Good fences make good neighbors. Our reflex response when we hear that statement is usually agreement. Of course, it makes perfect sense that good fences make good neighbors. Fences establish boundaries; they prevent arguments about whose property is whose. They help create order, keeping our children and pets inside and unwanted visitors outside. They offer privacy and protection. Even when housing developments establish rules disallowing fences because they detract from the appearance and clutter up the landscape, less intrusive and more natural types of “fencing” often take their place, such as shrubbery or underground fencing. The principle seems clear and most seem to agree: good fences make good neighbors.
The line comes from Robert Frost’s poem, “The Mending Wall.” In the poem, the narrator and his neighbor are engaged in their annual ritual of repairing (mending) the wall between their properties. Beginning “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” the narrator describes how gaps inevitably end up in the wall each year, creating the need for him and his neighbor to repair it. The poem continues with the account of the annual mending process, with the narrator noting that the wall isn’t really necessary because “He is all pine and I am an apple orchard./My apple trees will never get across/And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.” The neighbor responds, “Good fences make good neighbors,” apparently quoting something his father always said and he still believes. The narrator, however, isn’t so sure: “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.” And then the opening line is repeated, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” adding, “That wants it down.”
In 2014, it’s hard to read this poem and not think of other walls, like the modern-day Separation Wall built by Israel intended to protect against Palestinian violence and the partial fence between the United States and Mexico to keep out undocumented immigrants. And in light of everything that has happened this summer in Gaza and along the U.S. border, it’s hard not to wonder: How have those walls worked out? Have they made good neighbors?
In the poem, both parties work together to mend the wall each year. Even though the narrator is not sure the fence is needed, he works with his neighbor who continues to think the fence is a good thing. The wall between their properties isn’t giving offense. With the Israel/Palestine Separation Wall and the U.S./Mexico border fence, the decision to create the fences was more unilateral – one side (Israel in one case and the U.S. in the other) decided to wall out those from the other side who were and are still seen to be dangerous or threatening to national security and sovereignty. The reasons for these walls are understandable; the problems seem insurmountable and chronic, and nothing seems to work. The conventional wisdom when the walls were built and still this summer is that Israel has a right to defend itself, and the United States can’t just let everyone in who wants to come. However, the walls were not created by mutual agreement, and there is no annual ritual on both sides of the walls to repair the holes, both literal and figurative, only more tension and violence.
How have the walls worked out? Have they or will they ever resolve the underlying issues that seemed to make them necessary in the first place? Who are they offending? What is the Palestinian view of the Separation Wall; how do Mexicans and others from Central America view the border fence?
What if there were more mutuality in these two contemporary situations, more like what seems to be the case in the poem? Every year the neighbors in the poem take a day out of their schedules and come together to fix the holes and talk to each other – the person who thinks the wall is unnecessary initiating the task, and the other clinging to the belief that the wall is a good thing, but both committed to making the relationship work, wall or not. Granted, the Separation Wall and the U.S./Mexico border fence are attempts to solve seemingly intractable problems of long-standing; they’re not simple borders between two generally friendly neighbors as in the poem. The neighbors in the poem have it really easy by comparison. But what lessons might we learn from them and their mending wall?
I’m struck by the title of the poem – “The Mending Wall.” The title isn’t “mending the wall,” which seems to be more what the poem is about. Instead, the word mending is used as an adjective to describe the wall. It’s a wall for mending, or a wall that is mending. Perhaps one thing the poem is really about is how the annual ritual of coming together to mend the holes in the wall also has the potential to mend relationships and build understanding between the people on both sides of the wall. While they engage in the common task of mending the wall, the neighbors talk. The narrator raises the question, again, about why they need the fence. The neighbor responds, again, that “good fences make good neighbors.” They have different perspectives, but they both participate in the ritual, and they both agree to keep the fence between them and to maintain it together. They apparently leave at the end of the day knowing they will come back together next year, and in the meantime, the fence is there by mutual consent.
In our world today, there are so many walls – literal and figurative – between individual people and between nations. This summer we’ve seen that neither the Separation Wall in Israel/Palestine nor the U.S./Mexico border fence seems to have contributed to much understanding. Where are the mending walls? Where is the commitment on all sides – not just in these two situations but in so many others – to come together regularly to repair the holes in the walls, to have another conversation with each other, to build the kind of understanding that will keep the peace for another year?