October 6, 2018
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” said the very astute Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall. I first heard that poem when I was a kid living in Illinois, and I shrugged it off both because I was young and because I lived in a place that didn’t systematically erect walls between neighbors, and so it seemed like a moot point. I read it again as a teenager living in Arizona, and something in my heart began to resonate with Frost’s words.
Backyard fences are funny things. Depending on where you live, you probably take their existence (or non-existence) as a given thing. As a kid living in suburban Illinois, fences between yards either didn’t exist, or existed in the form of low, plant-covered chain-link or picket fences. Neighbors could see each other. They knew when Wanda was gardening or Bob was grilling. If the kids were out playing, they’d play with each other.
When I was eleven years old, my family moved to Arizona, land of six-foot-high cinder block walls encircling most houses. Arizona would make Frost’s neighbor proud (“Good fences make good neighbors,” said he), and in a typical neighborhood, no one really knows if Wanda is gardening or Bob is grilling or the kids are playing. So in Arizona (and many other West Coast states), people go out into their pools and eat their food and hang out with their friends and family, and just a few feet away the next door neighbor is doing the very same thing, but there is a fortress-like wall that stands between them and the obligation of having to interact with each other.
Listen, friends. I’m an introvert. I often take comfort in a wall. Walls can feel cozy, not cold, and there are plenty of times that I want a wall around me — both literally and figuratively — to give me some solitude and keep the world at bay. I don’t hate a wall. But I don’t love one either.
At our home, we live on a street that’s a little unusual for Arizona, in more ways than one. One of those ways is that we do in fact have a chain link fence instead of cinder block between us and our neighbors. My six year old, Foss, adores the couple that lives next door to us, and if he spots Fred working out in his yard, Foss goes running. My little, extroverted boy and the sweet, older man next door have had many a conversation through that chain link fence, and if the fence wasn’t there, I know Foss would invite himself onto their back porch on a regular basis. Would that be a good thing? Maybe our neighbors are glad that there’s a fence keeping a precocious six-year old off their property, but I’m inclined to think otherwise. They strike me very much as the type of people who would be only too delighted to see Foss walking up their back steps.
Where did these backyard fences come from? I’m sure it has something to do with property delineations, but it’s got to be more than that. On our RV trip so far, we have visited friends in Lawrence, KS (no fences), in Cedar Rapids, IA (no fences), in Zionsville, IN (no fences), in Athens, GA (no fences), and in Chelsea, AR (no fences). In Ohio we saw the low, plant-y kinds of fences that I’ve also seen sometimes in Illinois and Wisconsin. Same in New Jersey and Virginia. You know what we haven’t seen in any of those places? Towering, cinder block walls.
When we were in the Chicago area, our friends Kaci and Jeremy and their oldest two kids drove an hour away from their own home to intercept us in our travels and have dinner together. I loved our whole time with them, brief though it was, and one of my favorite things was just hearing about their life in a Chicago suburb. Since we’ve known them, they’ve moved from Flagstaff, Arizona to Orange County, California and now to Illinois, and there’s no denying that the culture of each of those places is different. In talking about the lack of fences in Midwestern backyards, they told about their neighbor’s backyard — that a previous owner had put up a wall for some reason, and when the next owner moved in, the first thing they and their neighbors did was take down the wall.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.
One may argue that fences don’t make a person friendly or unfriendly, but there’s a reason people notice and comment on the friendliness of folks in places like the Midwest. It’s not only about fences, but I think it’s easier to tear down our figurative walls when we don’t have literal ones between us.
In several of the places we’ve visited, when we comment on the lack of fences, we hear stories of spontaneous shared dinners with neighbors, and we’ve witnessed the ease with which they approach one another’s houses. It can be so casual and easy — pop in, say hello, ask a question, move on. It is a lovely thing to witness, and it’s been doing my heart good.
On this RV trip, we of course take no yard and no fences with us. Everywhere we go, we step out of our door and we are in the world, and our existence imposes on the existence of those around us. At an RV park we are steps away from strangers who are living the same way we are. When we park in a friend’s yard we invite ourselves into their home to shower, drink coffee, eat breakfast, and do laundry. We’re not pretending to be autonomous, because we obviously aren’t. Our time with most of our friends has been incredibly short but also incredibly meaningful, because when we step into each other’s lives, however briefly, our walls come down.
I’m not going to go home and start tearing down backyard fences. But I am going to savor these days of fence-less living.