“America’s current immigration debate has led to misinterpretations of Robert Frost by proponents of Fortress America. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., was among those proclaiming that ‘good fences make good neighbors,’ borrowing from Frost’s poem, ‘Mending Wall.’ He and others missed the poet’s point entirely, but those sorts of quibbles rarely matter in Washington.” (From an editorial in the Charleston Gazette, 5-30-06.)

I am not surprised that Sessions misinterpreted Frost’s poem, even if he has read it, which I doubt. I doubt that that there are many Republicans who have read the poem and even fewer who have read it who would interpret it other than Sessions did. I do because many conservatives have embedded within them a more primal orientation with regards to walls and boundaries than do Democrats and generally have a weaker endowment of percipience with regard to most things. And the territorial imperative is what this border issue is all about, which is acerbated by obtuseness.

It is as simple as this: A dog that sees a stranger barks and often bites. A bull will battle another bull that enters his acres. A bird sings a song that this territory is his. A cat stinks up his territory defining the limits of it. A rabbit, when jumped and chased, circles within the confines of her territory. Humans are known to kill their neighbors in controversy over a mere foot difference in the boundary between them. And people have sacrificed millions of their sons in war and have sacrificed them from the days when they were tribes with clubs, which killed a few, to days when they were nations with technological weapons, which slaughtered many—all this in order to fence in or recover acres that often were not room enough to bury the dead. Walls have often been a nemesis for mankind.

Here are excerpts from Frost’s “Mending Wall.” They provide the reader the opportunity to determine whether or not Sessions read the poem and if he did whether or not he understood it. I cannot refrain from adding my two cents but what I add will be obvious.

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.

Frost is not saying, “Good fences make good neighbors.” He is saying that there is something that does not love a wall. Nevertheless, in spring time Frost and his neighbor come to mend the wall, to put the boulders back in place. Frost describes it:

We wear our fingers rough with handling them.

Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,

One on a side. It comes to little more:

There where it is we do not need a wall:

He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

My apple trees will never get across

And eat the cones of his pines, I tell him.

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

This is what his neighbor’s daddy told him and his daddy told his daddy and it’s good enough for him and he will not be comfortable until the wall between them is put as it was, even though his neighbor’s apple trees have no appetite for his pine cones.

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 offense.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

And wants it down.”

The mischief in him is to try to get his neighbor to reconsider an ancient prejudice by asking questions that he hopes will open his neighbor’s mind and let him realize that there is no need for fences where there are no cows. He asks it with the hope that the neighbor will see not only the needlessness of fences where there are no cows but also the needlessness and harm of fences in a broader and philosophical sense, such as fences between   peoples and nations.

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 made good neighbors.”

The old-stone savage is still alive. It asserts itself conspicuously in people who wish to make felons of those immigrants who are in this nation illegally. The savage moves in darkness. He listens only to what his ancestors said and to the beating of the drums and the frenzied dances around a communal fire in a place where everyone there has never had a thought or been to a place beyond the confines of the tribal boundary.

It is beyond the understanding of the neighbor that all peoples on the earth, the tribes on the other side of the mountain, those over the waters on other lands, wherever they are, are people who are little different from him and his people and that all have a common origin. Those concepts   apparently are also beyond the understanding of Sessions and his ilk. But they were not beyond the understanding of Frost, who gently lets the readers know it and hints to his neighbor and readers that fences and walls do not make good neighbors. On the contrary, they often keep people from being good neighbors.

About Sam's Branch

I joined the Peace Corps in 1961 as West Virginia’s first volunteer. Go to Amazon.com to order my book Imagonna: Peace Corps Memories. I am the eighth generation of my family born in the Big Coal River Valley of West Virginia. My father and grandfather were underground coal miners. I have a chemical engineering degree from West Virginia University (WVU). After training to make sidewinder missiles, I joined the Peace Corps and taught chemistry and coached the track team at a secondary school in Nigeria. Since that time, I was WVU’s first full time foreign student advisor and worked in urban outreach, organic farming, construction labor, and high school teaching. I recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy (wvhighlands.org), and recently retired from the board of directors of the West Virginia Kanawha State Forest Foundation (ksff.org). I am still on the board of the Labor History Association and the West Virginia Environmental Education Association and recently joined the board of the West Virginia Civil Liberties Union. I am active in the campaign to stop the destructive practice of mountain top removal strip mining in the Appalachian Mountains. You may contact me at martinjul@aol.com or my blog samsbranch.wordpress.
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