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A Fence Between Neighbors

When W.E.B. Du Bois traveled throughout the South in the late 1800s visiting families to profile in his book, "The Souls of Black Folk," he wrote of an area of Georgia in which "the houses lie in half ruin, or have wholly disappeared; the fences have flown, and the families are wandering in the world."

Later, he concluded:

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"I think I never before quite realized the place of the Fence in civilization. This is the Land of the Unfenced, where crouch on either hand scores of ugly one-room cabins, cheerless and dirty. Here lies the Negro problem in its naked dirt and penury. And here are no fences. But now and then the criss-cross rails or straight palings break into view, and then we know a touch of culture is near. Of course Harrison Gohagen, -- a quiet yellow man, young, smooth-faced, and diligent, -- of course he is lord of some hundred acres, and we expect to see a vision of well-kept rooms and fat beds and laughing children. For has he not fine fences?"

War and fences are no strangers to each other, and one is forced to ask which cause more trouble: set boundaries, which can be disputed; or lack of boundaries altogether? One of the most serious political conflicts over a boundary today swirls around the "security fence" being constructed to separate Israel from the West Bank.

Ancient Palestine was an agrarian society in which fences were critical to successful farming, and that part of the world has long seethed with boundary conflicts. Acknowledging this -- along with the human element of the dispute -- the Torah and the Talmud both weigh in on the importance of setting up clear lines of separation between properties.

But biblical law shows displeasure with those who remove fences and other boundary marks, rather than going into great detail about how to set the boundaries themselves. ("Thou shalt not remove thy neighbor's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the Lord thy God giveth thee to possess it" [Deuteronomy 19:14]). The Talmudic commentator Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) took this idea one step further, equating removal of a boundary with larceny: "He who removes his neighbor's landmark, and thus appropriates a portion of his neighbor's property, be it even a finger's breadth, if he does it with violence is a robber, and if he does it secretly is a thief."

Usually history and politics seem very far removed from my life as the mother of a toddler, and from the daily concerns of running our home in the suburbs.

But once our fence began to inflame passions, I saw the issue in a larger context. Could our local, miniature blowup over a few inches of land really be a manifestation among 21st-century neighborhood families of something larger and infinitely older?

For an answer, I turned to Robert Frost's well-known poem "Mending Wall," in which the narrator describes his neighbor, intent on his annual repair of the fence between their two properties:

. . . 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.

Critics have noted that Frost stops just short of the mythological link to which he alludes: a Roman ritual honoring Terminus, the god of boundaries. In this annual festival held in February, the Terminalia, neighbors reaffirmed the god's importance by walking along the stones that marked their shared boundaries, repairing the common wall as they made their way, and coming together to acknowledge the need for such markings.

Frost's crusty, barely verbal neighbor may not have known the habits of his ancient forebears, but he inherited their need for private space and the profound sense of peace that accompanies it.

Perhaps that is what we -- a new family in a new home -- had tapped into, without being able to express it, when we constructed our fence. Perhaps our neighbors, handicapped by a similar inability to articulate such a deep impulse, were reacting to it as well.

Soon after the contractors cleared away the detritus of our new fence, our neighbors made peace with it and with us. Our friendships have not suffered.

Most important, our son can run through the back yard until he collapses, exhausted, into a warm, heavy heap of baby, and we carry him up to his crib to rest until the next glorious summer morning.


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