You can’t go far without encountering a fence, yet they are so common we hardly see them. Humble or elaborate, they blend in with buildings, roads, hillsides and trees. Fences are among the most expressive features of our landscape, telegraphing messages and rendering visible an entire social order.
Fences are barriers, separations and enclosures. They offer protection, establish a sense of limits and boundary, and provide a measure of possession that has both a psychological and physical impact. Despite their ubiquity, we have long been conflicted about such structures. “Good fences make good neighbors,” advises a character in Robert Frost’s poem “Mending Wall.” But “don’t fence me in,” is the refrain of Cole Porter’s song of that name where the narrator “wants to ride thru the wide open country.”
A tall chain-link fence warns us to keep out; topped with razor wire the message is indisputable. A picket fence guiding us to a walkway, perhaps with an arbor, invites us in. A six-foot high board or stockade fence illustrates a landowner’s desire for privacy, while post-and-rail politely marks property lines. Pipe-rail fences remain a practical element of many old mill villages, while wrought iron implies elegance. Barbed wire suggests cows or sheep; horizontal boards, horses; and little paper flags, an invisible dog fence.
Fences are so critical to an orderly society that some of Connecticut’s most ancient statutes still on the books address them. More than century-and-a-half before zoning was upheld by the courts in the 1920s to regulate the use and location of homes and businesses, state law prescribed in tedious detail the proper layout and construction of fences, not just in rural areas, but in cities as well. To this day, legislation specifies, for example, that a legally sufficient fence within developed areas is “a tight board fence four and one-half feet high, an open picket fence four feet high, the openings between pickets not to exceed four inches, or a slat rail fence four feet high, the opening between slats not to exceed six inches, the lower slat not over six inches from the ground . . . .”
Rooted in our agricultural past, these laws established reliable boundaries between properties and solved the “Little Boy Blue” problem of cows in the corn. Inasmuch as wandering livestock and growing crops are incompatible, the law held that a property owner could be compensated for animal damage only if a sufficient fence existed. As has been the case for generations, town selectmen remain the grand arbiters of fences, and current law allows them the princely sum of two dollars a day as “fence viewers.”
The duty of fence viewing is so obscure that most selectmen have no inkling they possess such authority. But in some rural areas even twenty-first century officials must sometimes perform this old-fashioned duty. A retired first selectman who served a dozen years leading a small town in the northwest part of the state told me with a roll of the eyes how he was recruited to play Solomon with irate neighbors. Usually they argued over boundaries, roaming cattle, or dogs. It’s a telling commentary, he observed, that laws over three centuries old remain the remedy for contemporary problems. Two or three disputes a year taught him that people harbor surprisingly powerful feelings about their fences, probably because their personal sense of space is involved, and real estate is the most tangible of large financial investments.
Indeed, fences are not just constructions of boards, wire, chain and stone; they often manifest the disposition and aspirations of the people and institutions that have built them. As both material and symbolic objects, fences can embody a range of strongly held and sometimes conflicting emotion. Such matters are not just local and personal, but as President Trump’s proposed “great, great, wall” along the U.S. boarder with Mexico so clearly illustrates, they can be national or even international.
In the wake of the horrible events of September 11, 2001, the National Park Service advocated for a fence around Independence Hall in Philadelphia. The plan erupted into a bitter dispute between liberty and security. Although the fence would have been of colonial character, using brick and wrought iron, many people were upset at the notion of creating a fortress out of a cradle of freedom. The fence was never built as designed and instead a series of chains between waist high bollards was erected around part of the building to channel pedestrian traffic. More important that the physical fence itself, were the questions it posed about how open our society can remain in an age of terrorism.
As the Trump wall has demonstrated, the symbolism of fences is so significant that merely the name given to such structures can stir bitter controversy. Depending on your viewpoint, the object is a “wall,” “fence,” “secure border,” “racist barrier,” and in the parlance of the president both “beautiful” and “great.” Such divisive language is nothing new in the world of international borders. The Israeli built structure in the West Bank has been variously called a “security envelope” a “separation barrier,” and a “wall of apartheid” among other things. The terms have little to do with design and materials and everything to do with politics.
Regardless of whether they are near home or halfway around the world, fences are not just utilitarian, but carriers of information. They are simultaneously fraught with meaning and make aesthetic statements. And we do not have to go far to find both. Fences offer endless fascination near at hand, enlivening a walk in the neighborhood or a routine drive. Understanding them not only puts us in touch with larger issues around the globe, it enriches the places we live in, adding intrigue to even the most ordinary landscape.