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Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall”—An Ode to Annoying Neighbors Everywhere

Image courtesy of artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Do good fences make good neighbors? 

In the Robert Frost Poem, Mending Wall, both the narrator and the neighbor annually work on fixing the wall that separates their properties; however, the narrator questions whether a wall is necessary.  Neither of them have livestock to corral, so what are they trying to keep in our out?  The neighbor just repeats, “good fences make good neighbors” because this is what his father used to say.  Does the neighbor really want the wall, or is he just a traditionalist bent on carrying on a generational habit?  The narrator is more progressive and would prefer to eliminate the wall entirely, though he doesn’t destroy it since neither man can come to an agreement.

Well, this is what people who have nothing to do but sit around and analyze poetry have to say about it.  I have a different and more modern spin based on real life.  Good fences DO make good neighbors when your neighbors are idiots.

Fences Discourage Discourse with Annoying Neighbors

Well, in a perfect world they do.  This doesn’t always work.  Our neighbors have an above-ground pool, so they are required to have a privacy fence.  This is how we know God exists.  He knew ahead of time we would need an avoidance mechanism.

We only boast a chain link fence, which is far too porous and transparent.  It provides no camouflage.  There is no sneaking into our backyard to enjoy peace and tranquility.  We are like 12-point bucks in the middle of an open meadow—perfect targets for verbal bullets shot from mouths that never turn on the safety.
 
The married couple beside us are quite odd indeed.  The husband corners us to talk but has nothing to say.  We just stare at each other in awkward silence.  The wife is like fly paper—once she sticks you in conversation, you can’t break free.  Their child is a wild, undisciplined imp who creates a vortex of destruction.  She is a robot veiled in flesh whose circuitry often misfires causing her to repeat annoying phrases like, “Can I help you plant flowers?  Can I help you plant flowers?  Can I help you plant flowers?” when I dare to think I can garden in solitude.
 
Fences Keep Neighbors in Their Own Yards

Except for the times they don’t.  It was the first big snow of the season.  Our kids excitedly bundled up, grabbed their shovels, ice block makers, and sleds and headed to the backyard for snowball fights, building snow cats, and barreling down the slide into a pile of white powder. Snow is an insulation that makes winter quieter, which means we weren’t outside for two seconds before the untamed heathen next door heard us and bounded for our gate.
 
“Can she come over to play?” the father asked.
     
“Sorry,” I apologized, “but our gate is frozen shut so she can’t get inside.”
 
No matter.  Her father hoisted her over the fence anyway, relieved to burden someone else with his unruly waif.  After all, he couldn’t be expected to jump the high fence himself to guard her nuclear personality from detonating on our property.

The mom is equally presumptuous.  She’s the type who would laugh at a “Go Away” welcome mat instead of connecting the dots.  That lock on our gate?  Oh, that’s not for her either, which is why she is perfectly comfortable unlocking it and parking herself on one of our deck chairs.  Imagine if someone struck a conversation with you a mere two inches from your face and body.  Alarm bells would be ringing in your head at the violation of your personal space.  Back yards are like a mullet—it’s a private party back there, so don’t enter without an invitation, code word, or secret knock.
      
Just imagine when we try to spend time in our front yard where there is no fence!  The little snippet drags all of our toys from the garage and litters them on the lawn.  She uses rocks from our kids’ collection to create mini land mines for our unsuspecting mower blade.
   
Yes, without a fence in the front yard, my happy plans for weeding, mulching, and playing in the dirt with newly acquired blooms are thwarted when the mom spies me and descends with her barrage of narcissistic millennial jabber, absolutely unconcerned she is interrupting my scheduled work.  The lack of front fencing even emboldens our neighbors to stash their overflow of refuse into our cans on trash day without permission.
    
Even when fences serve as little more than speed bumps, they are better than nothing.

Fences Provide Cover

Fences would provide cover if decks didn’t elevate you to eye level with your neighbors.
 
My deck is my happy spot.  It’s where I steal time to relax and read and look at recipes while our kids play.  Try as I might to shield myself behind the seven foot table umbrella, the deck betrays me.  Our neighbors apparently were never taught the rudeness of interrupting people when they are eating.  How many picnics on our deck have been disrupted by neighbors thinking we must be spoken to because we can be seen—even with barbecue sauce dripping from our lips and our mouths too full to respond.
 
Try as we might to avoid contact, our cold shoulders and stiffened backs do not spare us.  Any smoke spiraling up from our backyard fire pit is misconstrued as a “come eat s’mores with us” signal. 

Fences provide cover only if they are high enough and topped with barbed wire.
 
Fences Hide Clutter

I like order.  Our neighbors do not.  When they finish with tools, pool accessories, bags of mulch, extension cords, and garden hoses, these items are dropped in the yard and forgotten.  Firewood rots in jumbled rows, a beacon to hungry termites.  Weeds stand guard, prepared to strangle any bud that dares to dream of opening its petals.  Flowers grow better in their clogged gutters than in the ground. Landscape stones no longer see the light of day, and a peeling deck frets it might cave under the weight of an ill-placed footstep.

Oh, we know what’s happening on the other side of that fence, but despite its molding and bowing frame, what is out of our sights is momentarily out of our minds. 
    
Fences Create Boundaries

Yes, the narrator of the Robert Frost poem is like the no-borders-no-sovereignty radicals of today’s politic.  Frost was ahead of his time.  However, for those of us who want to embrace the privileges of legal citizenship in our own backyards while remaining shielded from unwelcome intrusion, then we must maintain our fences and build our structures to keep out the idiots, even if the idiots are just pesky neighbors.  Robert Frost’s neighbor in the poem is just more polite than we are. 
  
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 neighbour 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 neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? 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 offence.
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 neighbours."

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