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Never Destroying, Forever Mending: The Wisdom of a Wall

July 27, 2020


People do not know what they are doing because they do not know what they are undoing.
—G.K. Chesterton

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

So muses Robert Frost’s farmer as he meets his neighbor at the sun-splashed boulder fence separating their properties. Already, it is New England springtime with soft mud and grass patch flattening under their heavy boots. With light breeze and cloudless sky, they begin their yearly walk. Squinting and already tanned, they smile at one another—old friends that they are. It is time, once again, to mend the wall.

Bending and lifting, setting and wedging, their work begins. As expected, the majority of oddly shaped stones rest atop one another. The wind has shifted some while the drifts of January have displaced others. Autumn’s hunters have been the most damaging “where they have left not one stone on a stone” in pursuit of the rabbit “to please the yelping dogs.”

Why should we repair this year after year, Frost’s farmer puckishly asks. Why put this work in? We are neighbors—friends, even. “My apple trees will never get across and eat the cones under [your] pines,” he jests. “Good fences make good neighbors,” comes the soft, grinning reply.

And so they walk on, neatly placing boulders like loaves and stones, like balls in their God-willed nooks and crannies.

To read Robert Frost’s 1914 poem Mending Wall with fresh eyes in 2020 is to encounter an entirely new work. Once, when I was young, I stood in full agreement with Frost’s teasing, though pressing, farmer. This wall is old and unnecessary, he reasons. It separates us simply to separate us. I am no threat to you, nor you to me. We have no roaming cattle and our trees grip the earth with no desire to wander. Surely we can tear it down, can’t we?

And the neighbor, to my younger eyes, was enigmatic and a bit distant. He repaired the wall “like a stone savage armed” and moved “in darkness . . . not of woods only and the shade of trees.” How could this stolid man resist the warmth and wisdom of Frost’s farmer? Why allow this unnecessary fence to stand? Why do good fences make good neighbors?

Today, I’m beginning to understand.

To be sure, Robert Frost’s farmer is idealistic—a reformer. “This fence testifies to man’s weakness, not to our strengths,” he seems to say. “We are better than that. Let us remove it and allow the graces to commence.” But the neighbor comes from a different, not necessarily darker, perspective. “You are right, I am sure,” he would answer quietly. “But this fence has stood for some time. I can’t even tell you who put it up and for what specific reason, but it has helped. It has a story all its own, like the innumerable laws and customs that have quietly yet capably governed the intercourse of man. It reminds of the mysterious mores and enduring values that course through our blood and reside in our marrow. In this stone edifice, I hear the quiet, but no less vital, urgings of our fathers and mothers—the legacy of doing the right thing. The unenforced oughts of helping a neighbor. The inescapable shoulds of making a sacrifice. This craggy fence reminds you of the frontiers of your home and the value of your hearth, and it also reminds me of mine. To me, it speaks of warm order and the assurance of eternity, of steadfastness and integrity. And, of course, it is a meeting place where you and I patch up what has been lost in the last year and found again, what has been forgotten and made new. And we can engage in discussion and continue our debate as we mend the wall for its many purposes. Never destroying, forever mending.

In 1929, the ingenious G.K. Chesterton wrote:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

Whether the Prince of Paradox learned this from the Bard of New England, we will never know. But in the end, we learn from both men (and even more from our own lived experiences) that honest reform is rooted in humility and honor. The humility to truly remember and the honor to thoughtfully preserve.

In an unsettled age, straining to reform, it is right to consider the earnest ideals of the farmer.

But we should also pause before the steadying wisdom of the neighbor. There is reason for some things to change, but also reason for some things to stay the same.