Read Old Man Scanlon


23 December 2008

It took a minute to dawn on me what a subtle historical sea-change is embedded in this line from an 1844 deed granting property in Massachusetts to my great-great-great-grandfather Seth P. Carpenter: "they are free of all incumbrances except said Carpenter is to build the fence upon the whole length of the line on the North side next to the said Newton's land..." Not a fence, the fence: in Seth's day fences were a fundamental imperative of ownership; right-thinking landowners assumed—knew—that property would be fenced, and the responsibility for it was a matter fit for legal documentation. Perhaps that's still true in rural areas where people hunt, farm, and depend directly on their land, but now, a century and a half later in effete, citified Eastern Massachusetts fences tend away from the utilitarian toward the ornamental. The past is indeed a different country.

New England fences face pressure not only from the shift away from farming, but also from more elemental forces. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," Robert Frost reminds us, enumerating the slings and arrows afflicting stone walls. My old neighbor Herb's cedar fence was doomed the day he sank its posts into the ground. The rails are pretty well composted, and the die-hard posts toppled years ago, no longer enticing squirrels to sit there until Herb could draw a bead on them with his .22. Herb's long gone, too, and I now live in his house. While his fence lasted it provided an armature around which now grows a living wall—roses, honeysuckles, lilacs, and my friend Rene's gift to me and my grandchildren's children, a horse chestnut sapling.

I refreshed my tattered decades-old memory of "Mending Wall" and welcomed back Frost's well-founded admonition to consider carefully what you're trying to fence in or fence out. Yet I'd clean forgotten his distinct distaste for his neighbor's aphorism "Good fences make good neighbors"; as former owner of a doormat emblazoned with "GO AWAY" I had always considered it sterling advice. It's clear the distaste extends to his neighbor's uncritical acceptance of paternal wisdom. A father must help form children into functional, independent, discriminating adults capable of contemplating large matters, and it strikes me that Frost seems to feel this father has fallen short.

So how do we best receive the wisdom of our fathers? Total rebellion? Blind acceptance? A painstaking middle road of partial integration? It seems to me that the answer will vary day-to-day, depending partly on how much living you've gotten under your belt. A graver problem Frost likely never anticipated is that we are a society which has spawned a generation in which many cannot name their own fathers, let alone their grandfathers or great-grandfathers. It bodes ill for us all that so many of today's children may never have the opportunity to tap or reject paternal wisdom.