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Of Fences and Change

Bill Meredith

In spite of the incessant rain, we got the garden in and the flower beds started by mid-May. I should have felt satisfied; but instead, I felt guilty. I didn't have to look far for the cause; it was a primeval urge to build fences. It goes back to childhood; every summer, whenever there was free time between other jobs, that was what we did.

My father probably never heard of Robert Frost, but if he had, "Mending Wall" would have been his favorite poem. "Good fences make good neighbors" was his credo; it was a matter of pride to him that his livestock did not get into our neighbors' crops. So the "line fences" that marked our property boundaries were checked regularly, especially after storms, to make sure they had not been damaged by falling trees or branches. Within the farm was an infrastructure of fences that divided the land into pastures, hayfields, woodlots, orchards, gardens, cornfields, and barn lots. Between the various fields were lanes, 15 or 20 feet wide, which functioned as roadways through which cattle or farm equipment could be moved from one area to another. The lanes were special places; they often were lined with trees, which provided shade for the cows as they wandered in from the fields at milking time. The "shady lanes" typical of that era became part of our folk culture.

Fence-building was probably the hardest physical work we did on the farm in those days. It was all hand labor, little changed since my great grandfather's time. It began with cutting fence posts. Many of the fence posts that existed when I was young were from chestnut trees; their wood was so rot-resistant that a chestnut post might last 50 years or more. However, that species was killed off by the Chestnut Blight a few years before I was born, so we had to use Black Locust. Big locust trees were felled with a two-man saw, and cut into post-length logs; these were split by maul-driven wedges. Posts made from the heartwood of an old locust would last as long as 30 years.

Post holes were dug with a shovel and a "post digger," a heavy steel bar with a digging blade on one end and a tamping flange on the other. It was essential that the posts be set in a perfectly straight line; if they were not, the tension of the fence wire would make them tilt, the wire would loosen, and enterprising animals could then get through. We used barbed wire most of the time; it was difficult and somewhat dangerous to work with, but woven wire was too expensive.

After a fence was completed, an area of a few feet on each side of it was kept mowed with a scythe to prevent trees and briars from growing into it and damaging the wires. This gave the network of fences and lanes around a farm a tidy, orderly look. I suppose this had a psychological effect on me as a child; I thought the whole world could be tidy and well-ordered if people took pride in maintaining it.

Things change. Everyone knows this; but few know that a pattern is involved. Change rarely, if ever, occurs suddenly; usually it proceeds at what scientists call an exponential rate. It begins slowly, and nobody notices; and it picks up speed so gradually that by the time we realize anything is different; it is going like the proverbial snowball.

After the war in the 1940s, old locust trees were becoming rare and permanent, long-lasting fences became more expensive to build and maintain. Farmers began to turn to electric fences, which needed only one wire and fewer posts, and which could be set up quickly or moved as needed. The conservation movement was encouraging farmers to use hedgerows instead of fences (one disastrous result of this was the introduction of multiflora rose, which was brought into the country for use as a "living fence," but refused to stay in the hedgerows and now is a noxious pest in fields everywhere). Gradually, the orderly pattern of a self-sufficient family farm permanently divided into fields for specific uses by neatly maintained fences and country lanes was lost. And as the post-war baby boom developed, people increasingly traded the culture based on a family farm for a suburban lifestyle.

There was a brief period when this change was ecologically beneficial. In the 1960s and 70s, farms that were no longer in use began to grow back into forests. Wildlife populations, especially deer, began to grow at the exponential rate mentioned above, and many endangered species were afforded a reprieve on their march toward extinction. But the juggernaut of exponential growth applied also to the human population and the suburbs where they chose to live. Here and there a new house appeared in what had once been a hayfield; we scarcely noticed. Then suddenly it appeared that they were everywhere, as former farmland was subdivided into building lots. If an example of exponential growth is needed, count the number of new houses built within five miles of the square in Emmitsburg in the last 15 years and compare it to the number built in the previous century.

As some former farmland is converted to housing developments, the remainder is being converted to a different kind of farming (also at an exponential rate). Increasingly, cattle are kept in feedlots instead of grazing in pastures. Small fields, once worked by hand or by horse-drawn machines, are being merged together for large-scale single-crop agriculture. The fences and lanes that once controlled the ebb and flow of country life are now a hindrance to "progress;" those that have not fallen into decay are being ripped up, and with them go the hedgerows that have provided shelter for wildlife shelter.

In and of themselves, perhaps the fences are no longer important; perhaps they are just a nostalgic reminder of an overly romanticized past. Perhaps. But it also may be that their passing is a warning of the exponential rate at which the environment is being degraded. If this is so, we will ignore it at our peril.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith