Angelia McLean: Country Mouse City Mouse 6-13-11
June 13, 2011
“Oh, give me land, lots of land under starry skies above, don’t fence me in …” Know that tune? Cole Porter’s music with a Robert Fletcher helping with lyrics. Sung by many crooners such as Bing Crosby, the Andrews Sisters, Frankie Laine and Roy Rogers. Even a contemporary version by Willie Nelson can be found.
Fences have been around for generations. One can trace the history of the word to old English where the word “fens” was short for “defens” which, as you can see, means “defense.” I can understand the need for defending your territory back when civilization was a little fuzzier and stealing one’s neighbor’s cows, sheep or wife was more common. But have you considered what fences have done to our modern-day civilization?
A number of years ago, we had a chain link fence in our backyard butting up to the alleyway. Living behind us was a 70 something widowed lady who happened to be the first person to greet us with homemade banana bread as we moved in. She, too, had a chain link but what both fences had in common is the fact that we could see one another, talk to one another and help each other over the fence. She’d ask about this new fangled idea of raised garden beds. I’d ask her about tomatoes (she was good at growing them) and we both shared a cry when hail obliterated our gardens one year. My point is we were true neighbors; maybe helping her out with a light bulb change, or she reminding us our garage door wasn’t shut. We moved away almost at the same time she passed away. Her house was ‘remodeled’ and popped by some young couple that also put up a privacy fence. Those that expect en suite baths off the master bedroom and subzero appliances as they renovated it and put up a privacy fence bought our house. These people have no idea the wonderful conversations they will never experience or the partnership of a neighbor when you see who lives near you. They have now closed the door with their fences in so many ways.
We create walled communities that somehow make the homeowners feel exclusive, apart and separate from the riffraff. Before a house is built, the cement wall is ‘invitingly’ in place. There are also the ‘gated communities’ complete with the bored, pimply security guy texting on his phone. I suppose the mailman gets a full body scan before entering that neighborhood. Even dead people get fences! Some of the more elaborate cemetery plots are surrounded by ornate wrought iron. Are they trying to keep the zombies in or the tomb raiders out?
Fences definitely keep the garbage out and I refer to actual garbage. Notice all the trash that piles up against a fence or wall? That pristine golf course inside surrounded by a chain link fence dressed with trash stuck to the outside perimeter? With no one seeing beyond their personal castle walls, they don’t notice anything beyond their realm.
In the last 20-30 years, this trend of creating one’s own territory using fences and walled communities has led us to become self-centered, rude, disconnected and selfish. Where is the sense of community? The responsibility that a person has to others with whom he shares a space? The idea that everyone forms the whole, not as individual pieces? It has become “all about me” and “mine, mine, mine” instead of “all about us” and “ours.” Perhaps in a perfect world without fences we might be able to settle our differences and come together in a consensus to solve our country’s problems because we actually have to look that other person in the eye.
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This month is my neighborhood’s annual garden tour where a number of homes open their yards up to ticketed participants who want to see the beauty and variety of others’ gardens. It makes for a great fundraiser for our community’s food bank but had these gardens always been visible to neighbors, and weren’t surrounded by privacy fences, what an even more show stopping neighborhood this could be and you wouldn’t need a ticket!
Fences are lost potential; at least those that go up in cities and surrounding communities are. What can be solved, created or changed by a group rather than an individual is endless. Fences are physical and tangible objects, yes, and serve a purpose. But they also are metaphors for what our society has become. The usage of fences in the country verses the city is quite the opposite. Fences in the country are needed to keep things in while fences in the city are used to keep things out. Keep the cattle in, of course, but be a good neighbor; don’t fence me in.