Spring mending-time—a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together

A stone-wall on Unst, Shetland Isles
 READINGS: Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

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—

ADDRESS
Spring mending-time—a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together

In too many places today you’ll find someone putting up a wall. Across Europe and into Turkey and beyond into the Middle East you’ll see a mix of razor wire fences and reintroduced border controls, 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 are becoming more and more common and there is the increasing threat of a reinstated hard-border between the north and south of Ireland.

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 simplistic one.

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 or not walls and fences are valuable for the maintenance and renewal of human relationships?

He starts his reflections where many of us today would start, namely, with the intuitively held 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, rather 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 collectively to be an impersonal natural force. They, along with their dogs, have a completely different focus to that held by Frost and his neighbour, namely, the rabbit, and the wall has just got in their 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 now full of gaps,

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


At this point Frost begins to bring in a further important layer of complexity which becomes central to the whole poem — it is the role of human tradition which, sometimes benignly, sometimes darkly, but nearly always invisibly, shapes so much of our everyday living and thinking. In the case of the relationship between Frost and his neighbour tradition insists that now is “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 bit of “magic”) but, for all that, Frost tells us he feels this is:

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 it would be best if his question were not merely forced upon his neighbour from outside but could somehow well-up within his neighbour’s 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 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 it is multivalent — capable of bearing 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 do 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 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 endless 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, somehow 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 to him 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, indeed, the reverse.

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 seems to be concerned to remind us that walls (whether of dry stone, language, culture, religion and philosophy) always-already 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.

Qoheleth, the Preacher once memorably 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 (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 5a)

Discerning when each of those times is present is always a carefully nuanced, case by case, ad hoc task. There are no easily learnt regular rules when it comes to the mending or destruction of walls because, when it comes down to it, it is like learning to conjugate the most irregular of verbs — every single instance plays out differently.

For Frost, in that spring one-hundred-and-four years ago, the right answer was found in continuing to mend this “useless” wall with his neighbour even as he questioned 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, offer you any definitve answers.

But what I can say is that it’s never a simple black and white, either/or matter and the “right” answer is one that often emerges over the long-term and often in counterintuitive ways. 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, anomalous and ever open.

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

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