The Middle Distance 5.9.14: Good Fences

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Credit Sean Cayton

Harsh winds this spring finally blew over the leaning fence between our house and our neighbors’ to the west. The fence was buckled, its support posts rotted beneath the ground, and it had leaned farther in our direction with each passing year. On either side of the simple post and rail fence, a solid visual barrier tall enough that we can’t peek over it without a boost, my neighbors and I have built our own private back yard sanctuaries. Theirs is cool and green, soft well-kept grass with simple flower and ground cover borders. Ours is an elaborate maze of flowerbeds and mulch paths with two large raised beds for vegetables. We are cordial neighbors who say hello at least once a day, usually on the way to or from our cars. Every day I look at his carefully combed front grass and regret the dandelions in mine.

When the fence blew down, I discovered it was my responsibility to replace it and my neighbor kindly offered to pay half the cost. I gratefully agreed. His trees encroach on the fence line and the fence builders will have to work around their trunks and roots. We have been good at negotiating peace around that row of trees. When the branches hover over my roof, my neighbor has them cut back before they cause any damage. They are not the prettiest trees, but I am happy to have them for the shade they provide.

Last weekend, we went to work demolishing the collapsing fence and cleaning vines, leaves and garden debris from the fence line. As each section came down and was hauled to the back alley, our view to the west opened a bit. The neighborhood is old, the houses built close together, so mountain vistas didn’t open up but the narrow space between our house and the fence temporarily widened, letting in air and sun and a splash of the neighbor’s green lawn.

Our neighbor came out to work on his side as we worked on ours. Frequently he tucked into his neatly arranged garage to find a tool that would help us trim back errant tree limbs. The sun rose high on this hot Saturday and as we worked we talked across the porous fence line. My neighbor is a native of our town and a long ago graduate of the same high school my kids attended. His face looked like a boy’s when he told me what a mischievous teenager he’d been. He told me about previous owners of the house I live in and pointed out that though mine is 114 years old, his is older. It’s likely, he said, that the houses were built and maybe even designed by the same builder and architect. We talked about how to get his non-producing stand of iris to bloom. We talked about his adventures in genealogy and what I planned to plant in our summer vegetable garden.

At the end of the day we were sunburned and hungry on both sides of the invisible fence and were left with an open view between their house and ours. From my porch, I can see their stone birdbath, the mature roses along their garage wall and purple blooms of grape hyacinth hovering in the grass just beyond the fence line. From where he stands it must look as though hoarders from another planet have moved in next door. Our hodgepodge of bikes and pumps and wheelbarrows and mismatched chairs and garbage cans stands in stark contrast to his quiet glade.

Tomorrow the fence builders will come and dig postholes and set square posts in concrete. Then the next day, when the posts are set, they will come back and build the fence, section by section, closing the gap that has opened momentarily between our two houses. I know that it’s the right thing, that in a neighborhood like ours good fences truly do make good neighbors, but I’m sad to see the wall go up. 

I remember a wide river of downhill lawns behind the row of small stone and brick and shingled houses on the street where I grew up a world and a half-century ago. Where most families hadn’t built fences yet to keep things in and keep things out. I race to the neighbor’s house at the farthest end of our street, straight across three back yards, and in the far back there is a fence. I climb it with ease and peek over into another world, straining to see what’s on the other side. 

Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.