Guest column | Jerry Cowling

Neighbors build friendships, not more walls

I've been thinking a lot lately about my favorite poet Robert Frost. It's probably because I just returned from a trip up North and the scenery brought back fond memories.

Standing on an apartment balcony in Wappinger Falls, which is a hamlet about an hour's drive north of Manhattan, my friend and I looked out on an old barn, a pond and lots of trees, many of them with broken branches.

"The snow storm really tore the trees up," he said.

"Or some of the neighborhood boys have been playing in them too rough."

Okay, they weren't birch trees as in the Frost poem of the same name, but the image was just the same. Was it the snow or was it a bunch of rowdy boys? Call me a romantic but I'm on the poet's side. I'd rather like to think of boys getting closer to heaven by climbing trees.

My wife, on the other hand, is not a romantic at all. She thinks the guy in Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening just had to empty his bladder before he got home. Kind of takes the poetry out of it, doesn't it?

On the trip back, we stopped at Gettysburg to tour the battlefield. For 50 bucks we got a park guide to drive our car and take us through the entire place, which my wife and I thought was a great deal. Except the wind was hard and cold so we couldn't get out and walk around much. Along the way, the guide pointed out the stone fences.

"You might think the soldiers built these walls for defenses, but no,'' the guide said. "The farmers, in clearing the fields for planting, took the rocks and made walls of them. The soldiers just took advantage of them during the battle."

That's when I thought of my other favorite Frost poem, Mending Wall. He was walking through his woods and came upon his neighbor putting rocks back on the fence which had been dislodged by the hard Vermont snows. They exchanged greetings, after all, they had been neighbors for many years and never even had a cross word.

"You build back the wall every year, don't you?" Frost asked the industrious neighbor who kept his head down as he placed the stones carefully on top of each other.

"Good fences make good neighbors."

"Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it where there are cows? But here there are no cows."

On Frost's side of the wall there were apple trees. On the neighbor's side were pine trees. Were his apples going to come over to eat his pine cones if the wall were not maintained? Frost thought to mention that maybe the elves were tearing down the stones, but he decided discretion was the better part of valor. Instead he watched his neighbor strain his muscles to lay one stone precariously atop another. After all, it was the neighbor's father who originally told him, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Who was Frost to tell him his father was wrong?

Unfortunately, through the years, Americans have missed the meaning of the poem. We believe that the neighbor and his father were right: Good fences and walls make good neighbors. We go about making sure we keep our neighbors separated by a stout fence of wood, chain link, emotional coolness, municipal codes and such, thinking that will make us all good.

We miss the point. Instead of wasting our time building needless walls, why don't we relax and enjoy the fact we already have good neighbors?

Jerry Cowling is a free-lance writer and storyteller living in Brooksville.

Neighbors build friendships, not more walls 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 11:55am]

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