Oles. Copyright © 2015 Brian Thomas Oles. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue xiii

1 Good Fences, Bad Walls 1

2 What Walls Were 20

3 Constructions of Sovereignty 66

4 Recovering the Wall 114

5 Toward an Ethics 154

Epilogue 173

Notes 185

Index 211

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