"The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land,
said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough
to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society"
Out West — where my sense of place is firmly rooted — fences not only marked the edge of our land, but also bounded the more abstract real estate of safety, privacy and belonging. When I was very young, I believed a fence served only to keep something in, but by the time I could own a small piece of my own land, I understood it also served to keep things out.
Now I live in Southeast Texas, where no fence could repel Hurricane Rita. Now, almost two months after the storm, the meager perimeter-defense of my cedar-plank fence has finally been rebuilt. The edges of my property are again defined from within and without. After two months of a fabulously free life, my dog can venture no farther into the world — and the rest of that world can venture no closer than my padlocked gate without my invitation. Whether this pathetic wooden fence is a rampart or a cage, it doesn’t matter. It comforts me that it exists again. My ruined lawn, the wind-splayed rose garden, the greenish swimming pool, the few remaining leaf-stripped trees … they are all my private country again.
I have a colleague who shared a fence with a neighbor before Rita erased that particular divider between them. Now the rebuilding of the fence has become a bone of contention. Somebody called the cops, somebody else argued. After a weekend of angsting about what form a new barricade should take, my colleague settled on a “Love Thy Neighbor” theme. A worthy sentiment, indeed, at this time of year, and I can only imagine the message will be splashed in big letters … across the neighbor’s side of the fence. In neon paint.
I have crossed many boundaries in my life. Some international, some emotional, some merely lines in the sand, but almost always I did it willingly. So I’m not sure why it comforts me to be surrounded by fresh fences again. Maybe security? Maybe possessiveness? Maybe because what’s inside is mine, and what’s outside is an adventure. In this, I am just like my dog, who enjoyed immensely the freedom that comes from a fenceless world. A fence conundrum.
An old German proverb says: "A fence lasts three years, a dog lasts three fences, a horse lasts three dogs, and a man lasts three horses." Thanks to Hurricane Rita, my dog is on his second fence, and I am secure in my delusion (as Emerson would say) that a fence is something more than an easily destroyed row of planks.
“As long as our civilization is essentially one of property,
of fences, of exclusiveness, it will be mocked by delusions."
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson