Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

Wall in the woods at Ames Nowell State Park.
Wall in the woods at Ames Nowell State Park.

I saw this wall on Friday when we were walking through the woods and I recited the opening line of Mending Wall. “What’s that?” Bella asked. “Robert Frost,” I said, “A poem called ‘Mending Wall.'” I should read it to them so they know.

I wonder who built this wall and when. This wall which now wanders through the woods in a state park. Was this land once a field? Did two men once walk this boundary and set the stones back on top of each other like Frost and his neighbor? In Texas, where I’m from, we didn’t have walls like these. And when I first read this poem I’d never seen this sort of wall. And now here I am and here it is. I’m living in the land of poetry, discovering a real terrain where before had been inadequate imagination, and trying to map the one onto the other.

After I snapped this picture Anthony climbed over the wall, pleased at being able to conquer it, but I was holding Lucy’s hand and had already put my phone away and so missed the picture. But you can imagine it if you want to.

Mending Wall

by Robert Frost

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.
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.
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.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor 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.’
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,
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. 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.’

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  • Here is the briefest of histories of New England walls. Until Napoleon invaded Portugal, merino wool, which was much prized throughout the world was a Portuguese monopoly. However, Napoleon allowed export of the merino sheep and the American ambassador sent 4,000 of them to his farm in Vermont. If I remember correctly, this was about 1809-1811.

    Then came the war of 1812 and afterwards there were such heavy tariffs on British goods that everyone wanted their own sheep, especially their own merino sheep. The sheep population grew very, very rapidly and by the middle of the century there were something like 2 million sheep in Vermont alone (or some crazy number; as I said, I am doing this from memory.)

    With the huge market for domestic cloth, acres and acres of land needed to be cleared. New England in the 19th century looked very different than it does now. There was very little forest; everything was cleared fields. To keep all these sheep in place, the farmers needed fences. After the wood and brush was used up, they turned to stones.

    So, yes, all these stone walls that you see in the woods once marked out fields. If you look closely, you can sometimes tell if the wall enclosed a pasture or crops. The pasture walls were mostly just the larger stones. When you see smaller stones mixed in or topping the wall, then you know the farmer was really trying to clear the field for crops.

    As the century moved along and the land was overgrazed or just too thin to support much in the way of farming, families started to move “west” (to Ohio for example), and the cleared land reverted back to forest.

    Hope this helps.

  • Thank you, Elizabeth. This is all very interesting. And you even managed to connect it to our recent history studies. Napoleon! How very helpful. I’ll read this to the kids, I’m sure Bella will especially enjoy.