“Good fences make good neighbors” says the character in Frost’s poem Mending Wall, leading the poet to ask “why?”. The picture of a fence he paints with his words – solid rock wall meandering through a New England orchard – defines boundaries but doesn’t offer privacy. The neighbors look over the fence and see what’s going on in the property that isn’t theirs. Fences such as this define allowable movement but aren’t expected to dictate what’s hidden.
Is this what makes good neighbors? Outlining personal property but not preventing personal sharing? The essence of small town living is to acknowledge everyone knows what you’re doing. Hiding something from your neighbors is practically impossible without serious effort on your part, such as building a very tall opaque fence around your property. But wouldn’t that be unneighborly?
And isn’t it surprising that in a town where your neighbors know your business they become extremely tight-lipped in the face of an “outsider” asking questions! Neighbors may know all about each other, but it’s information privileged to neighbors only, sort of a Top Secret designation that throws up that unneighborly high wall in the face of anyone not deemed a neighbor.
We lived in the suburbs of a large city once where everyone prided themselves with their “privacy fences,” tall wooden barricades outlining and separating the postage-stamp-sized yards behind each house. Flying over these subdivisions one saw a checkerboard of plots, all essentially the same but each protected from the other by a rampart of cedar planks. Later we lived in a suburb where such fences were not allowed, where plains of grass ran undisturbed along the back of each house. The latter felt significantly more friendly than the former, the illusion of privacy being a more powerful connection with neighbors than the reality of it.
In Nebraska you build a tall solid fence at your peril. It’s a direct affront to the wind god, whose sole purpose on the Great Plains is to level everything to a common height. Open fences or low fences, as Robert Frost describes, are best for this state, enabling neighbors to know the limits of their authority without impeding the limits of their influence.