I was in the back yard with my dog, Lucy, this morning when I started reflecting on the effects of a fence between one of my neighbors and me. More importantly, it made me think about the lack of a fence between another neighbor and me.
Ever since I’ve lived here, there’s been a fence separating me from the guy in the back. I’ve met him. I speak if we both happen to be outside. But that’s about it. There’s no fence between a neighbor on the side and me. They’re nice enough folks. We speak if we both happen to be outside, but there’s nothing else between us, good or bad.
But with the neighbors on the side, there have been minor irritations over the years. Someone who lived with them for awhile parked on the grass next to the street, frequently letting much of his car end up way over on my grass. It didn’t really make any difference. I wasn’t using it anyway. But it was my yard, not his, so it bugged me.
This same neighbor put in a tiny temporary swimming pool for the summer this year in the back yard. It’s no big deal, but it’s just slightly on my side. Not by a lot. But a little. It’s not a big deal, because I don’t really use the spot for anything, but it still bugs me. (After the little pool was filled and in use — when I went back to see what was going on — the neighbor said, “This is a little on your side, but you don’t mind, do you?” What do you say if you know you’re going to continue living next to someone and don’t want to make an enemy?)
You could argue that I just need to get over being irritated at people encroaching on my yard in small ways. I’d argue instead that my reaction is typical of human nature. We have a need to know what’s ours and what we can count on being left alone. We need boundaries, whether it’s property or psychology.
I’ve never had any of these problems with the guy on the other side of the fence. Why? Well, maybe he’s just a super fellow who would never do anything to irritate me. But maybe — just maybe — the fence has something to do with it.
In the early 20th century, Robert Frost wrote a famous poem called “Mending Wall” about two New England neighbors meeting to make minor repairs to the wall that separates their property. (The art above is inspired by the poem.) In the poem, the narrator is questioning the value of making the repairs. He’s questioning whether it’s even necessary to have a wall since both parties know where the property line is. The other neighbor, though, just says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
This line dates to something like the 17th century in England, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, so it’s pretty clear that Frost wasn’t trying to make that obvious a point. He was apparently just asking the question of whether it’s true, with one character taking the traditional side and the narrator questioning whether it’s true or not. The poem ends without any obvious resolution, but I get the impression that the guy arguing for the wall is the one who Frost grudgingly agrees with.
Property is very important to humans. Shared property is a nightmare. The more we know what’s ours — and are willing to respect the rights of others to what’s not ours — the fewer conflicts there are. I know it’s popular in some circles today to talk about cities or entire countries as collective “villages,” but that’s not what I want. I want fences. I want the right to build my kind of community or city without you having the right to tell me how I have to do it or what rules I have to adopt (and vice versa).
Good fences make good neighbors in the physical sense, but good legal fences — allowing different people to live by different sets of rules that they choose for themselves — make good neighbors in a bigger sense. We need to move away from the idea that a majority has the right to make decisions for the rest of us. We need to erect the legal fences that allow groups of us to live under the rules we choose for ourselves. Those kinds of fences would be good for all of us.
Note: If you like the nice art that accompanies this article, you can buy it from the artist’s site, but it’s a little too pricy for most of us.