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Robert Frost famously said, “Good fences make good neighbors”—something that makes a lot of sense in the country surrounding our farm.   A fence is a way of dividing ownership of the landscape into what’s yours and what’s mine, clearly defined, visible:  an obstacle that must be walked around, or passed through with a gate.  Fences work both ways: some things are being kept in, so they don’t wander off—things that are ours (sheep, cows, dogs, children), and some things are being kept out—other people’s animals, wild animals, other people’s kids, or strangers.

When we bought our farm 25 years ago, the fence around the property was in very poor repair, and other people’s cattle had the run of our meadow—as allowed by “open range laws”.  We gained control of the meadow only when a local rancher spent a summer building fence around the property to keep his cattle out—if they could get into the meadow, they would never leave—and he had leased 14,000 acres of forest lands surrounding our property—where he wanted them to spend the summer grazing.  Now, when he opens the gate to our property in October, the meadow is soon filled with his herd—I once counted 160 cattle in our meadow in late fall.  It makes it easy for him to round them up and move them to their winter range.


Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

Cows in the meadow, Fall 2015

The old farmhouse we are using as a cabin is in the middle of the meadow, and was surrounded by a fence to keep the cattle out of the yard.  Behind the house, a deer fence surrounded the garden area.  Another fence kept the cattle out of the pond.  Every time we went to the garden, we opened a gate.  Going from the house to the well  near the pond required going through three gates.

The old fences, Spring 2016

The old fences, Spring 2016


Last winter, my wife Rachel suggested that we surround the house, garden, and pond inside a single fence, high enough to keep the deer out.   We love watching the deer, and are glad there are so many, but they do tend to eat almost anything we plant.  The new fence would enclose all the sheds, the new grove of trees we planted to the south of the house (the next generation of shade), the newly planted apple trees, and the place where we are trying to start a thicket for the birds.

Early this spring, we figured out where we wanted this new fence to go, marked corners, and measured distances.  I started building the new fence in early June, starting with pulling out some of the old fence to make way for the new.  I have memories of helping my father build fence, back in Lancaster County, when I was a boy.  It’s hard work—digging holes, stretching wire, pounding posts, pounding nails—dirty, physical labor—not the kind of thing I’ve spent my career doing.   I wind up drenched in sweat and filthy at the end of the day.  And the job is big—each day I work I make some progress, but the job requires many days of work—weeks, months.  The satisfaction, though, is in being able to see my progress, and knowing that I’ve done the job right, and that, with luck, the fence should last the rest of my lifetime.   We are making the fence as transparent as possible, so we can see the space beyond.

I’m about half way done with the job now.  Moving the fences changes the space in many ways—trees that had been outside the fence—in the space belonging to the deer and the cattle—are now inside—in our space.  Even though we legally own the whole property, building our fence is a way of defining our space—where we can plant things—and making the property our home.  We dream of gardens and orchards, with flowers and seeds and thickets for birds, and porches to watch them from.


Fence (1 of 1)

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