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“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”

The ongoing political debate of the two or so years since the most recent presidential election campaign began regularly brings to mind one of the first poems I remember learning as a child: Robert Frost’s Mending Wall. As a school kid, I was intrigued by the fact that the poem seemed to justify two countervailing thoughts: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall”, and “good fences make good neighbors”. Later, what I came to appreciate about his brief poem was that it so clearly both differentiated between the seemingly contradictory statements, and in just a few evocative lines could make clear that there actually was no dissonance there, in that both seemingly contradictory ideas could simultaneously be true.

The Cornell professor who helped guide me through my doctoral work, Dr. Lawrence S. Hamilton, had a fascination with fixing boundaries. For more than 50 years, he collected photographs of fences and walls, always intending to write a book about them. Along the way, he shared photographs and stories of fences with his students and colleagues, and welcomed the gift of fence and wall photographs that some of us would send him from around the world, often decades after we left school.

Although my doctoral research was certainly not about walls or fences, one of the remaining mysteries about Lignumvitae Key, the small, isolated Florida island I studied, was the presence of a substantial coral rock wall almost 1500 feet long. To this day, neither its age nor its purpose have been definitively determined. When Larry visited the key with me, the very existence of that old, massive wall absolutely intrigued him.

Larry was fascinated by the relative permanence of at least parts of walls and fences themselves, but also by the consistent history of barrier breakdown – the fact that from the point of view of their intended purpose, they all were transitory. He would point out to us that Hadrian’s Wall did not keep the Picts from invading England, that the Great Wall of China did not repel invaders, and that even the 2000 mile long fence built across Australia in the early 1900’s to protect farmers from rabbits failed to live up to its promise.

I could add to his list. In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians built a massive wall to keep out Amorite nomads, and the Ottomans broke through the massive wall erected by the Byzantines to protect Constantinople from invasion. Only a few years ago, Slovenia erected a 400 mile fence along the Croatian border; in the end, they all failed. Of course one cannot omit mention of the Berlin Wall or the Iron Curtain, whose demise was relatively recent, and driven by political change that we could watch as it happened.

Frost wrote: “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 offence.” In addition to the other lessons of history, those lines seem particularly insightful in light of the fate of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, and may well prove equally instructive in light of today’s political discord over North American border walls.

Larry Hamilton did not merely collect photographs of barriers; he also began to design his book, making notes to help him prepare the accompanying text to both identify his photographs and share the lessons they taught. Sadly, however, in 2016, Larry died unexpectedly at his home in Vermont following a brief illness, and without having completed his work.  

Fortunately, however, his decades of thought and curatorship did not disappear. Larry’s widow, Linda Hamilton, working from their years together as well as from his notes and photographs, took his work, edited and added to it, and generated a truly unique and lovely book.  Their book is entitled “Fences in the Landscape Talk: Are We Listening” and subtitled “A Whimsical Photographic Essay”. It was published late last year by Mascot Books, and is well worth exploring.

A lesson can be learned from the book’s back cover, which reflects on its content with these meaningful words: “As you think about the stories embedded in fences, you may see parallels between the physical fences we build, and the psychological and cultural barriers we erect between ourselves. Realistically, the effectiveness of both is limited and temporary –because no fences are permanent.”