Good Fences

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 offence.
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 neighbours.”

—Robert Frost

Last Saturday my wife and our children walked down the lane to the neighbors house for dinner. The wife is four generations out from the man who owned our farm at the turn of the 19th century and over the course of the past seven or eight years we have established a genial friendship; her teenage sons work on the farm over the summer break, we look out for their home in the off season when they reside in the Boston area and we get together and grill the bounty of the harvest whenever our schedules make it possible. They are the very definition of good neighbors and we look forward to seeing them whenever they come up to visit. Dinner that night was laid back and just after dark we began to say our good-byes when the local police drove into their driveway.

“Cows are out.” he said with a smile.

I jumped up and headed to the house for the dogs and a bucket of grain. This wasn’t the first time it had happened, but instinctively I knew it was my fault. I had been slowly replacing several miles of old fence with new high tensile wire and had ended the day with a section no more than ten feet long incomplete along a rock wall on the southern boundary. I had to remove the electric that had previously contained the border field in order to string the line and failed to secure what I hoped — in vain — would escape the notice of the herd for one night. We were in the midst of calving, six cows bred from a new bull we brought in last winter and the herd was, due to this, restless. A cow that calves on free range will often seek out a spot away from the others and the existing relationships between mother/daughter pairs will become erratic and unstable. Cows are matriarchal in their social organizations and maintain deep bonds with their female offspring for their entire lives. When they go into labor those dynamics change and the younger heifers from previous years will be pushed away. These bovine equivalents of teenage girls will become sulky and petulant and often head off on their own, away from the herd in an act of rebellion and seek other forms of distraction. I know this and should have anticipated the outcome, but like anyone else at the end of a long week with obligations to friends and family, I ignored my better judgment and failed to secure the perimeter. My responsibility to not only the livestock, but my neighbors as well.

I made my way down to the road in the darkness and could see from a distance the probing shafts of flashlights across the blacktop and behind these were the voices of another neighbor hollering something in an angry tone. Between us I could see the outline of the lone heifer standing at the edge of his property, head down to the lawn. He called out from the darkness that there was only one and when I rattled the bucket with grain, she headed in my direction immediately. The dogs trotted up to her flanks from behind and together we walked her back across the road and found the gap in the fence and made our way back in the moonlight to the rest of the herd in the upper pasture.

That night I dreamed of loose cows, broken fences, obligations and responsibilities. I woke frequently to the sound of the dogs going off after a fox or a porcupine in the darkness and before dawn I got out of bed and headed back out to finish the job I should have completed the night before. It took a couple of hours and when I was done I let the cattle back into the pasture to graze. There was a new bull calf born to the piebald Hereford during the night, white-faced like his sire. When I got back to the house I made plans to visit the neighbor whose lawn had been grazed without permission and apologize for the intrusion on his Saturday evening. It has been my habit to bring my children with me whenever I have amends to make. If they can share in our success, they can observe how we respond to our failures and so I brought our youngest son along for the ride so he could see his father make something right. This particular neighbor had always been very stand-offish with us since we moved in. Both he and his wife were lifelong residents of the village and both worked for the State. They maintained beautiful gardens and a picturesque property on a small lot directly across the road from our lower fields and while they had never responded much to waves or greetings from us, they never gave us a moment of trouble either. Older than myself and established in the community I held him in respect and while I did not look forward to the meeting, I understood my obligation to my neighbor. We drove into their driveway in the truck and both of them were sitting at their picnic table, a bottle of wine between them, facing their garden in the sunlight. I approached slowly, my son climbing out of the truck behind me and bringing up the rear, both of us clearly humble with a proverbial hat in hand.

“I’m sorry about last night…”

“You should be.” he said, turning around to face me without rising. She looked up at us as well, both of them red-faced and clearly on the edge of rage. I could see instantly that both of them had been drinking even though it was early afternoon and I sensed that they had been stewing over the very thing I had come to apologize for. “You people think you can come up here and fahm. You’re no farmah.” he said, his voice rising in anger.

“I came to make it right.” I replied, looking back at my son who was clearly shaken by the way things were unfolding. She said something to me as well, angry and bitter but I couldn’t make out the words, only the tone. “Was there damage? I’ll pay for anything that’s been…” I began.

“I don’t want your money.” he shot back as he turned his face back towards the garden. “My father fahmed for sixty years and he never had his cows get loose. He was a fahmer.”

“Can I bring you some beef? A pound of flesh?” I asked. It was an uncomfortable response intended to bring some humor to the moment, to diffuse the rising tension because I was clearly not getting the response I had hoped for.

He said something then that was so angry, so provocative and vile that I was, for the moment, embarrassed for him. To have said it to a man who was clearly trying to apologize and make things right was one thing, but to say it in that tone in front of an eight year old stunned me. Both of them glared at me with red faces. I could see the moisture on the wine bottle, see their fingers clenched on the stems of their wine glasses so hard that I thought they might break.

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence and I said only, “Well okay then,” and turned back to the truck, my arm on my son’s shoulder steering him to the passenger side.

As I opened my own door he raised his voice once more. “Keep your cows on your side of the road!” I could feel myself nodding, but I didn’t reply.

We drove over to the Interval in silence. I didn’t know what to say and clearly my son was shaken himself. He looked out the window as we drove and I, like most men, felt the flush of adrenaline and testosterone flooding my body and my thoughts. All of the smart comebacks I could have made, all of the things I should have said, the guilt I felt for having been responsible for causing the neighbors to react in that way swirled around and filled the cab of the truck as we drove. I wanted to say something to my son — to let him know that sometimes adults can say things they probably don’t mean or wish they could take back — but more than that was the single phrase that repeated itself over and over, “You’re no farmer.” I thought about everything we had done over the past seven years, the labor, the sweat, the investment of everything we had ever earned, the long nights, freezing cold, endless chores and tasks, the injuries and losses, the bounties and successes, all of it sweeping by like a cyclorama of images and emotions reduced to a single sentence. “You’re no farmer.”

We got to the hayfields my friend had been mowing and worked for the rest of that Sunday helping him load bales under the blistering sun, mostly in silence, my embarrassment hotter than the day. My son who is normally talkative was as quiet as a church mouse and even my friend could sense that something was off, but he gave us space and worked with us in mutual quiet until we were done. That night as I lay in bed reading, my youngest son beside me playing with his Legos, my wife walked into the room and asked if something was wrong. I didn’t want to tell her what had happened, what he’d said, but we don’t keep secrets and I spilled the beans as best I could while my son watched us intently. My wife is not an easy person to anger, she makes excuses for everyone’s worst behavior whenever possible in order to diffuse tensions and bring peace, but I could see it in her eyes as I retold the story, she was tearing up but not in sadness. I was bone tired, as much from the confrontation as from the work that day and didn’t have anything to add at the end of it, only that I tried to do the right thing, tried to channel my wife’s decency rather than respond in the way I wanted to, to set an example for our son that if you made a mistake, you had to make it right even if it cost you more than you thought it was worth. We calmed down enough to say our good-nights but I know we both went to sleep that night unsettled and for me feeling worse for my neighbor than I did for myself. I understood him being angry about a cow on his lawn in the middle of the night and I understood him not caring for some out-of-stater coming into his hometown and trying to become a farmer from scratch, but I didn’t understand why he had to try and embarrass me in front of my son when I was clearly trying to apologize and I wondered if he was kicking himself for taking it that far to make himself feel better. Of course that’s conjecture. A person can maintain a perfect garden and be filled with problems you can’t see underneath. But then again, maybe he was right. Maybe I’m not a farmer.

The next day I walked the entire perimeter of the property checking the fence lines with a laser-like intensity. I found a couple of weak spots and repaired them, checked on the new calves — six now, two heifers and four bulls — and tried to think like a farmer. Over the course of the day several other neighbors stopped by, for eggs, for syrup, to borrow my york rake, to drop off some blackberry jam made from berries we’d let them pick a couple of days earlier. By the end of the day I was back to where I was on Saturday evening eating barbeque with the folks down the lane, content in what we doing and how we were living our lives and feeling that no matter how poorly some things turn out, it’s what you think of yourself that defines you, not how others see you. I don’t want to be defined by my current failures any more than I do by my past successes, but how I live every day going forward. I hope that my son can see that as well and that he has the kind of life that compels him to make things right when he has made a mistake and to make every day count no matter what anyone else thinks.

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