Yesterday during my commute home from work, I took note of all the different fences in use on my route. If you think about the role of a fence, you will conclude there are many. Some are to keep things out, some to keep things in. Some are decorative, some are functional. We use fences to prevent visual access to things such as a scrap yard. We use fences to protect occupants or to protect visitors in the case of a zoo, both at the same time. We use guard rails to keep cars from careening into the abyss. As a distant cousin once removed, we even use walls to define and defend territories such as the Great Wall (fence) of China.

Under scrutiny, the history of a fence really doesn’t conjure up such pleasant mental imagery. The concept reeks of battle, defiance and conflict. Even the pleasant little, white ones, or cedar “stockade” fences scattered around the neighborhood typically have pointed tips on them. A detail that gets it’s functional reference from more brutal times (I like to think it’s just so they shed water faster).


(a classic)

We have a little “hen fence” around our sunflowers so the rabbits don’t eat the fresh, little sprigs as they pop up through the soil in the spring. Travels through Kentucky will reveal miles of fencing. Many highway mountain passes will feature snow fences at the top of peaks to prevent plumes from building.

In the broadest definition, the role of a fence is to instill control. Through that control we feel some sense of peace.

This morning I was reading about an authors canoe journey with some friends in Canada. The article accurately stated how much at peace one feels when partaking in a wilderness experience. Any one who has been to a National Park can hopefully relate to this. Whether it’s studying the path of a winding river in a valley floor 4,500 feet below, or lying flat on your back at midnight to study the stars, you encounter a moment of wonder and clarity.


(Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park)

I find this profoundly ironic. Both scenarios provide an element of peace. Standing behind a towering fence, or standing waist deep in a trout stream at dusk, each one enables you to catch your breath. Yet if we didn’t have access to both, either one would become over-bearing.

One quiet July morning several years ago, I was walking through Aspen on my way to Zele’s in hopes that a coffee would snap me out of my slumber. Along the way, I got into a disscusion about living there with a local. She said she loved it, but once in a while she just had to get out of the valley because “you get to a point where you feel like the mountains are just gonna close in on ya”.

I propose these scenarios exist in our homes as well. The whole act of organizing is in essence, an act of gaining control. Yet in our homes, we need a place where we can unplug from the world. Kids need structure but they need a place where they can let loose, get creative and explore. Parents need to keep their laundered shirts organized, but they also need a place to “just be”. In a kitchen, the dinner plates are stacked with machined perfection, but it’s understood that the counter top can be a proverbial yard sale when it comes time to bake Christmas cookies. In our utensil drawer, there is a little fence to keep the spoons from mingling with the forks. Yet right next to that is a place near the back door where you are allowed to pile your shoes with as much reckless abandonment as you can possibly muster.

In closing I suspect the best we can hope for is to understand that a need exists for both fences and gates, in our homes and in our lives. Perhaps understanding this will somehow transpire into a wildly peaceful existence.


3 thoughts on “Fence

  1. Bless you, Jon, for not misquoting Robert Frost on fences. The title, “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” is ironic. In the poem the narrator points out that the stone fence serves no purpose, but his neighbor speaks the title sentence.

    Needing enclosure, needing openness.
    Needing security, needing wildness.
    Hating being penned or forbidden.
    Loving boundaries, transcending boundaries.

    In the classical Japanese house, so I have read, the rooms used for sleeping appeared peacefully empty, because the bedding and most other objects were put away in wood cabinets around the walls. The kitchen, however, was a roaring, crowded, convivial, busy place in use, and remained busy looking at rest.

    Another thought-provoking post…

  2. Irenen, this is a very rich topic. A mentor of mine told me about a school yard study he reviewed (he is a therapist). They monitored the kids behavior on the play ground and noted that the kids used the entire yard for their activities. Then removed the fences from the perimeter of the playground and repeated the observation and discovered the kids predominately stayed in the center of the yard.

    Thanks for chiming in… I always enjoy your input.

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