Fences demonstrate how we perceive ourselves and each other.
LONG ISLAND NEWSDAY
"Don't fence me in," Cole Porter admonished in a song that, once mentioned, sticks to you like lint.
For better or worse, it's a lyrical directive we routinely ignore.
Fences, those upright markers of place and space, are ubiquitous in our landscape, accessories to the buildings and properties where we live and work and play. In the country, they crisscross fields in ribbons of picket and tumbles of fieldstone. In the city, they frame postage-stamp lots and grand apartment buildings in bursts of chain link and wrought iron.
However, while they are a visual reminder of where yours ends and mine begins, fences communicate much more than the precise lines on a surveyor's map.
"Fences are about inclusion and exclusion," says Mary Gail Snyder, a senior research fellow at the National Housing Institute in Montclair, N.J., and author of "Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States" (Brookings Institution Press, 1999). "They show who's in and who's out."
At this time of year, as gardening and barbecues and general house pride expand our attention to the outdoor spaces that are extensions of ourselves, fences loom large.
From the ancient walls of Troy and Jericho, to the Cold War-era Berlin Wall, fences are declarations of identity, of them and us.
The word "town" derives from zaun, the German word for fence, notes Gregory K. Dreicer, a historian of technology and exhibition developer who curated "Between Fences," a cultural history of fences that will tour the country as part of the Smithsonian's Museum on Main Street program later this year. "The walling in of a city was for defense, but it also created a boundary," he says, "and defined who you were."
In politically heated areas, fences underscore distrust between peoples, such as the barrier of razor wire and concrete that divides Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. On our own borders, Dreicer notes the "enormous differences" between the Canadian and Mexican borders: one open and undefended for thousands of miles, the other fortified by 15-foot walls in areas illegal immigrants are known to cross.
Fences speak not just to national and ethnic identity but also to class. On California's tony Malibu coast, homeowners in the Broad Beach community were recently ordered to stop building gigantic walls of sand to block beachgoers from their oceanfront homes.
Sense of security
The upper-middle-class version of a Malibu manse is the gated community. The walls that surround these enclaves give residents something even more elusive than security or prestige: a sense of control.
"Only the most lazy and incompetent criminals couldn't get into a gated community -- every pizza-delivery guy has the access code," Snyder says. "People aren't scared of criminals, they're scared of outsiders. So if someone is inside the gate, you can say to yourself, 'They're not a stranger -- someone has given them permission to be here.' And that's absolutely about control."
The pinnacle in fences might very well be having none at all. "If you live far away from other people in an area that keeps them out through prices or zoning, then you don't have to worry about anyone other than your fellow filthy rich," says Snyder, noting that "exclusive" really does mean to exclude.
When they are present, many fences are more symbolic than functional. "A fence frames your property like a picture frame. It helps define what a home is, and by doing that it creates identity," Dreicer says. "If a fence is run-down and unkempt, its condition says something about the owner. So do certain kinds of fences, such as dry stone walls, which are very expensive and fancy."
Also, like skirt lengths, fences go in and out of style. In the 19th century, cast iron was as cheap and common as plastic; today, a newel post from that era might bring four figures on eBay. Perhaps the fence with the most cultural resonance for Americans is the saccharine white picket, architectural shorthand for happiness, stability and -- some might argue -- stultifying conformity.
Today, the old-fashioned picket has gained fresh currency, particularly in "new urbanism" communities such as Disney-manufactured Celebration, Fla., which includes a picket fence in its logo.
"Fences are often mandated in these places because they are such a symbol of small-town life and what's good in America and pride of having your own place," Dreicer says.
Your 6-foot stockade fence might be the ultimate distillation of manifest destiny. The earliest Americans didn't require so much as a spindle post, because their intense communality was about sharing land, not parceling it.
However, the pilgrims, pioneers and settlers who displaced American Indian culture had a definite proprietary imperative. They exercised it with fences, from Colonial waddles made of tightly woven stripped branches to the sculpturally stark barbed wire that marked the end of the frontier.
"Fences determine who has access to the land, and who can use the land, and the resources on it and in it," says Dreicer, adding that livestock played a key role in the history of fences, as the West's range wars erupted between ranchers and farmers.
Such heated conflicts, played across the backdrop of "thorny fence," as barbed wire was nicknamed, are hardly limited to the history books. In April of last year, John Ames, a lawyer-turned-gentleman farmer in Bowling Green, Va., shot and killed his neighbor, Perry Brooks, when Brooks trespassed to retrieve his bull, a libidinous mongrel who had previously impregnated cows in Ames' prized purebred herd.
The two men had been in court since the late 1980s, when Ames fenced his farm, then billed Brooks $45,000 for half the cost. State courts eventually upheld the obscure 17th century law binding adjoining neighbors to such shared expenses.
"There is a common thread that runs through the country in fence use," says attorney Cora Miner Jordan of Oxford, Miss., author of "Neighbor Law: Fences, Trees, Boundaries and Noise" (Nolo, $26.99).
"If your neighbor puts up a fence on the property line, and you use that fence -- if it encloses your property -- then the fence becomes joint property."
Indeed, no fence is an island: Its mere presence implies interaction with those on the other side. This is the understanding implicit in such neighborly etiquette as putting a fence up "pretty side out." Additionally, to avoid the Hatfield-McCoy-ish specter of a "spite fence," one needs to follow one simple rule, Jordan says: Know your neighbor.
It's advice she's taken herself. Jordan owns a home on the oldest street in Berkeley, Calif., a "throwback in time" where none of the tightly snuggled properties have surveys, and "nobody knows where their property line is."