Tag Archives: environment

Fence Me In

In William Cronon’s book, Changes in the Land – Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, he painstakingly investigates the multitude of uses versus non-uses that the American landscape has endured and the resulting changes it has weathered – uses that were imposed for sustainable, cultural, economic or belief-system reasons. In among the eco-ethnological interactions that he discusses (and it is all engaging), what stood out when I first read the book about 15 years ago and what still floors me is the concept of bounding and separating land – something we just take for granted now. Fences.

As a long-time admirer of fences and walls, I was made aware of their origins, purpose and form after having studied landscape history and reading this book. Walls and fences were the first renderings of physical boundaries in the New World (copied of course from the Old World), and their introduction into the environment gave glimpses of the land divisions and sub-divisions yet to come in the ravenous and commodious future. These first fences must have boggled the minds of Native Americans considering that theirs was an open, borderless landscape.

Cronon says that fences were the result of “an effort to control the relationship between domesticated animals and crops.” So, fences became “not only the map of a settlement’s property rights, but its economic activities and ecological relationships as well.” Gardens were separated from cornfields, meadows from pastures – divisions of labor and purpose that ended up repurposing the land’s ecosystems with fixed ideas about boundaries and use, as well as a proprietary stamp.

As the acreage was sliced and diced, the fences and walls became the three-dimensional lines drawn. Nearly 400 years later, fences abound. They exist in every type of landscape imaginable, often more for keeping human animals within or without spatial delineations, and still, in rural settings, to keep both wild and husbandry animals separate from domestic crops. But they also have become a design element on the land; a way of expressing something about where your place is situated, or perhaps, where you would like it to be situated, or how you might want to locate it in some meaningful historical context, or disconnect it from a lousy neighbor, or maybe, just keep dogs from peeing on it. It is quite rare to see an unfenced property except in what we call wilderness areas. Fences now, just as in Colonial times, are a sign of an “improved” property. This begs the question: Are the fences themselves improved?

Fences are mostly purely functional, but they can also be stylish or even whimsical. Sometimes I think the whimsical ones are trying to give something back while they take away access – an apology of sorts. I am intrigued by the artful choice of materials, the spacing of the upright pieces, the height, the mass, and I am especially wowed by a curved fence or wall, because, let’s face it, most everything in the world of real estate is rectilinear. Curviness is unnecessary, unless circumnavigating something round like a tree, and because of that it is extraordinary; plus, it takes someone skilled to build a curve well.

When a property owner puts some character into a fence, when a fence expresses something about its site or the site’s inhabitants – that’s when it gets my attention, when it is not merely a boundary but an artistic endeavor. It is the evolution from a functional accessory into something that is personal and unique and which provides placeness, that makes me pause to ponder it, not the prefab sections from the home-improvement store. Fences can be aesthetic statements, they can be clever or just plain fun. They can be made from fabricated materials or found ones. Because there is no mandate to go the extra bit beyond standard fencedom – to make something protective so attractive or eye-catching – that is why it is so noteworthy; creating an underline or outline, rather than just a line.

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Desert Solitaire: A Lone Ranger

We have said that placeness can be in the eye of the beholder. One such beholder, a certain Edward Abbey, wrote a book in 1968 called Desert Solitaire. His observations about time spent alone in the desert, specifically Arches National Monument (now Park), are keen and true – and often express our concept of arslocii. Up front, in the introduction, he worries that the book might be perceived as being based on appearances and surfaces rather than “to engage and reveal the patterns of unifying relationships … the true underlying reality of existence.”

First of all, an amazing time the late ’60s was – when people actually thought about such things as reality. Apparently, a lost notion. And, then, to be concerned that critics might think that he wasn’t providing dialogue about it, let alone answers. Wow. But, he as writer is a great combination of scientific observer and poetic interpreter. The 33,000 acres of Moab valley, canyon and tableland, with the deep gash of the Colorado River, which he tends as a park ranger, are described in achingly beautiful detail, sometimes to the point of madness. And he is protective and angry about its impending loss for human use. But he states, simply, that he is there “to confront … the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bedrock which sustains us … in which the naked self merges with a nonhuman world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.”

Abbey illustrates so well in this book that the combination of human observation – not intervention – and wilderness together make a perfect pairing. Voyeur and performer, interpreter and constant changer, lover and indifferent object of that love. Arslocii. One of his stated goals is to lose the filters, the human translation of the place – although he certainly describes and reacts to what’s around him – but he simply wants to “be,” just like nature itself. He can’t help his human emotions and his metaphors and similes, and because of that he makes it real for us. He creates that placeness for us in his words. We can’t see it through his eyes but we can hear it in his voice. Nature’s indifference feeds the flames of his human passion.

Aside from rants about nearly every facet of human endeavor (and I cannot disagree), Abbey is a prophet in his wild world. And he is the perfect counterpart to the wilderness. His writing is eloquent, his mind is facile, his sources of knowledge are varied and vast. He has depth and humor and seems to be without fear. As powerful as his detailed sightings of landscape, flora and fauna are, as deep as his respect and love of nature are, he is a man who treasures the gifts of individual humans in the context of civilization

precious and fragile, drawn through history by the finest threads of art and idea. … It is the conscious forefront of evolution, the brotherhood of great souls and the comradeship of intellect, a corpus mysticum … a democratic aristocracy based not on power or institutions but on isolated men – Lao-Tse, Chuang-Tse, Gautama, Diogenes, Euripides, Socrates, Jesus, Wat Tyler and Jack Cade, Paine and Jefferson, Blake and Burns and Beethoven, John Brown and Henry Thoreau, Whitman, Tolstoy, Emerson, Mark Twain, Rabelais and Villon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Spartacus, Nietzsche and Thomas Mann, Lucretius and Pope John XXIII, and ten thousand other poets, revolutionaries and independent spirits, both famous and forgotten, alive and dead, whose heroism gives to human life on earth its adventure, glory and significance.

He goes on: “The utopian technologists foresee a future for us in which distance is annihilated. … To be everywhere at once is to be nowhere forever, if you ask me.” His thoughts and the rich tapestry of his surroundings, a harsh environment to be sure, are the ideal and the real, brought together in this remarkable diary. Placeness.

Desert Solitaire is as full of extremes and paradoxes as nature is, written by a human who is at once a misanthrope and a mystic. In the forty-four years since its writing, Abbey has proven himself to be right as well as righteous.

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