Good Fences, Bad Neighbors


by Michael Hofferber. Copyright © 1993. All rights reserved.

"Good fences make good neighbors," said the poet's neighbor, as if a wall could improve on human nature or protect one from its failings.

The poet was not convinced, and from what I've seen lately his neighbor had it backwards. Only good neighbors make good fences.

Old Wood Barn with Fence
For the past several months Neighbor B has been feuding with Neighbor A over the size and appearance of his fence -- eight feet tall and a hundred feet long, sculpted from old barn wood.

An eyesore, says Neighbor B.

A necessity, says Neighbor A.

Neighbor B, you see, bought land next to Neighbor A a few years ago and built a home there. 

Then he started landscaping and, as neighbors often do, questioned the property line. Neighbor A's fence was trespassing, said Neighbor B. That's where its always been, said Neighbor A, whose favorite apricot tree grew from the contested soil.

Bad blood began brewing between the two. What one side saw as a clear case of trespass the other interpreted as petty greed. Neighbor A believed he could have won the case in court, but at a high cost. Instead, he moved the fence, his garden and his apricot tree.

By now Neighbor A and Neighbor B could barely stand the sight of each other. They glared when they met. They growled like dogs. They made enemies of each others' families and each others' friends.

"Before I built a wall I'd ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was likely to give offense," said the poet.

Both Neighbor A and Neighbor B built separate walls along the same property line with just a couple feet of no man's land between. Neighbor B's wooden fence rose six feet high while Neighbor A's rose eight. Neighbor B's was stained and tidy. Neighbor A's was rough-cut and well-weathered.

"Illegal!" cried Neighbor B.

"Harassment!" cried Neighbor A.

Both wanted to wall out their neighbor and wall in their peace of mind. But Neighbor B could have neither so long as two feet of foreign fence loomed over his property, and Neighbor A could never rest knowing Neighbor B was out to get even.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall, That wants it down," said the poet.

A wind storm came up this past week and nearly toppled the issue. Instead, the fences held and the feud was fanned to full flame. "A safety hazard!" cried Neighbor B. "A right to privacy!" cried Neighbor A. And they nearly came to blows.

I can still see them, armed with shovels and sledge hammers, shoring up their defenses and shouting at each other over their walls.

"He moves in darkness as it seems to me," concluded the poet, "Not of woods only and the shade of trees."


There are good neighbors and there are bad neighbors, I admit, but you cannot be one if your neighbor is the other. No one can be a neighbor alone; the word "neighbor" should always be plural. Neighbors share more than geographic space. They share a place in time, an altitude, a climate and an atmosphere. Some share streets and water systems and fire protection.

Good neighbors also share squash and barbecues and children. They copy each others' recipes, admire each others' gardens, jump-start each other's dead batteries. Bad neighbors sacrifice and accuse and scorn. They live isolated lives, separated from one another by gripes and prejudices and resentments.

The poet probably had it right. Bad neighbors make bad fences.



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