Good Fences / Good Neighbors?

Good Fences / Good Neighbors?

Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” begins with the line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”  The “something” may refer to the nature of fields and pastures to shrink and swell as winters come and go; Frost describes upper boulders spilled in the sun following winter’s freeze, gaps in the wall wide enough for two people to walk abreast.  Walls inevitably need mending.  The narrator is also in touch with whatever that something is as he attempts to convince his neighbor that there is little need for a wall to separate their properties:

“He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder

If I could put a notion in his head:

“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it

Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out,

And to whom I was like to give offence.”


I’d like to take the time to celebrate the phrase, “Spring is the mischief in me,” and I may come back to it in writing about spring or mischief, but this piece is about fences and neighbors, so I’ll jump to the, “What I was walling in or walling out”.


I like our neighbor, Max, a genial mountain man who now and again comes down from his forested twenty acres in the Applegate River Valley to camp out on the property immediately adjacent to ours.  There is an unincorporated village of Applegate, but Max’s mountain is not near any settlement; his place is above the Big Foot trap line, above Squaw Lake.  He packs in supplies from Ruch, home of the annual paragliding “Rat Race” off Woodrat Mountain, but for the most part makes do with what he finds on the mountain.  As he explains, “It’s not a good idea to get rid of anything because you never know when you’ll need parts to make something else.”

That philosophy has served Max well in the Applegate and has been employed in his flatland property next to ours as well.  I’ve never counted up the number of vehicles in various states of decline on his property; blackberry bramble completely covers some of the older trucks, a moving van, two backhoes, and at least one RV.  It happens that I have a fascination with the jeep utility wagons made by Willys-Overland Motors in the 1950’s; Max has three of them  (maybe four?) lined up just across the wire fence on the eastern end of our pasture.  They are mostly bramble covered now, but I can still see the distinctive Willys grille and think about trying to restore one until I remember what it was like to drive a jeep with no power steering, no power brakes, and the suspension of a Conestoga wagon.  Several mid-70’s Volkswagen sedans (can’t see enough to tell which models) are also almost buried, but a Toyota HiLux pickup truck stands on its nose in a clearing next to Max’s workshop, giving us a landmark by which to guide visitors to our driveway.

“Yeah, if you see a blue truck sticking straight up just on the other side of the fence, you are in the right driveway.”

The truck is visible, as is the salute to entropy that is Max’s property, because a beetle blight killed seven of the cedars that once lined our driveway  and separated the two properties.  We hated to see the trees go, and at the time were not delighted to have a clear view of Max-land, but our dirt and gravel drive is long enough, and curves uphill enough, and time works its magic surely enough, that now we drive past the upright Toyota without giving it a second glance.

This morning we took the dogs off for a long walk, noting that the fence post supporting the gate to the pasture was leaning a bit towards Max’s yard.  We’ve had the snowstorm of the century and a solid week of rain, so we did expect some clean-up when the snow finally melted.  As we turned up the driveway on our return, however, we noticed that the gate was no longer closed.  Three footsteps later we realized that an entire stretch of fencing had been taken out by a falling cedar, fully forty feet tall.  Gate gone, fence gone, forty feet of tree had flattened all in its path from our fence line to the middle of Max’s property.

As I’ve indicated, Max is rarely home as he prefers life on his mountain, but today I found him in his workshop, explained that he now had forty feet of tree to deal with, and asked how he wanted me to proceed, assuming that I’d be calling an arborist and spending a small fortune to bring a crew with specialized equipment to the scene of the disaster.

Nah, Max grabbed a chainsaw and went to work.

When I say chainsaw, I mean the smallest, most delicate saw I had ever seen; this looked like a Fisher Price chainsaw.  Starting at the middle where the girth of the tree was roughly four feet across, Max patiently sliced the tree in half.  It had been a healthy tree, so its roots were both massive and still deep in the hillside; it was not easy to move.  Max fired up his Boss backhoe loader/plow, drove it up our drive into our pasture, tried using the bucket to nudge the roots out of the ground, then attached a chain to the roots and attempted to rock the roots loose.  I had never seen a two thousand pound backhoe lifted off the ground, but, as Max later reminded me, “no job is fun without popping a few wheelies”.

Let me pause for a moment to suggest that a neighbor in need is a neighbor with a two thousand pound backhoe loader/plow.

I was of little (no) use, juggling lengths of chain that snapped when Max attempted to pull the truck of the tree out of its place, but I tried to let Max know how much I appreciated his willingness to dive into this project.  He hopped off the gigantic machine, grabbed his tiny saw and went to work cutting the five foot wide base of the tree so that he had only to pull the weight of the roots rather than the roots and the bottom half of the tree.

I tried to give Max money to cover the cost of gas for his monster backhoe and to compensate him for the time he had spent clearing the corner of our property.

He didn’t want to take it.

“What are neighbors for?” he asked as he punched me in the shoulder.  We’ve seen Max six or seven times in the ten years we’ve had this property.  We wave and have been friendly enough, but we had made up stories about Max, about his cars, about the yard.  Until this morning, I hadn’t spent more than five minutes talking with him.  I truly met him for the first time today, and yet he quickly and generously offered neighborly assistance without being asked.

The neighbor in Frost’s poem suggests that it is distance and separation that allows neighbors to remain civil, but Frost maintains that something there is that doesn’t love walls.

“I’d ask to know

What I was walling in or walling out”

Until the fence went down, we had been walling out a person I am honored to know.  Humbled and grateful, I’ve got it in mind to be a better neighbor.

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