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“Pig-Tight, Horse-High, and Bull-Strong”

Robert Frost, in his now-famous poem “Mending Wall,” wrote, “Good fences make good neighbors.” Actually, it was not he who was making that profound statement but rather his neighbor. Together, they were repairing their mutual fence that divided their two properties. Frost seemed to think the fence was unnecessary.

He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

The neighbor insists, however, that “Good fences make good neighbors.” Frost presses his argument:

Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

“Good fences make good neighbors,” the neighbor repeats.

I thought of Frost’s poem the other day while reading about early 17th-century Maryland, where the settlers had to resolve the problem of wandering livestock that tended to trample other people’s gardens and money crops. This was a serious problem because the protection of the family garden at the time often meant the family’s survival and the protection of the fields determined economic success or failure, which hinged on their money crop (at the time tobacco). The colonial community debated the pressing need “to fence in the crop and turn out the stock.” The assembly decided to pass a law that required “sufficient” fences for the purpose. But then the issue became what constituted a “sufficient” fence. The lawmakers finally agreed that all fences should be “pig-tight, horse-high, and bull-strong.”

That definition seems to me to be quite practical for the time and circumstances for which it was created. Pigs were plentiful, pork being one of the most important meats of the colonists’ diet, and they tended to root under insufficiently built barriers. If a fence wasn’t tall enough, a horse could jump it and inflict damage on the other side. And a bull was so big and strong that it could topple poorly built barricades just be leaning on them to scratch their rumps. If a pig got under, a horse jumped over, or a bull knocked down a fence, then that was proof that the owner had not constructed a “sufficient” fence, and he had to suffer the consequences without recourse to the law. He should have been more diligent in his fence-building.

Because rocks were not readily available in the Southern colonies, especially not the New England-types of rocks that Frost would later refer to in his poem, or required a lot of labor to secure and move to the site of the proposed fence, Southern farmers couldn’t build rock fences. But timber was readily available, so the split-rail fence became a common fixture on the Southern landscape. Every farmer had an axe, and experience taught him that the most efficient use of his lumber resources was to split triangular rails. He could then stack them one atop another, interlacing their ends and holding them in place by driving posts on either side of the interlaced ends. This eliminated the need for iron nails, which were scarce. It also produced the now-familiar zig-zag pattern of the fences. Most importantly, if constructed correctly, it resulted in a fence that was “pig-tight, horse-high, and bull-strong.”

As I’ve thought about the colonial fence-building process, I’ve seen it as an analogy of what we should be doing in our spiritual lives. A strong spiritual life depends on our adopting standards (“fences”) for ourselves that will keep the carnal, sinful nature in check and allow the spiritual life to grow and thrive. A Christian has two natures–the old man, which is bent on doing wrong, and the new man, created after the image of Christ, which seeks to do what honors God and edifies others–and they are in conflict with each other. (See Romans 7:15-23.) The blueprint for the standards have already been established by God in His Word. Our responsibility is to set standards–build fences–based on that blueprint, not to build according to our own fallible and finite understanding, the whims of the society around us, or on any other basis.

Are you a good fence-builder? Are the fences you are building “pig-tight, horse-high, and bull-strong”? That’s the only kind of fence that makes good neighbors.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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