What person of a certain age doesn’t remember Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” the poem taught to and dissected by generations of school children? If not able to recite the verse, surely one recalls the takeaway line from the flinty Frost, who quotes his fellow stone-wall mender as declaring, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Not once, but twice.
Of course, Frost, who led a notoriously disordered personal life, was referring to the stone walls of his native New Hampshire, delineating farms, pastures, and orchards owned by unusually possessive Yankees. Here in suburban West Orange, we have a few stone walls remaining, but, alas, no farms. (A farmer’s market doesn’t count.) The local structures I’m thinking about enclosed the former Carteret School at the crest of the First Mountain, of which the second Mrs. Thomas Edison was a trustee; another fronted the order of Augustinian Recollects on Ridgeway Avenue; and a third anchored the Rock Spring Inn and Rock Spring Water Company on Northfield Avenue.
The posh, private Carteret School was demolished years ago, and an eldercare campus now occupies the site. The Augustinian Recollects tract, with its massive main stone building and satellite structures, has been rebranded as the Empty Cloud monastery and serves as a Buddhist retreat. The Rock Spring Inn poured its last libation in the aughts, while the water company changed hands and turned off its roadside spigot, which offered free refreshment to jug-toting motorists and passersby. But no matter how significantly the sites and occupants shifted over the decades, the walls at each location endured and acquired more patina (or grime) with each passing year.
If you want to see a truly mended stone wall, head to Roseland, where a low-lying structure had to be brought back from the brink of one-rock-at-a-time collapse a decade ago and is now touched up periodically. It begins at the corner of Roseland and Harrison avenues and fringes the town’s library and tennis courts. The construction more readily matches the one in Frost’s poem, since it doesn’t contain mortar and depends on the keen eye of the mender for choosing and placing stones with the best fit and greatest structural integrity in a jigsaw-like equation.
History has yielded its share of elaborate and storied walls. Consider the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall, Hadrian’s Wall, the walled fortress of Troy, medieval walled cities, and the walls between Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods in Ulster. More recently, the United States, in fits and starts, has tried to stand up a wall at its border with Mexico, provoking political and humanitarian firestorms as each section has been added (or subtracted). Israel maintains a security wall along the territories, and the verdict on its effectiveness likely will be measured a few generations downstream. However, when it was proposed, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said, “A good fence will bring, I believe, good friendship.”
In all of these instances, failure stalked both sides of the wall. The builders (or blunderers) seemed to be nearly as restricted by their creations as those they were trying to keep at bay, allowing a false sense of security to cloud their thinking. And those who were walled-off only hardened in their resolve to oppose the ones trying to hem them in. The Chinese sacrificed centuries and a sophisticated civilization while attempting to keep out “foreign devils. The Berlin Wall, emblematic of the rot and repression in the Soviet bloc, toppled under the force of sledgehammers wielded mostly by young men and women who were born after the wall’s overnight construction. The Romans abandoned Hadrian’s Wall in a manner reminiscent of our pullout from Afghanistan, and the sectarian walls of Northern Ireland were rendered mostly moot by negotiations between relative moderates on both sides.
Walls still are mostly abstractions to me. However, their smaller relatives — fences — aren’t. Fence ubiquity in suburbia has grown like Topsy, with the impact once again hitting home when my new neighbor informed me a few weeks ago that he would be fencing his sloping backyard (we live on the Second Mountain) for the safety of his youngsters, a newborn and a 4-year-old. He took great pains to seek my permission, although construction would fall squarely on his property, and apologized for a medium-sized tree that would have to be felled. My neighbor also indicated that my wife and I were more than welcome to visit the kids on their home turf.
A cumulative sense of sadness developed — about the fence, about the tree, and about not being able to see his youngsters run and play. I’m nearing 80, and this will probably be the last group of neighborhood children I glimpse growing up. I calculate that I’ve already been through four generational rodeos since my parents bought the house in 1957. First, the Feigens, the Greenbergs, the Fleishers, the Altmans, and the Goldsteins. Next, the Oppenheimers, the Myersons, the Farbers, and the Sprinzens. Then the Kras, the Novicks, and the Yadwebs. And, finally, the Katzes and several other families whose names I don’t yet know. My family and I were very friendly with some, merely neighborly with others, but got along with all.
The backyards of my youth in Newark and teens in West Orange were essentially free range. You could romp across properties without obstruction. Now, except for the front of my house, I will be fenced in on three sides by neighbors. I do, however, have a powerful tool in counteracting, or at least camouflaging, the effect. It is called shrubbery. Lots and lots of it; forsythia and evergreens and hydrangeas and tall, billowing grasses. Over the years, I’ve planted, replenished, and repositioned the flora so that the fences aren’t visible. My greenbelt effect may not rival formal British gardens or woodsier French chateaus, but the screening efforts are successful, even hiding my see-through deer fence — except that the deer clearly see through it and leap over in a single bound.
I do pay a price for this aesthetic because it puts me at a slight remove from my neighbors. I feel fortunate to live on a street (actually a terrace) with its mix of modern Orthodox, secular Jews, African Americans, Asian Americans, and Indian Americans. Homes are well maintained, lawns manicured, civility reigns, and friendships develop. The neighborhood’s composition is far more diverse than when my family moved in, and that is a good thing. Yet I feel fences may contribute to a silo mentality or, worse, encourage isolation, which in these toxic times, troubles me. Building neighborhood community (not the busybody type) is essential.
Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall,” written in blank verse in 1914, brings together two people walking a common structure that’s in need of repair. One questions its justification and usefulness; the other is unyielding in the view that it makes better neighbors. Which side of the fence do you fall on?
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 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. 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.”