Spring mending-time—A meditation in the face of walls going up everywhere . . .

Frost's Mending Wall. Photo by Craig Michaud.
To help me make my point today in an obviously religious way, I’m going to use in my address a phrase recently introduced to me by Michael Dowd, the American Progressive Christian minister, author and eco-theologian. Related to Spinoza’s formulation that I use here in this church, “God-or-Nature” (Deus sive Natura), where the word “God” can be understood as being equivalent to “Nature”, Dowd often uses the phrase “God-or-Reality”. As Dowd says in his recent TED talk,

“Language changes over time, and words create worlds. What we call Reality, the ancients called God, or if you lived in a polytheistic culture, the gods. These were personifications of our inner and outer reality. This fundamental insight not only makes sense of religious differences and bridges the science-religion divide, it also clarifies our way into the future.”

“Reality” for Dowd is the secular word for “God” and, today, the way we best come to know “God-or-Reality” is through through a careful mix of empirical, evidence-based means that can work alongside poetry, myths and stories whose tellers understand these means (science and poetry) are absolutely essential to us.

So with this in mind for our first reading I’m going to alter Psalm 16 accordingly, replacing the words “God”, “LORD” and “He” with “God-or-Reality”:

     Protect me, O “God-or Reality”, for in you I take refuge.
I say to “God-or-Reality” “You are “God-or-Reality”; 
     I have no good apart from you.”
As for the holy ones in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.
     Those who choose another god [unreality] multiply their sorrows; 
their drink offerings of blood I will not pour out or take their names upon my lips.
     “God-or-Reality” is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; 
     I have a goodly heritage.
I bless “God-or-Reality” who gives me counsel; 
     in the night also my heart instructs me.
I keep “God-or-Reality” always before me; 
     because “God-or-Reality” is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; 
     my body also rests secure.
For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.
     You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; 
in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.

Second Reading: Mending Wall by Robert Frost (1874—1963)

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 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:  
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 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 neighbors.”

—o0o—

Almost where ever you look today you’ll find someone putting up a wall. Across Europe and into Turkey you’ll see a mix of razor wire fences and reintroduced border controls, in the Middle East you’ll find two of the keenest builders in Israel and Saudia Arabia, in the USA Donald Trump is continuing to threaten to build a wall along the length of the Mexican border and, even in our own “green and pleasant land”, gated communities and even ghettoised neighbourhoods are becoming more and more common.

It’s neither a pretty nor encouraging sight and, as most liberals and progressives involved in religion and politics, I’m with Robert Frost when he wrote “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”.

But the danger is that in such unsettled times we commit the sin of falling into belief in binary opposites and start seeing walls as simply either good or bad and, in response to this, desirous simply of thoughtlessly and fearfully putting them up or thoughtlessly and fearfully pulling them down. We need a better, more nuanced approach than this painfully naive one.

As I have mentioned many times before it seems to me that one of the duties of a free-thinking, free-religious tradition such as our own is always to be pushing against such artificial, binary pictures of the world because “God-or-Reality” is always unimaginably more complex than this.

We can begin helpfully to explore the complex reality of walls with the help of Robert Frost’s poem of 1914, “Mending Wall”.

In this poem Frost is encouraging us to think about whether walls and fences are valuable or not for the maintenance and renewal of human relationships?

He starts his reflections where many of us on the liberal, progressive end of the religious and political spectrum start, namely, with the intuitive thought that “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”. He immediately follows this with an observation of a natural truth that seems to support this intuition where, in winter, the frozen-ground-swells under it:

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

The pun is, of course, that this fall is caused by frost, the author’s own name. But this bringing down of the wall either as (lower case f) frost or (upper case F) Frost doesn’t put an end to the matter it just begins to complicate it. As (upper case F) author Frost we may presume he wants to bring down the wall for some moral or ethical reasons but, with (lower case f) frost, it’s simply a matter of frozen water doing what frozen water does to a dry stone wall — unlike the former there’s no moral agency involved here.

Frost quickly adds a further complication by noting,

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.   

Here, the toppling of the wall is caused by a group of people who simply have no particular moral or ethical regard for the wall at all nor who can be said to be the simple action of impersonal natural forces. They, along with their dogs, have a completely different objective — the rabbit, either understood as the object of a blood sport or as a genuine source of food — and the wall just gets in the way.

So, within the first few lines we already have three very different ways not to love a wall and to bring it down. We may presume there are still more ways of not loving a wall and bringing it down (some we would agree with and some we would not). But however it happened, Frost’s wall is full of gaps and, despite his imaging of these various topplings for the most part,

No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.

Here Frost begins to bring in a further important layer of complexity that becomes central to the whole poem — it is the role of human tradition which, sometimes benignly, sometimes darkly, but nearly always invisibly, is master of so much of our living and thinking. In “Being and Time” Heidegger noted that:

“When tradition . . . becomes master, it does so in such a way that what it ‘transmits’ is made . . . inaccessible . . . [and] becomes concealed. Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial ‘sources’ from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something we need not even understand” (Being and Time p.43 [21]).

Frost is, I’m sure, fully aware of this kind of thing — in this sense he’s an enlightened individual and not in darkness (hold on to this thought) — but this is only half the story because, despite this, tradition still takes what has come down to Frost and delivers it over to a certain kind of self-evidence — it is still self-evidently “spring mending-time”. It is what “one” does at this time of year and so Frost duly lets his “neighbor know beyond the hill”

And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.

The next few lines of the poem tell us something about how this was done and some of his thoughts and feelings about the difficulties of the task:

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.

It’s a hard, tricky and skilled work (sometimes even seeming to require a bot of "magic") but, for all that, Frost tells us he feels this it’s:

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.

Frost’s humourous observation is surely right but, his neighbour won’t have that and simply says, “Good fences make good neighbors” and carries on mending.

Frost’s initial internal rejoinder is, he tells us a mischievous one:

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 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. 

Firstly, we can see that Frost feels deeply that it would be best if this question were not merely forced upon his neighbour from outside but could somehow well up within his own being and, perhaps, bounce him out of the mere thoughtless repetition of his forefathers’ phase that “Good fences make good neighbors”.

But what on earth might Frost mean by then suggesting it might help things along by saying to his neighbour “Elves”? It’s probably impossible to say for sure because, like every great poem (and like “God-or-Reality”) it is multivalent — capable of many interpretations. But how about this as a possibility?

Elves are imaginary beings that no one has ever seen but, thanks to myth and tradition, they have a kind of reality in our world — enough for Frost to consider about mentioning them to his neighbour  (and using them in this poem) as a possible cause of their tumbling wall, even if this mention were only full of humorous spring mischief.

Is it just possible that Frost is letting “elves” be a stand-in for the countless ancient hidden human traditions that always silently and invisibly continually shape our own lives, all without us ever understanding how or why they came into being and always just out of sight, just like elves?

Perhaps, perhaps not but, at the very least such a mythical image makes us mindful of ancient and, to us, dark and unrecoverable times and, suddenly, Frost says of his neighbour:

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.

Frost seems here to be seeing before him a living stone-age man moving, not simply in the dark of woods and shade of trees, but in the impenetrable ancient, unknowing, unenlightened dark of human tradition upon which the building and mending of this wall is founded.

We might be tempted to think that Frost is hereby suggesting to us that he is, by contrast, fully in the light and free from tradition — not at all “an old-stone savage armed”. But let us not forget it was Frost who let his “neighbor know beyond the hill” that it was “spring mending time” and he, too, is grasping the self-same stone to fix this wall.

It is true that Frost, unlike his neighbour, is prepared to go into the dark behind his forefather’s sayings and question the efficacy of the wall but the questioning gives up no simple answers, certainly nothing that could definitively disprove the adage that “Good fences make good neighbors” and prove the superiority of his own “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” or vice versa.

And so the poem finishes, inconclusively, with Frost stating that his neighbour

. . . 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.”

We may presume that they continue until the job is done and, each year at spring-mending time, they will convene again, brought together by something that also keeps them, and their pine-cones and apples, apart.

Frost’s poem strongly suggests that God-or-Reality is always-always telling us that walls (whether of dry stone, language, culture, religion and philosophy) can both join and separate people and that there are no easy rules which govern which is to be which. They will always have explicit and implicit uses, perhaps useless at an obviously practical level (say, like keeping pine-cones and apples apart) but highly useful at a symbolic, personal level (by keeping these two otherwise distant neighbours in some kind of minimal, right and respectful relationship). Walls can add respect to oneself and the other, or they can destroy the same. They can be causes of exclusion or opportunities for genuine welcome and hospitality. The poem suggests that all we can do, the best we can do, is question and question again in order to ensure that walls always remain ambiguous and anomalous things.

If we choose “God-or-Reality” as our chosen portion and cup — and can we wisely do anything other than that? — then the great task is to find the best ways to understand how the walls, that is to say the boundaries or limitations gifted to us by both our traditions and “God or Reality”, might best be dealt with so that, for the good of both ourselves and our neighbours we all, in time, might be able to say along with the Psalmist, they “have fallen for me in pleasant places” and that “I have a goodly heritage.”

But, in the end, I can’t really do any better than echo the wise words of the man who, aside from Jesus, has most influenced me from within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Qoheleth, the Preacher whom, tradition says, wrote the book of Ecclesiastes and who said:

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” 

Discerning when each of those times is present is always a carefully nuanced, case by case, ad hoc task. We cannot learn how to deal with the mending or destruction of walls as we learn how to conjugate regular verbs. There are no easily learnt regular rules because when it comes to dealing with walls it is like learning to conjugate the most irregular of verbs — every single instance plays out differently — for good and ill.

For Frost, in that spring, the answer was found in continuing to mend this "useless" wall with his neighbour even as he was forced to question everything about the task.

And the answer for us in a twenty-first century, wall-obsessed world? Even as I continue to feel with Frost that "something there is that doesn't love a wall, for all the reasons just outlined (and many more besides) I simply don’t, can't, know. But what I do know is that it’s never a simple black and white, either/or matter and the "right" answer is over the long term often counterintuitive. In consequence never let anyone, especially politicians and religious leaders, tell you "walls are simply good" or "walls are simply bad". Keep questioning, again and again and again and again, and let us work towards keep all walls, and all our talk about walls, ambiguous and anomalous, ever open to question.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors; something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors; something there is that doesn’t love a wall; good fences make good neighbors . . .
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