Spring mending-time – a meditation on the value of maintaining walls

Stone wall at Frost's farm in Derry, NH
Readings: Psalm 16 and Mending Wall by Robert Frost (Youtube link below)

A poster which has appeared on our own noticeboard from time to time says: “Unitarians: building bridges not walls.” Today, whilst I want to agree with the general sentiment this poster is supposed to invoke in a casual passer-by, here I want strongly to challenge this statement and to consider the value of walls and to remind us that walls can, in fact, help us bridge important gaps between people and ideas and are also capable of gifting us with valuable insights and practical ways of proceeding that are very consonant with our liberal inclinations.

As I mentioned last week, Wittgenstein observed (in the Philosophical Investigations §38) that our philosophical problems only arise when we try to look for the meaning of words outside the context (the language-game) in which they are actually being used. To ensure we do this and do not let our use of the word “wall” (and also “bridge” though I’m not specifically looking at it today) go on holiday I’m going to tie my address Robert Frost’s well-known poem about wall-mending. I apply my usual caveat here, namely, that I am not trying to suggest that what follows is what the poem *means* but to gesture towards something that it has helped me see. With this in mind we can begin.

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.

These opening lines evoke in us the strong feeling our liberal Christian tradition has passed over to us as being self-evidently true. We read these lines and think of the many dogmatic walls which divide humanity and, within us, without conscious choice, we feel stirring that *something* that doesn’t love a wall, that radical, revolutionary protest against arbitrary human divisions that we learnt from Jesus, not least of all from his story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). This feeling spontaneously wells-up within us just as naturally as does the frozen earth – a movement in our hearts which, at its most effective, is able to topple walls and to allow people to pass freely through them side by side.

But this energy, which feels so “natural” to us, needs to be handled with care because, like fire, it can harm as effectively as it can warm. So we need to observe at the outset that whenever we notice that something feels self-evident or “natural” to us it is precisely then that we should begin to question it strongly. The power this image has for us should alert us of the need to look more closely. Frost is, I believe so alert. He continues:

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.

But, even as we feel that "something" that doesn’t love a wall we know that walls and boundaries have their place. And we also know that there exist in our world people who simply do not care at all for another person's walls and boundaries and, therefore, that another person's domain of being. There are people who will destroy another’s carefully maintained walls and boundaries in order simply to chase their own selfish ends. Often the damage these people do can only be seen after the event and only then at “spring mending-time”, the time when, if we are still alive and motivated enough in our own traditions of being (within our own boundaries and domains) to take time to walk our boundaries with our neighbours and look. Frost continues:

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. 

A wall assuredly has two sides and so, as much as it clearly divides, it also clearly gifts an opportunity for shared activity. Frost reveals this in calling up his neighbour to walk together the length of their shared boundary wall to repair the breaks. Dana, a member of the congregation, helpfully pointed out immediately after I gave the address that Frosts’ line about a spell being required to keep the round stones in place, at least until their backs are turned, reveals how their mending is focused more on their shared activity than it is on any requirement for a relatively permanent actual mending of the wall.  If a stone rolls away after they have left, as long as they don’t see it, so be it, the wall is still “mended.” 

Frost’s observation that “We wear our fingers rough with handling [the stones]” is, it seems to me, very important because it reminds us to keep our words here from going on holiday and that he is *not* talking about a theory of walls, a theory of things which divide us, but about a real wall that does in fact divide him from his neighbour in some way but which is also gifting them both this possibility of meeting each other despite holding very different viewpoints. Frost continues:

Oh, just another kind of out-door 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’. 

It is very tempting to take Frost’s observation that this is just another out-door game which “comes to little” negatively to mean something like, this wall-mending is a pointless game, one with no real meaning. However, I beg to differ. I think Frost has recognised, a la Wittgenstein et. al., that we are always-already inside “language games” and that it is foolish to think there is more than this. But it's vital to see that games are not pointless and that the analogy between language (most immediately Frost's poem and this address) and a game is to help us see clearly that it is *only* in the varied and complex activities of human life that words have meaning at all. In this poem Frost is, I believe, calling us away from constructing a theory about walls and back to the context of *THIS* wall and to the actual activity of spring mending. He want us to look at this activity before we think about it. When we do so look we see again that, although this wall clearly divides him from his neighbour, it is also precisely the condition of a real meeting between them, of the writing of Frost’s poem and of the possibility of our talking about it today and, together, they form a bridge between people and between what we call the past and the present. 

With this point in mind the next lines show up differently. The game in question, namely, wall-mending includes, in this place, the possibility of Frost saying that here “we do not need a wall.” It is possible to say this because, as Frost says, he is all apple orchard and his neighbour is all pine.  Frost offers this possibility up to us and his neighbour with the comic image of an apple tree nipping over the boundary line to scrump pine cones. His neighbour simply replies to this with an inherited aphorism – one which is to him is self-evidently true and “natural”: “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost continues:

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.

The swiftness of his neighbour’s reply reveals that his aphorism has become “natural” and passed over into self-evidence but he cannot see this. As I noted earlier it is precisely when we notice this has occurred that we should begin to question it hard. The genius of this poem is that, even as it is clearly a poem which is about trying to get his neighbour to question his own self-evident, natural truth, as a whole, the poem is written by Frost to challenge his own "natural" "self-evident" responses to the mending of this wall. Frost firstly offers up this challenge to his neighbour with his point about the obvious lack of need for a wall to divide apples and pines but he presses it home here with his point about cows – if we had cows a wall would obviously be needed. The hope is that this will help his neighbour (and us) to look at what is actually going on in this particular activity and to move away from a merely inauthentic response based on his  inherited tradition and into something much more authentic and nuanced. It may be, of course, that a more authentic response from his neighbour will still leave between them this wall and the need for its mending. Frost makes it clear that he isn’t against building walls per se he just wants us to consider what we might be “walling in or walling out” and, by doing this who we are “like to give offence.” (Is there a pun here between the word “offence” and “a fence”?) And with this powerful question he brings us back to actual acts associated with walls rather than merely theories about them - acts which give us real "calluses" because we are concerned about moving real "stones" and not merely abstract ideas. 

Anyway, it is clear that his reference to something as obviously tangible as cows doesn’t get his neighbour thinking and Frost wonders whether more mythical will do the trick and he picks on elves! I feel that Frost picks on elves because they are as mythical a reason for building a wall here as is the "self-evidence" out of which his neighbours aphorism springs. 

But we know that his neighbour is as likely to dismiss the elves as he did the cows – for him good fences just do make good neighbours. But, in the end, Frost’s knows that cows and elves can only be prods to his neighbour from his own side of the wall and that what he really wants is for his neighbour to become himself authentically engaged with Frost in this activity of wall-mending and so, as the next and final section reveals, no longer standing in the darkness that covers anyone who only ever lives out of inherited, unexamined so-called “self-evident” and “natural” truths.

                                        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.”

Frost’s poem reminds us of the fact of walls and that people will always be maintaining walls rightly and appropriately and wrongly and inappropriately, and that other people will also always wanting them down, rightly and appropriately and wrongly and inappropriately. (All this is alerting us to the importance in our lives of elucidating the “appropriateness” of things/actions – something that can only be done in ongoing conversation with our neighbours). We must, however, be absolutely clear that it is never a fact that walls always divide and, to return to my opening words, that bridges always connect. Sometimes quite the opposite is true. To me it is clear that we need to bring these words – “walls” and “bridges” – back from holiday and look at how they are actually being used by us. (And what is true for the words “walls” and “bridges” is also true for most of the words our liberal churches like to use in conversation and publicity as if their meaning were “self-evident” and “natural”, words such as “justice”, “tolerance”, “rights”, “duties”, “openness”, “peace”, “respect” etc..) None of Frost's words in this poem are, I think, on holiday. 

Because of this, Frost helps us see that the problem is not really about walls at all, the problem is “self-evidence”, in this poem that to one person it is self-evidently true and natural that there is something that doesn’t love a wall and which, in general, wants them to tumble and that to others, like Frost’s neighbour, there is something self-evident and natural that loves a wall and which, in general, wants them maintained.

The only wall that I can see that needs consistently to be brought down by us is that which, as Frost clearly saw, blocks out the light and keeps us moving in darkness (not of woods only and the shade of trees) and  which stops us from going behind our “father’s saying” (i.e. all our forbears) to see what we are actually doing when we say certain things. The truth is that sometimes good fences do make good neighbours; sometimes they don’t. Either way, at some point in our lives each of us will have to drop our theories about walls and go out to look at our own real walls and boundaries and decide what is actually the case. Then, like the Psalmist, we must discern whether our walls and boundaries have fallen to us and our neighbours in genuinely appropriate and pleasant places or in places where their presence is inappropriate, unpleasant, and offensive and then further to decide whether we should go a wall-mending or strive to knock them down.


Jaime Kraft said…
I was so enthralled in reading your post that I am surely going to be quite late to work - and even later now that I felt the need to comment. Reading your words took me back to great English classes I've had, where the professors were so passionate about the works we were studying, and their passion coupled with their keen insight left lasting impressions on me about the works we covered. It was a college English professor that showed me the brilliance of Shakespeare's Henry IV, and I can thank you for showing me the brilliance of this Robert Frost poem. Look forward to continuing to read your blog!
Dear Jaime,

Thank you for your kind words. I, too, had a great English literature teacher who introduced me to Montaigne in just the fashion you describe.

I hope you got to work eventually.

Warmest wishes,