Feb 15 – Robert Frost – a fence = an ambiguous technology

Friday,  February 21, 2020
“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out”

It’s hard to live through a full day without hearing angry calls for walls to keep out unwanted migrant people, women and men, infants and children.  Walls with their locks and keys can privilege fear over welcome.  Robert Frost’s masterpiece, “Mending Wall,” treats his neighbors’ suspicions playfully.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors?”

Here on campus,  in late February 2016, we dedicated a new gate onto McNichols Road.  Does the gate say welcome or suspicion?   For many centuries, keys and locks stood as one of the most ambiguous of technologies.  Locks and their keys are more or less everywhere you look;   car doors, house and garage doors, credit card codes, traffic scanners.  Whether they welcome or exclude depends on who can enter and who cannot.  On our campus I am most proud of two places in our perimeter fence:  one, you do not need a student, faculty, or staff smart card to use our library.  Neighbors can come in and work on 10 or 12 of the 50 work stations to access the internet.  Neighbors can also bring a laptop to use our wireless capacity.  The only exception is the week before finals when all 52 work stations are reserved for students prepping for their exams.  That same open gate policy welcomes neighbors to work out on our track and playing fields except when student teams are practicing or competing.

We had suffered with a stingy-looking gate for years.  The new gate, now in its third year, makes me smile even on hard days.  This morning, I was looking out our living room window and watching Detroit Mercy people arrive for another work day.  The gate makes people who come and go look a little more beautiful, and brave, and noble.

Perhaps that’s why Robert Frost came to mind today.  “Mending Walls” is a great poem, a source of wisdom and playful humor during crabby times.

Best to read the poet out loud, with pauses.  Have a blest day.


john st sj

Today’s Post, “Mending Walls”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

Robert Frost, 1874 – 1963

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