Mending fences

CarolinaFireJournal - Ken Farmer
Ken Farmer Barnyard Management
07/25/2010 -

The spring of each year is a time that people on the farm get out and start to check the fence line. Basically you walk the fence around the on your property to see if a tree has fallen on the fence, or maybe a creek has washed out some fence poles, or some other damage has happened. You look for loose or stretched wires and try to make sure the fences are in good order and strong.  As the spring arrives the animals always tend to think that tender green grass just over the fence is sweeter and better than the very same grass they have on their side. Furthermore, with Spring comes the apparent desire for every animal to see what lies beyond their fenced in world, and with that the fences are tested to their limits.  Walking the fence line and checking your fence is a scheduled event every year and sometimes more than once.


Anytime you start a discussion on fences, most people immediately refer to the very popular poem written by Robert Frost in 1914. The poem is actually titled “Mending Wall” and contains the often quoted line that “good fences make good neighbors.” The poem is used to be an important element of review and study when I was in school, and can be found in many books of favorite poetry. Frost died in 1963 at the age of 89 and was considered by many to be “America’s poet” at his death.

The poem is based upon a real conversation the Frost had with his French Canadian neighbor Napoleon Guay at Frost’s New Hampshire farm.  Guay is quoted by Frost twice as saying “good fences make good neighbors” as his sole logic for the stone wall. Frost talks about the limited need for the fence between a simple grove of pine trees and an apple orchard. He speaks to the hard work by both men during the year to keep the fence in good condition. Frost’s neighbor makes the statement that “good fences make good neighbors” but cannot ever tell Frost why there is a fence in the first place! 

So, what is the story of the fence? We all have them in today’s modern world. We fence in our yards, our swimming pools, our dogs, our cows, our chickens and our horses! The word “fence” comes from the Middle English word “fens” which is short for “defens”.  From this comes the obvious word “defense” in today’s language. Fencing has been has been used for centuries to protect property, define property lines, and serve as a shield or barrier for noise, safety and protection. The work also is used to describe the middle person in the distribution of stolen property and as name for the Olympic sport of lightweight saber dueling.

In history fences are important. We all know that in the Bible the Garden of Eden has a wall surrounding it, and the Wall of Jericho fell after Joshua had the trumpets play.  The Great Wall of China is so large it can be seen from outer space and in recent times we all celebrated the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1990. Physical walls are an important part of our lives.

Fences have changed the outcome of battles and historical events. During the Battle of Gettysburg the struggle to defend Culp’s Hill on Friday, July 3rd was successful for the Union troops as they built an effective breastworks or stone fence from where they were able to defend their position site in spite of a larger force of Confederate troops during a seven hour intense firefight.

The repair and mending of fences is where I spent a good part of my time growing up.  We had a small herd of about 50 Herford beef cattle.  We always seemed to get that knock on the door at two a.m. from a neighbor who had found several cows wandering in the road!  Dad would then wake me and my brother up; say a few choice words and out we would go to round them up before they got hit by a motorist. Mending fences was just something you did as a normal part of the duties on the farm. Posts would rot out; barbed wire would fail; nature would send a tree crashing into the fence or any number of things, people or animals would cause a failure somewhere along the fence line. The lesson was simple. Fences fail to work for a variety of reasons and you must always expect them to break.

There are many fences we build in our lives. Some are necessary and some are not. Many of these fences serve to provide order and protect ourselves from others. Others are built out of frustration and fear. We have problems when people crash or break our fences down. It upsets our balance and causes us to quickly set up new and stronger defense mechanisms. I am often confused with people who beak them down. It seems they believe they belong with you inside that fence, and they refuse to understand that you have built the fence for a good reason. Sometimes they think that they have some right to what is behind the fence. Seldom do these people understand or respect the reason for the fence. They operate as they are blind to the feelings of others.

Some fences are built in our lives to define our boundaries and limits. As a parent you often tell your child “not to cross that line” of bad behavior or improper actions. More often than not, they still cross that line and must pay the consequences. If you have no limits and or boundaries established, then you have no rules or no way to know when you have gone too far astray in your life.

In summary, Robert Frost could not explain or understand the need for the wall in his poem. The walls we build are needed by us to give us definition and establish both our boundaries and our limits.  These “fences” are important to us. We should all walk our fence line on a regular basis to make sure our fences are strong and will protect us we need them.

Just don’t forget to put in a few gates to let others come into your life when you want and need them.

Comments & Ratings

  5/5/2011 6:09:56 PM
SuperUser Account 

Mending Fences - Makes Good Neighbors 
As a kid in school, even before I read the poem and discussed Frost's quote on mending fences, I was well acquainted with the phrase that my grandmother had passed down to me.

"Grandma Mary" used it enough times that it stuck with me. It was a phrase used when speaking of repairing relationships and making sure that everything was OK between two people that might not have talked in a while, or perhaps might have spent some time near each other, but hadn't really had time for a meaningful talk in a while.

An opener such as, "Well, I think it's best time we 'mend fences,'" might be used to start a conversation between friends who'd spent the winter apart and needed to walk the line between farms and relationships, as you said, check the fences for cracks, working together on a common goal to refurbish the line, but at the same time, spending the day talking and catching up. It seems that the best outcome for mending fences was the time spent in the relationship, preventing problems before they occurr.

I used this phrase myself with Charles Sosnik, an editor with the magazine publisher after I had been out for a while and needed to catch up with him. Although he was a fine upstanding Southern gentleman, he hadn't heard my grandma's phrase before!

I enjoyed reading the article and seeing that others keep the literal and figurative meaning of the phrase alive.

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