The last ice age surely had its way with our corner of the world. They say the ice sheet was a mile or more thick here, which is a mind boggling verticality. It is almost beyond imagining that anything could emerge from that frozen compression with the ability to grow, but it did. Within a few thousand years the land here, in Gordon Lightfoot’s line, grew green dark forests too silent to be real – though real they were. They aren’t real now though, and the silence is a different one. In the early 1800’s this valley we live in was plundered with a gross efficiency that, if you really let it in, could complete the job of addling your imagination. From here came the straightest, truest, stoutest white pines there were. They were turned into spar and beam and board and mast, into war ships and slave ships and trading ships and salvation ships – pretty much indistinguishable one from the other. When they returned to this valley as purveyors and enforcers of the Old Order, sailing up the now tumult-tamed river that gives this place its name, they returned to nothing. Which means they returned to farms. I’ve wondered often: what is a farm to a tree? It must be a desert.
Most of my fields are deserts with a thin disguise of twitch grass in the summers. We get less snow every year now, and in winter the fields look like the shallow white lakes that might appear in your dreams, acres wide and inches deep. This past winter we stood on a wind blasted knoll and imagined our way towards grazing animals come spring. We had to build from scratch, since no farmer before me with an instinct for the possible would have grazed animals on that glacial till. We began by stomping the outline of a few buildings in the snow, trying to site them so that late winter sun would fill them with pale, thin light to warm the newborns some. But we ended up where pretty much every farmer does: siting fences. I submit to you that every planting or growing enterprise has and will in time come down to that, to a fence. It goes further: I’d guess that the rudimentary comfort and sense of safety our way of life affords us in the dominant culture of North America, the goofy sense of security that allows us for better and worse to plan and proceed, owes pretty much everything to a fence.
The kind of fences available now in the farm supply stores are models of ruthless efficiency, razor thin, almost invisible from head on, more persuasive and relentless than any politician or preacher you might name. Dig a few cedar posts into the ground, winch the wire with a come-along from the tow bar of a truck and nail the staples, and something happens to the place and to you. It has a shadowy, conjuring magic I hadn’t counted on: by the end of three days of work there was a proper field where there used to be sweet fern, gravel and the odd gopher hole, and I involuntarily had become a kind of lord of all I surveyed. There was order, suddenly, inside the line, and some kind of low grade chaos in the bush outside it, and ne’er the twain should meet, and I had done all that with wire. That, friends, is the unsuspected power of a fence.
This may be fairly well known: the quiet little fact is that it was the invention of barbed wire – not disease, not locomotives, not wars of attrition or residential schools – that efficiently concluded the days of free ranging up and down the prairies of North America in the 19th century, and it was barbed wire fence that afforded the governments of the day the solution to their ‘Indian problem’. And it was farms and ranches, not cities, that killed off what was left of a centuries-old nomadic life on this continent within one lifetime, and it is farms and ranches that keep it killed in my lifetime. What is not so well known is the etymology of the Old English phrase ‘beyond the pale’. Now it means ‘unsupportable, intolerable, or not fit for proper company’, but ancestrally it meant ‘on the other side of the boundary, or wall, or fence’. Splice these two meanings together, and you find that from the days when the English language was in its infancy, and long before that, fences have been used socially, agriculturally and tribally to segregate what people prefer from what they prohibit, and to tame what they fear.
Fences are the high water mark of our notorious domestication of animals, plants, water, all manner of once-wild and running things – including our human competitors and neighbours, and our own human soul, if I speak honestly. The truth is not that good fences make good neighbours: good fences make neighbours irrelevant. They relieve us of the dirty work of working things out with neighbours, over and over. Watch how people living side by side, without a fence, calculate to the inch the likely property line and enforce it with a lawn mower. Somebody in that story is itching for a fence, for the remarkable power of kingdom-making that it has. I would guess that when the revolutions come again, if they are for real this time, they might begin by burning down the fences and declaring that the commons have been reinstated.
This morning we walked the perimeter of the field with the dogs, as we often do, the mist rising off the mountain behind the farm and the sheep nosing dewy twitch grass under the young white pines, and I wrestled again the ancestral pull of boundaries and intolerances. There’s nothing prudent about it, to be sure, but something of the old chaos lovers in my line rose up and whispered to me, “Well, what if you left the gate open?” I didn’t, but I might.