Sunday, November 15, 2009

Tim Anderson, "Thoughts On Fence-Building"

As a young boy, one of the first jobs I remember helping my father with, and actually being able to contribute, was building a fence. Neighbours who we hardly knew at all agreed to work on it together, and it became quite a community event. As the saying goes, good fences make good neighbours, or at least improve the ones you've got.

I believe that this was the first time I hammered a nail all the way into a board successfully. While this didn't do much to improve the overall statistics on my hammering, I considered that moment when that nail head sat flush with the mangled surface of the wood nothing less than a rite of passage.

We built a fence this past week. We built it first to separate ourselves from our neighbors to the east, and a dog to the west. But strangely, the same sort of things happened as when I was a kid, working on my first fence.

The rotten kid next door whose only developed skill is annoying people discovered he could pound nails straight. No one minded him helping, and he hardly offended us at all. His sister, the one with no friends, was a willing and able helper, whose work was just fine.

As to the dog, he was quite startled to see all this activity in his domain. One should understand first that this dog has
considered the area of half of our back yard his domain, and yaps his little head off whenever we do something that strikes him as threatening, like parking the car. He then raises his leg over various sections of our lawn as a gesture of triumph. After two days of digging and pounding, he's hemmed into a space four feet across from the fence to his house. He's noticeably quieter, although I suspect he'll start raising his leg on our fence as an expression of defiance.

But mostly this week, I rehearsed that old script that men follow when they're doing man's work.

Men working together on backyard projects understand what I'm talking about. My brother-in-law and I worked into a familiar pattern with one another, getting progressively more efficient. At post number one you're tentative, questioning each measurement four times over. You keep asking, Is that straight? When you get to post twelve you're an expert. When you stop for a lemonade, your upper lip curls like a gunslinger's.

I ponder on the insufficiency of the metric system. Not, of course, in terms of accuracy, but rather in the whole culture of the North American male. "Move the board 8mm" does not have one tenth the feeling of crisp, comradely competence of"Give me 5/16ths." The whole process of doing the math in feet and inches is a bonding experience for men. Metric is too easy to bother cooperating.

Put a group of men of widely varying backgrounds and levels of education together on the same project and you'll find they soon all speak in the same idiomatic way. They say things like "move that sucker out of the way for a minute." Sucker? When do I ever use that word?

I defy you to find me a man who has never tested a wall or a footing for strength and said, "That's not goin' anywhere."

Words like rip, mitre, bevel, countersink, butt joint, toenail, buttress, gusset. Words that bring together brute force and the terse lexicon of the rational mind. It occurs to me that in his workshop, each man is Rational Man writ small. Against the forces of chaos that threaten the order of his household possessions, Suburban Man applies the principles of science.

And I realize suddenly that in building this fence I'm re-enacting, in a small way, the great lies of mankind.

First the lie of division, that this place is mine and not yours, and the whole picture of distrust that fences create for us. We prefer the positive way of expressing it, by talking about security, but really fences are about minimizing danger, minimizing exposure, minimizing the others around us.

And fences are in their great national versions, a statement of permanence against all the dangers presented by our neighbours. So each of us in our homely little way plays Hadrian. We scoff at the Berlin Wall, but North Americans are as bad or worse than any of them. If all the brickwork in those new exclusive townhome developments were put together, I suspect it would dwarf the Great Wall of China.

And even deeper, there is the vague feeling of self-satisfaction one gets in building things. The sense of closure that comes with finishing the job, the seductive illusion of self-sufficiency that comes with a full tool box, sharp blades, and an assortment of hardware. It's the illusion of the centuries, that lie of the controlled environment, with us as its master. Two hundred and some feet of fence across a denuded landscape and I feel like I've subjugated the wilderness. But like all our rationality, my work is a closing off, a shutting out, not conquering at all. The smaller we focus, the larger we feel.

I remember what Lewis said about our delusions of human independence and self-sufficiency. Paper screens, he called them. Paper screens we put up to hold back the universe, to hide from ourselves.

Still, I must admit that I'm satisfied. I've used my mind and my body, I'm tired, and it feels good. I bring up the topic of my fence with anybody who'll listen. It's my glory and it's my shame, and two thousand pounds of concrete say this fence isn't goin' anywhere.

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