Monday, April 27, 2015

Good Fences make Good Neighbors

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out.   - Frost

I need to get some bricks to mark off my garden.  My broccoli is gone.  So is my corn.  And my  peas.

Earlier this spring, I ploughed an ad hoc garden (described here), and I had planted some fun stuff in it. Red sweet corn.  Peas - both sweet peas and sugar peas.  Broccoli.  Whatever seeds I had left over from last year's planting got tossed in that area, too, with a little bit of miracle-gro topsoil placed atop.

The new plants had thrived.

My bottle gourd, with encroaching weeds.
The adjacent grass had started to creep in a little, but I wasn't worried.  I just wanted to give them enough time to get big, and then I would do some weeding.  They looked good, and I walked back to that area every morning to admire their progress.

Last week, the guys who cut the neighbor's yard ('my' garden was actually carved out of 'his' yard, meaning that I was already disrespecting some boundaries) came through with a weedeater to take care of the grass along the fence behind my garden.

In addition to the grass, they cut down the five-inch tall corn (which, to be fair, looks an AWFUL lot like five-inch tall grass).  One of the six plants might survive. They cut down the broccoli (which, to be fair, looks an AWFUL lot like a three-inch tall weed).  They did less damage to the peas, which were located in the center of the plot of garden.  And although they look like weeds, too, they also hug the ground better.

But every last plant got subjected to the scythe. What did I do wrong?

Answer: I did not demarcate.

Borders are important.  National borders, property boundaries, ritual space, and hunting grounds all have to be demarcated carefully, so that people know when they move from, say, LAWN, into GARDEN.  Otherwise, corn gets weed-ate.

It isn't just gardens.  In Uptown New Orleans, our parking situation is the fastest way to get a war started.  I know of neighbors who do not speak to the people who live thirty inches from the bedroom windo - who have mortal enmity declared because of misunderstandings about a five-by-ten foot rectangle of road frontage usufructery. We even keep our deities carefully enclosed in beautiful, walled-in spaces, in the hopes that they will not bother us the rest of the time - when we are not making our weekly (or twice a year) pilgrimages to their altars.

Demarcating space is important. Dogs and cats mark their space, using pheremone markers.  Territorality is a normal, natural tendency.  I suspect that paramecia space themselves out across the microscope slide on the basis of clearly defined lines that their cilia can identify at a moment's notice.

We do it, too.  Sometimes, it is a boundary marker, like a survey line.  (And boundary markers and their associated rituals go back well past the limits of recorded history). Sometimes, it is less visible.  We choose seats in the movie theater or the doctor's office or the neighborhood bar on a complex set of territory rules and social cues.  Don't believe it?  Go and sit right next to the only other person watching Paul Blart 2 and see what his reaction is.

Weed?  Corn?
How do we know what is yours and what is mine, if we don't demarcate the boundary?  If we do not announce to the world what is mine (keep out!) and what is yours, then how do we follow the rules for ownership?

How do we let the gardeners know that these plants are not weeds?

Answer: we place a border around it.  A fence.  A brick border.  A set of strings.  Something to demarcate the boundary between outside the circle and inside the circle.

Fence in my yard.  Put a motion detection alarm around my property.  Surveillance cameras.  'No trespassing' signage.  (Although I don't think that worked so well for the farmer known as Mr. MacGregor). Guns to protect my property (that part didn't work so well for Peter Rabbit...)

And then we are surprised when we feel alienated.  When we don't know our neighbors.  When we feel isolated and alone.  We take drugs or drink sazeracs to get rid of that feeling.

What happens if we start looking to build bridges, instead?  What happens if we look to close the gap, rather than putting out signs that say MINE!, complete with razor wire and electric fence?

Sure.  People will still break into our cars (it happened to us this morning).  Sure, people will still murder, and trespass and injure.  But....

But if we start responding with love, will that change things?  If we 'turn the other cheek'?  If we 'bake for them two' (one of the best opinion stories I have ever read here)?  Can we stop protecting our borders and maybe spend some time on the front porch?

That was what Frost was describing in his famous poem.  Where there is no need for boundaries, it is silly to build them, just because we always have.  "Something there is that does not love a wall".... well, yeah.  Frost!

Meanwhile, I am buying some bricks.  Enclosing my garden.  Letting the weed-eater know that some things are to be left to grow.

1 comment: said...

Beautiful post! I wrote about the same poem a couple of years ago. But I never made the connection before: The something knocking over the stone walls was Frost! :)