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