Stopping by Woods, reprise

Stone walls, especially the really well-crafted ones … you know, when the individual stones fit together so neatly that they look made for one another … these constructions always command my attention. To native New Englanders, no doubt, these are so much a part of the landscape that they must appear almost organic, of the earth itself rather than made with human hands. But to my western eyes, they are quaint, puzzling, paradoxical.

Out West (and by that I mean mostly where I used to live: California and Washington state) our landscape is infinitely varied, but to my mind it is the wide, wildish spaces that represent “THE WEST” to me. Where I spent my teen years, there were vast tracks of grassland with a few scrub oaks dotting the land. Fences — when there were any — were made out of wooden posts and barbed wire. These kinds of fences are almost invisible from a distance. Just posts poking up out of the ground at regular intervals, almost as if someone tried to tame the land enough to throw up a fence but the land laughed. Of course, up close one sees that these fences serve their purpose well. Anyone who has found their shirt (or flesh) caught in the rusty barbs while trying to squeeze through knows these are real fences.

Our homes are surrounded by more substantial looking fences, six-foot-high solid redwood following the property line, blocking out the neighbors pretty effectively. The freeways, too, are lined with the most substantial fences of all: massive concrete piled high, attempting to keep down traffic noise for adjacent neighborhoods.

But here in New England there are few fences on property lines in the suburbs. I feel strangely exposed. Every year I consider whether to put up a fence. It would be SO nice for our dog to be able to run free in the yard. But we suspect that the neighbors would be offended. We’ve live in Massachusetts nine years now and are finally starting to make some connections here. It’d be a shame to suffer a setback after all that time — just because we want a fence.

Freeways here are usually too small compared to California to warrant heavy-duty concrete walls, though some of our larger freeways do now include these monstrosities lining the thoroughfare. When we first arrived here, Route 3 was a lovely tree-lined four lane divided highway. Then they ripped out the forest in the land dividing the two sections of highway and put in more lanes. Traffic is just as bad as before.

When it comes to “open” land, well, New England is awfully tree-covered to call it “open,” isn’t it? I get positively claustrophobic at times with all those trees! But I’m getting used to it. And recently discovering the lovely trails in the State Forest near our house has made it more interesting to walk in the woods than ever before.

Yesterday I followed a new (to me) trail through this old forest and found the path crossing a big stone fence. The rocks had just been moved casually aside to let hikers pass, leaving a breach in an otherwise beautifully constructed wall, complete with moss and lichen, etc. Who built this wall? What does the wall mean? Am I on someone’s property? NO. I’m in the State Forest, I assure myself. What is the story behind this lost land, then, I wonder.

These walls look fragile to me. Odd, isn’t it? I mean, they are made of stone, for goodness sake! Yet the stones can so easily be moved. And these fences, once meant something. Now they are relegated to the realm of quaintness. Or they are an impediment to be moved aside. All that effort put intoconstructing them. Find the exact right stone or cut or chip away until you have what’s needed. Make something both beautiful and functional out of the materials nature provides.

Ah, but we’ve moved on. Barbed wire, lumber, and concrete are more effective in the business of keeping out and keeping in.


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