Define. Defend. Fend. Fence.
Fences define [us]. Separate us. (And sell stolen bikes on Craigslist.)
Fences, of the inanimate kind, define space between wild and tame, human and animal, domestic and feral, public and private. They define space between tribes, countries, neighbors. Sometimes fences are natural barriers, erected from nature’s might, like the Andes between Chile and Argentina or the Pyrenees between Spain and France.
When you define something, you give it clarity, visibility, sharpness, contrast. You stay there; I belong here. Children mark their side of the room or the couch or car seat. “You cannot cross this line,” I must’ve said 10,000 times to my sister as we were growing up. But this often human construct of fences defies another aspect of human nature. We mingle. We explore. We engage and trade.
Cole Porter wrote the classic “Don’t Fence Me in” that’s been sung by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Hope (on the Muppet Show!), Gene Autry, Willie Nelson, Clint Eastwood, Dean Martin, John Wayne, The Killers, Roy Rogers, Bing Crosby...and my personal favorite, David Byrne.
Oh give me land, lots of land, and the starry skies above
Don't fence me in
Let me ride through the wide open country that I love
Don't fence me in
Human instincts to pursue freedom compete with human instincts to mark our territory and stake a claim. Waves of globalization and democracy over the past century have lost traction in recent years. When the Berlin Wall was torn down a quarter-century ago, there were 16 border fences around the world. Today, there are 65 either completed or under construction. Evidently Sarah Palin wasn’t the only one who misinterpreted Robert Frost’s polemic “Mending Wall”.
Moving from a national scale to the local level, the fence, as marker of place denotes not just whether you are in or out, but where you are more broadly, culturally, regionally. A fence is our aspiration and a statement about where we are in life -- not just about what side of the fence we’re on -- but what kind of fence do we have?
Barbed-wire? Chain-link? White-picket?
The western fence --buck and rail-- is as iconic of its geographical location as the New England rock wall. You can’t drive a post into the ground in Wyoming, so buck and rail fences sit on top of the ground. In a land so open and vast, these primitive wooden a-frame structures keep cattle from roaming free, but also impede moose, elk and other large mammals .
I came to Wyoming from New England, where stone walls permeate the landscape, built more as a convenient way to clear the soil from rocks, than as a means to divide property or pen animals. The fence enclosing my parents’ backyard in suburban Washington, DC, was installed to keep deer out, but it hasn’t stopped the rabbits or fox or raccoons from stealing tomatoes and digging up roots. The white picket fence denotes both personal property rights and openness. At waist high, it still enables communication. There are no sharp wires to cut yourself on. In the Middle East and much of Latin America, stucco walls often line neighborhood streets, separating private property from public space, or one country from the next.
Cities rarely have fences. With population density comes limited land; the “commons” offer an alternative to the battle between public and private. Especially in moments of crises, common space, unfenced public space, is where democracy takes shape: think Tahrir Square in Cairo, Gezi Park in Istanbul and Zuccotti Park in New York City.
But in this climate of haves and the rest of us, it feels like the dream of the white picket fence is becoming one where we are separated from each other by six-foot tall chain link or barbed wire. Maybe our dream of the white picket fence is a bit off. It’s too easily distorted and sold for something harsher, cheaper, less inviting.