Fencing In & Fencing Out

By Ovid Vickers

Opening ceremonies  for a traveling Smithsonian Institution Exhibit titled Between  Fences were held September 14, 2005, on the East Central Community  College campus. This exhibit, mounted by the Smithsonian, is also  sponsored by the Mississippi Humanities Council and East Central  Community College.

Fences are such  ordinary things that one seldom stops to think how they affect our  daily lives. We also tend to think of fences as being tangible  things, when, in truth, fences can be intangible and often  imaginary. When I think about fences, I always think of my  childhood. This is because I grew up on a farm and fences play such  a real role in the operation of any farm.

When the crop was  gathered, we always knew it was time to throw terraces (a term  farmers would understand) and fix fence. If fence law was in  effect, crops had to be fenced while stock could roam free. Fences  had to be maintained or otherwise six or seven cows wandering down a  lane might decide that ears of green corn looked much more inviting  than the grass growing in roadside ditches.

Fence repair  consisted of replacing posts which had rotted, tightening sagging  wire with an implement known as a fence stretcher, cleaning weeds  and briars from around the fence and bracing corner posts if they  were leaning.

In the fall, the  stock was turned into the fields to eat velvet beans, corn nubbins,  grass that had grown since lay-by time, and the still green tops of  cotton stalks. At this point, a barbed wire was strung around the  house, and all the out-buildings to keep the stock from wandering  through the yard. I never understood this since there was not a  sprig of grass in the yard anyway, but I suspect that Mama feared  the cow hoofs would tear up her fresh swept yard.

Some fences are  attractive, some are ugly, and some raise a question. We often see  fences around cemeteries. These fences raise the question of whether  they are to fence out the living or to fence out the dead. One of  the most interesting fences I ever saw was around what had been a  cemetery right in the center of a Tennessee town.

This cemetery had  been abandoned, and many of the grave markers were broken while  others were overgrown with vines. The city fathers decided to  convert the cemetery into a park, while at the same time continuing  to honor the dead. A brick fence was constructed around the  cemetery, and the grave markers were collected and incorporated into  the fence. Cement walkways were then poured and benches placed at  intervals. The cemetery has become a favorite place for people to  come and read, relax, visit, or have a bite of lunch.

Wooden fence on farm of Paul Frink,  2005. Photograph courtesy of Ann Burkes

Some fences are  frightening, and perhaps they should be. Nothing is more foreboding  than the fence around a stockade or exercise yard at a prison. As  the sun is reflected on the rolls of razor wire coiled atop a chain  link fence, it seems to say, This is not the place for you.

On the other hand,  some fences are a delight to see and speak of a distant past when  the world was a far less complicated place. The rail fences which  can be seen from time to time along the Natchez Trace seem to speak  of the past. They are reminders of a time when pioneers cut trees  and split rails to build a fence to keep horses and cows out of a  garden or to identify the boundaries of a family farm.

Split rail fences  in the South and stone fences in New England offered some protection  for the Revolutionary soldiers who crouched behind them and fired on  an advancing British army. These fences are as much a symbol of  American independence as the Liberty Bell or Fort McHenry.

And what about an  electric fence? When I was about 12 years old, I went swimming with  my cousin in a creek. Two strands of barbed wire were stretched  across the hole of water where the creek ran through a pasture. My  cousin said, Be careful of that wire. I think it might be an  electric fence. The temptation to test the fence was too great. I  swam over and caught hold of the wire. Let me tell you that the  shock was so great it felt as though my arm was being torn from my  body. It is a wonder I had not been electrocuted! That was the last  time I have ever touched a fence stretched across a hole of water!

There is no way of  knowing how many disagreements, altercations, and even killings have  come about because of the placement of fences. For some reason  people assume that fences are always placed on land lines. The truth  is that a fence is sometimes ten or fifteen feet to the left of the  right of a land line. The poet Robert Frost has said, Good fences  make good neighbors. What Frost didn’t know is that in the South  that statement is only true if both parties agree on the placement  of the fence.

The world is filled  with fences. They define countries, regions, farms, yards, and  gardens. The Great Wall of China is a fence as was the Berlin Wall.

We often build  invisible fences in our relationships with others. An emotional  fence can be as strong as a fence of steel. Before a fence of any  kind is built, it would good to ask the question, Whom am I fencing  in and whom am I fencing out?


 The Fences Leading Home. Photography by Ann Burkes


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