April 18th 2012; Fences

Last weekend, I went home to Wisconsin to rebuild a fence that was originally made by my great grandfather and had most likely not been worked on since probably the early sixties if not earlier.  It was like a walk back in time.  The fence seemed to me to be a metaphor about the promises and hopeful anticipation of that era which had now ended up as broken and sagging dreams, had been crowed out by thorns, and now fifty years later was in most areas empty and missing promises.  It was a sorry sight.

I soon realized that I was becoming too reflective as this is just a fence and like other spring projects, this is just something to do, and something to fix.  It has nothing to do with the larger issues of life…or does it?

Let us start looking at this basically.  Under Wisconsin law, if cattle or other animals are being pastured by one of the parties of the border, a landowner is responsible for the right half of a fence while facing his neighbor’s property.  The law goes on in specific detail, to describe what types of fences are considered legal, who to report violations to, and more and more minutia, essentially pages and pages of this and that.  There seems to be a lot for our politicians to worry about in fences and fence law, maybe there is more to my metaphor.  Fences are a big deal!

This brings up the whole theory of fences, do we build them to keep things in, or to keep things out.  There is an old country saying that, “good fences make good neighbors.”  There is a lot too this, but why?  Why do we live the way we do?  Are we “afraid,” of what’s on the other side of the fence or do we just want to “control” those on the other side of the fence?

You can learn a lot about people and even society by driving around the neighborhood and looking at fences.  Some are in disrepair, others built like Fort Knox, some are ornate, and others, just plain ugly eyesores.  We once lived in northern Wisconsin and this family had a beautiful lake lot filled with perfect pine trees.  His dream was to cut down the trees and build a wooded privacy fence.  Yes, we couldn’t look at his house but also, he lost his beautiful view not to mention all of his trees.  Oddly he was one of the people purporting green living, I guess ‘green’ is best when it doesn’t involve trees?

I have also seen some pretty sophisticated security gates in some pretty out-of-the-way places.  Out in west Texas, an oil office had a crash proof front gate to prevent oil field salesman from visiting.  A simple ‘no’ seemed cheaper than a five hundred thousand dollar fence.  I have also seen some security fences that make me wonder what illegal activity might be occurring on the other side.  In those cases, I never had enough courage to actually knock.  Maybe they were just paranoid?

At my office this week the neighbor lady said we should plant a grove of lilacs so that we wouldn’t be “bothered” with the view of the back of her house.  One of my employees joked that we could also build an eight foot high cedar fence.  She thought that was an even better idea. We were kidding.

What are we as people afraid of? Can we build a fence high enough to keep all prying eyes from ever seeing us?  Is heaven some mystical place with a fence so high that no one can ever see in or a fence with no way in, or out for that matter?

I also ponder the whole deal with barb-wire.  Does barb wire actually keep cattle out better than non-barbed wire?  How many cattle get infections from the barbs?  Is electric better, cheaper alternative?  Some ranches, it appears use old wooded fences to keep the cattle in. so is that better?

My Great-Grandfather Willy, who died just before I was born, was a Swedish immigrant to America.  Sweden has a different idea of land ownership and use than America.  Every man (and woman) has the right to traverse through the country, pick berries, mushroom, and do whatever as long as they aren’t harming anything.  There is no concept of trespassing there.  In their case, fences are definitely built to keep things in.

There is a saying I read in the Swedish news site called the Local that had an interesting quote on fences.  I don’t remember who coined it.  It doesn’t matter which side of the fence you get off on sometimes. What matters most is getting off.  Maybe that is the lesson from my Swedish past.  Fences are for animals and so at the end of it all, my new fence was to keep animals in.  People need to interact and be beyond fences or thinking of borders.  We all need to live a more open and interactive life with those that live around us.  We also don’t really own the land; we are just using it for a while.  Maybe that is also something good to think about.

Or maybe it was just a fence we built?

Thanks to the fencing crew!


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