One of my favorite poems is Mending Wall by Robert Frost. There’s a good chance you studied it in a high school English class, but it’s one of the most often misunderstood poems around. It begins:
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it …
Perhaps too many students forget the beginning by the middle of the poem and drift into daydreaming by the end of it. And, therefore, they forget the whole point of the poem.
While you’ll often hear the line “Good fences make good neighbors,” from the poem, the line was the exact opposite of Frost’s main message. The narrator in the poem wanted his neighbor to think beyond their annual tradition of meeting to repair the wall, to understand that, simply because the neighbor’s father had fed him the “Good fences” line for many years, they didn’t need the wall between them. His neighbor refused to listen and doggedly repeated what his father had taught him about good fences.
Some fences are good and necessary. Here a fence keeps sheep and goats penned in until they can get their dose of medicine. The sheep stares out through the fence as if saying, “I don’t love this wall.”
But not all walls and not all fences are good or necessary. The poem’s narrator assures us of this in the second half of the poem:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
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 the 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 it I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
I recently visited Mission San Juan Capistrano for the first time, too early for the swallows to come back from their winter hideaway. A tour guide told of wall repairs that had discouraged the swallows from returning. The swallows had loved the nooks and crannies of the ancient crumbling wall, but earthquakes and rain and gravity were tearing them down. When the repairs—necessary to save the structures—smoothed out walls, the swallows hunted different nesting grounds away from the Mission property. The caretakers at the Mission hope they’ve saved or added enough new crannies to attract the birds again.
So I had already been thinking about mending walls and putting up fences when the Super Bowl rolled around this past Sunday. And, along with it, that ad with the wall. And I felt hopeful. Then the next day, news broke that the ad wasn’t what so many of us thought we had seen.
I thought about a recent conversation with my brother and hearing him say we’re all watching the same movie but seeing very different things.
He’s right (as he so often is). And whether it’s a poem by Frost, repair work to save a mission, or an ambiguous ad about a hotly-debated political decision to build a wall, maybe we only see what we want to see, what we believe and hope to be true. Maybe the “good fences” camp can only ever see the good of the fences, and maybe the “doesn’t love a wall” camp can only ever see the good of tearing it down (or not building it in the first place).
Could we all leave our entrenched places and take a look around at the other camp? Even just for a moment? Could the “good fences” folks acknowledge and try to understand the desires of the “doesn’t love a wall” group to protect nature and preserve human dignity and compassion? Could the “doesn’t love a wall” folks try to understand the desire for safety and security or the anger about financial struggles that could cause a backlash against immigrants?
We could throw rocks at each other from our opposing camps, or we could meet our neighbors, as Frost’s narrator did, and try to change the conversation.
We don’t know if the narrator was ever able to break through to his neighbor or how many years it might have taken. But I like to picture that wall in disrepair, with children from both sides meeting at its ruins to play among the apple trees and the pine trees.