Good Fences Make . . . Us Human

IMG_3058Do you have a fence where you live? I bet you do, even if it’s very basic. Did you choose it or was it there when you moved in? What is your fence for? Is it meant to keep your pets in the yard? To give you privacy from neighbors? To add to the “look” of your home? Is it your ideal fence?

I love a good fence. I don’t think of fences as “keeping out” or “keeping in” so much as establishing boundaries that humans seem to want and need. In addition, I think we communicate about who we are by the fences we build and maintain.

On the farm of my youth, it was different. We needed our fences. Some were made of stone, not because it was attractive or especially great wall-building material, but because the soil was poor and farmers needed to pick stone out of the fields, to prepare the ground for planting. Stone walls are often where they are because, simply put, the farmers needed a place to put the stones. The more miles of stone wall you see on a farm, the worse the soil used to be.

file0001006375413A lot of the fences on the farm were barbed wire or electrical fences, again for practical purposes. I remember lessons in how to cross a barbed wire fence safely, and how to help another person get through. Foot on the lowest wire, spaced between the barbs, push down. Hand on the next higher wire, spaced between the barbs, pull up. Watch other person climb gingerly through and place hand on head to protect head from barbs. My sister and I did this 1000 times as we rambled.

These fences were meant to keep the cows where we could find them, and the cows were always getting out. Snowmobilers and hunters were the bane of the farmers’ existence—they would cut barbed wire and electric fences to get where they wanted to go.

And then, in the spring, when the cows were let out of the barn and their long winter incarceration, they would find every hole in every fence. Usually in the evening, when Lost in Space was on TV. Right about the time the Robot would intone “Danger, Will Robinson, danger,” my sister and I would be called to go out and help corral the animals again. And we’d never know what happened to Will Robinson. I’ve been bitter toward snowmobilers and hunters ever since.

For most of us, in the 21st century, our fences are no longer meant to keep the cattle home or keep undesirables out—we have fences to mark our spaces, solve a problem, and to communicate about who we are.

At our house we use tall cedar hedges next to the road as a fence; they were here when we moved in but we maintain them carefully because we like the look and they give tons of privacy.

IMG_3229We use a stretch of fence along the driveway, made of old cedar split rails, to say, “enjoy our yard but from a distance” but also to communicate “we fit in” and “we like it ‘old-school’.” The split rail fence is very common in rural upstate New York, and traditional. We got the rails for an old farmer, who had been clearing a long-overgrown piece of land, and found them stacked up along the side. One of his ancestors had meant to build a fence and never did get around to it. We now enjoy the fruit of his labors, and that special look, at our place.

IMG_3234If you have any doubt about this idea that we use fences to communicate about who we are, check out the number of boards on Pinterest that are dedicated to fences. I don’t know why anything about Pinterest would surprise me, but I was astounded by the extent to which people are establishing fence wishlists!

My favorite fence, for sheer impractical exuberance, as well as for fitting into its environment and telling us something about the owner, is this spectacular Adirondack twig fence (here and at beginning of post).

IMG_3048IMG_3052On a small road, in the middle of nowhere, someone put a lot of energy into this cedar fence. This fence does what fences do—marks territory and says, “This is mine,” but it says so much more about the person who built it. He (or she) took a considerable amount of time to make a fence that communicates about a commitment to a traditional Adirondack vernacular of using limbs and twigs as decoration on furniture and homes. It’s rustic, but never plain. It also, to me, communicates a sense of humor and whimsy. It seems designed to make a statement and to make passersby smile. It is certainly designed to be noticed!

So, what does your ideal fence tell us about you? Are you homey and nostalgic, loving a white picket fence? Are you private and maybe a little introverted, looking for a high fence that blocks prying eyes? Are you creative and artsy? Laid back and rustic? Show me your fence and I’ll tell you who you are!

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23 thoughts on “Good Fences Make . . . Us Human

  1. I live in the city, and houses are close together, so fences are for privacy and keeping dogs in. One house that I walk by in the neighborhood has a fenced front with a sign on the gate that says “Dogs Close Gate” which always makes me laugh because I read it as instructions to the dogs.

  2. Where my father comes from (the west of Ireland), it’s full of dry stone (ie no cement) walls, that show how poor that land was and is. I live in the city so it’s all high walls keeping people out and us in! I prefer low walls or fences.

    • I was thinking about Ireland when I wrote that part! We saw TINY fields surrounded by walls–it’s a wonder they could grow anything at all. When Irish immigrants came here even the worst land must’ve seemed grand to them!

  3. I enjoyed the pictures of the various fences. I particularly like the one of the stone wall. I can remember often seeing similar fences when I was a child, but I think that most are gone now. I’m not sure what happened to them–maybe they got pushed aside as farm fields got larger over the years.

  4. I enjoyed your “post” (!) on fences, in all their variety. We inherited our fence. I would prefer not to have a fence but, being next to a busy road (and with a dog), we need to have a fence. I am a little worried about what you might say if you saw my fence; you might have to conclude that I was dishevelled and falling apart!!!! (which sometimes is true :)) Our fence came unstuck a bit in our earthquakes and has not yet been repaired because the repair work comes under our earthquake insurance and it is not a priority for the insurers.

    • I won’t judge you! Fences are often necessary, as you say, but not beloved. I actually love them, in almost all their manifestations. What is your fence made of?

      • Brick columns with wooden slats in between. It is the brick work that has come unstuck 😦 If possible I would like a different fence but the insurers will only replace like with like,so it’s unlikely to happen.

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