Lines from Robert Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall” run through my mind as my dogs patrol the one stone wall in my yard. The speaker ruminates: “’Something there is that doesn’t love a wall/That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him” (35-36). Who doesn’t love this wall? My dogs. The squirrels. Unknown creatures. Perhaps they are elves. Although the winter was mild, no frozen earth disrupted it, this wall needs mending.
This could be an old stone wall, left behind by early settlers, for the First Company Governor’s Horse Guard, the oldest continuous cavalry in the United States, has stables near here and an historic easement along the edge of our property. This was someone’s farm once. But this does not resemble an old wall. One glimpses those old walls driving along the highways, thin lines of boulders wearily winding through the trees. Once settlers tried to eek a living out of the stony ground, marked their farms with stone walls and then left for Ohio. I once lived in Ohio, amid gentle green hills and vast corn fields. In Ohio, mounds of impatiens bloomed by my doorstep. Apartment dwellers, we envied those who could buy homes that needed riding lawn mowers. Ohio is farm country. Connecticut is a stony place, too harsh for fields of corn. This wall is not a remnant of an old farm. This wall runs along my basketball court, built in 2004 as a Father’s Day present for the former owner. This wall is new.
Nor does this wall mark the property line. I know my property extends beyond the wall. My lot is a flag lot or a setback. Our long narrow drive takes us behind three of our neighbors. Woods separate us from the neighbors behind us. We border seven properties, tucked behind the trees. Two of the three neighbors in the front have wire fences enclosing their backyards. These are fences to keep dogs in or deer out. One has a fence in the back and a sign in front proclaiming the dog is restrained by an Invisible Fence. Obviously the fences here are containment. These fences are not the six foot wooden privacy fences that shielded me from my neighbors in Southern California. The neighbors behind those fences would agree with the neighbor in Frost’s poem: “Good fences make good neighbors” (25). We repaired and replaced those fences together, working to protect our privacy and our property. Here the woods give us privacy.
So what is the purpose of this wall? What is it “walling in or walling out” (33)? Certainly not the neighbors. And not my dogs. My dogs, so used to their California style privacy fence, have now adjusted to invisible boundaries that demarcate their yard. Supposedly the house has an Invisible Fence, but we have never learned where the boundaries are. It was our intention to call the company and have them show us but then we began to worry. Our dogs already have field collars, what an acquaintance calls “an invisible leash”. Most of the time, the page button reminds them that I gave a command; other times I have to use a stronger reminder. So if one of the dogs ignores the initial jolt, what will bring him or her back? I decided the boundaries of the yard were the grass area in the back and to one side. After a few days, the dogs understood. The lawn was fine; the woods were forbidden. The squirrels caught on too. Even the deer seem to know that the dogs are not to venture into the woods.
The dogs stand at the edge of the woods, staring out, guarding the yard from wildlife. Yet when the dogs are in the house, for they are never out alone, the grey squirrels run merrily across the lawn, chattering, chattering so that the dogs, watching out the windows, know they are there. We had squirrels in our yard in SO Cal, Eastern Fox squirrels. They dashed up and down the palm tree next door, ran along the fence and teased the dogs. Eventually the dogs would settle on patio furniture and watch the squirrels’ antics like children watching cartoons. The gray squirrels they watch, but do not chase. Something else has engaged them.
A few days ago, at the base of a tree in front of the wall, a small round hole appeared. At first the dogs just sniffed the hole. Then one dog began to rip the bark around the hole and then bark surrounding the hole dripped with dog salvia. Rocks began to fall off the wall. The dogs sniffed the base of the tree and then looked over the wall. The next day, bark was torn from the tree trunk around the hole. A rock had tumbled off the wall. Repairs were needed.
I wish that Frost had spent more time on how to mend the wall. The speaker says “some are loaves and some so nearly balls/We have to use a spell to make them balance.” (17-18). So give us the spell, I think as I struggle to lift a rock back into place. How does one make them balance? The hole in the tree needs to be blocked so I walk into the edge of the woods to pick up some stones. Chip, or maybe Dale, skims over the leaves in front of me. It is his burrow that I wish to seal. The first rock I lift has a universe of slimy creatures beneath. A curled earthworm looks unusually rotund in the middle so I poke it with a stick. Instantly four legs sprout and dig their way into the loamy soil. I carefully return the rock.
I know there is a pile of rocks, beneath a pine beyond the wall. Pieces of slate and granite, boulders and brownstone. Construction debris, I think. I have removed some of those rocks for other projects. I get one now to cover the mysterious hole. One is not enough. An excited pointer moves it aside. I add another. She moves the two of them. How do I build a wall that a hunting dog cannot destroy? The poem’s speaker says it is the “work of hunters”(5) in order to “to please the yelping dogs” (9). Has he ever seen a hunting dog in action? Led by the little beagle, bird dogs jump the wall and paw the stones. Their insistence has removed several large stones, causing smaller ones to cascade away from the wall. My little cairn is easily destroyed in their obsession. I get another rock and then another. I remove a large stone, almost thirty pounds and notice the teeth marks on the trunk. I move another stone and realize that these stones hide another burrow, a larger animal’s burrow, worried by another dog. I return the large stones and scour the woods instead.
As I work, I think about boundaries. Was the function of the wall to set a boundary for the owner’s dog? Was it decorative? Is it supposed to evoke an earlier time? Frost’s speaker describes the neighbor bringing rocks to the wall: “like an old-stone savage armed. /He moves in darkness as it seems to me” (40-41). Is Frost, a poet who liked structures, suggesting some perimeters are not necessary? Out dated? I live in a household that spans four generations. Once I thought this outdated, old fashioned; no one I knew had so many generations in one household. Yet not so long ago, this was the norm. I thought my husband and I were supposed to grow old, together, alone in our nest. Yet when both my daughter and my parents needed help, I filled my empty nest, all the while thinking: ‘this is not how it is supposed to be.’ What is the structure of a family in today’s world?
And in such a household, what are the boundaries? Do I give my daughter unsolicited parenting advice? Do I tell my mom what to eat? How much should I say to my siblings? Should my mother tell me what she thinks I should say to my daughters? How do I build the walls in our relationships? How do I balance the needs of a new mother and my own needy mother? My relationship with my mother has been steadily crumbling for forty years. Is there a spell to erase the hurt so we can balance the remaining years?
I put the stones back into the stone wall. Rebuilding relationships is not as easy as repairing the wall. Every hurt rolls into the woods, leaving a void. Some pieces have strange slimy creatures dwelling under them. Some have been buried by leaves. Sometimes words have left an implacable stoniness that doesn’t allow the rocks to be replaced. Small repairs I can do myself. To mend these walls would take two people, walking together, cooperating, piling emotions into a single edifice. Part of the difficulty will be that we have different memories of the same event but to reconstruct the wall: “To each the boulders that have fallen to each” (16). Can we deal with the emotional boulders that we currently ignore? Perhaps it is better to build a new structure with new boulders. Perhaps the answer is in my nonfunctional wall. Its original function is obscure but it serves a purpose—a hiding place for small wildlife, a border for my dogs.
Now in the mornings the dogs race to the wall. Something has left a scent that excites them. Perhaps it was the yipping fox I heard so early in the morning, checking the wall for the chipmunks that have burrowed below.
Almost a hundred years have passed since Frost wrote that poem, and we live south of Boston. What are the boundaries in our lives? Proximity can tear down our protective surfaces, bring us closer or drive us apart. Is the wall a vestige of something primeval in us—a territorial defense– or a structure that keeps us rooted to family and community? Most of us like structure, laws, and traditions. These are the things that bind us to the community, that make individuals a part of the whole. My dogs? They too like boundaries and rules, but sometimes instinct gets in their way.