Don’t fence me in

Bingara, New South Wales, 1963: When I was seven years old, the baker’s daughter came to stay and for the first time I found myself sharing a double bed with a member of the opposite sex. In a desperate attempt to protect my boyish, personal space I hit upon an ingenious solution. I unfolded my parents’ banana lounge and placed it, on its side, down the middle of the bed between the pig-tailed trespasser and myself. I had built my very first fence.

East Jerusalem, 2003: Walid Ayad is renovating his hotel. But he has a problem. The Israeli government is building a 360 kilometre security fence it says is designed to protect its citizens from suicide bombers. If the fence goes to plan it will run right through the middle of his property, dividing the hotel from its gardens. Ayad’s life is only one of thousands that will be affected.

Fences are about territory. They are the way in which we see fit to order our world, the terms on which we are prepared to share it with others. And, from the 28 kilometers of razor wire surrounding the US Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to John Howard’s so-called ‘white picket fence’ view of society, they are always political.

A world without fences is almost impossible to imagine in a society that steadfastly believes that the planet can be divvied up between nations and land owned by individuals. The absence of fences from the Australian landscape before white settlement demonstrates a fundamental difference in this belief between indigenous and non-indigenous people. Fences are the marks white fellas like me have left on the country, the way we have attempted to tame the wilderness, transforming what we perceived as an empty, amorphous space into a peopled and parcelled place.

‘It is when we find ourselves in a landscape of well-built, well-maintained fences and hedges and walls,’ wrote the celebrated geographer John Brinckerhoff Jackson, ‘that we realise we are in a landscape where political identity is a matter of importance, a landscape where lawyers make a good living and everyone knows how much land he owns’.

We have chopped, sliced and diced the world’s rural and urban landscapes with millions of kilometres of fences. They form one of the most ubiquitous elements of our built environment. We might accept the Great Wall of China as architecture but fail to see any aesthetic value in the Dingo Fence which, running from the Great Australian Bight to central Queensland, is said to be the longest man-made fence on Earth. That’s unless you happen to be John Pickard.

For the past decade Pickard, a visiting fellow at Macquarie University, has been studying the impact of pastoralism on the Australian landscape, focusing on fences. For him there is no doubt that a fence can be a thing of beauty. This man is truly in love.

‘I admire them for several reasons’, he tells me. ‘One is the amazing perspective of just seeing post after post in a beautiful line disappearing into a heat haze. The small droplets of water out of fog that form on the spiders’ webs on posts in the morning, and when the light’s on them, well there are hundreds of these things down lengths of a fence. Or a very nicely preserved post-and-rail fence built with incredible labour, maybe 80 or 90 years ago. I find them very, very aesthetic objects.’

But does John Pickard also see ugliness in fences? ‘Yes I do. I see human despair where people went out and settled in areas that were way beyond reasonable limits, for example north of Goyder’s Line in South Australia.’ Pickard is referring to a line in the sand, drawn in the mid 19th century by government surveyor George Goyder to delineate the point beyond which agriculture was not feasible. A line which was nonetheless ignored by farmers with a blind faith that rain would follow the plough. ‘You can see the remnants of this [faith] today, the effort that people put into fencing and then obviously went bankrupt and
walked off. What kind of human despair was involved?’

Fences tell Pickard about the extent to which the landscape has altered over time. Long stretches of a fence, built in the 1890s but today buried within 10 or 15-centimetres from the tops of the posts, tell him that the soil that has been swept there is the result of land erosion nearby brought about by human intervention. If it weren’t for the fence you wouldn’t  recognise how much this part of Australia had changed.

Pickard is full of fencing facts and figures. It took somewhere between 10 and 20 million wooden posts just to fence the Western Division of NSW, and given that one small mulga tree might be good for only one post, that’s 10 to 20 million trees. Some of the best stone fences are to be found at Kiama, south of Wollongong (basalt), and on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula (limestone). The most common fence post used in Australia, the three-armed star steel post, was invented in 1927 by two American rolling mill engineers working in Newcastle and they’ve been manufactured continually ever since. Our famous rabbit-proof fences were doomed to fail because the rabbiters, who were paid a bounty for catching bunnies, deliberately seeded the other side of the fence with what they were paid to catch. And the smallest fence in common use, if you consider a fence as a statement of property
rights, is historically the wedding ring worn by a woman.

Gregory Dreicer, curator of an exhibition about fences at the United States National Building Museum in the mid-1990s, has written that they ‘tell us where we belong and who we are in relation to others. Fences join the public and private. Remove a fence, invite chaos. Erect a fence, you are home’. Certainly most Australians could not imagine home without a fence.

‘Good fences make for good neighbours’, wrote the poet Robert Frost in The Mending Wall. Bad fences can certainly lead to bitter disputes. Presumably this is why state governments have dividing Fences Acts and why community legal centres and councils feel the need to publish fact sheets detailing how to avoid conflict with your neighbour about fences.

Julie Bishop, director of the National Association of Community Legal Centres says that last financial year, nationally, the centres received 1,527 requests for assistance with disputes over fences. ‘That would indicate a major problem’, she says. ‘Because a huge proportion of our clients are tenants, not home owners, and home owners by and large would go to their local lawyer. So we’re only getting the tail end’.

For John Pickard one of the real differences between a rural fence and a suburban fence is that the former is a very functional object. It’s designed for the purpose of keeping stock in, or out, or away from crops, and it needs to do that as cheaply as possible. A fence in urban areas, especially a front fence, quite often says something about the status of the homeowner.

‘If you look at some of the larger houses in the older suburbs you see very elaborate fences’, Pickard observes. ‘These are a very clear statement of “I am a wealthy person and I’m demonstrating this and all you riff raff can keep outside. But, hell, you can admire my fence”.’

For most householders, however, the design of a new fence tends to be ruled by the hip pocket and the desire to reach quick, easy agreement with the neighbours. Not surprisingly, Colorbond rules. But for baby boomers like me, wooden paling fences still frame childhood memories. Perhaps they first entered my imagination on reading how Tom Sawyer tricked his friends into painting the paling fence for him so that he could venture down the Mississippi with his pal Huck Finn. I recall how a paling or two, once removed, could provide easy access through a neighbour’s yard to reach the creek, or a much-needed structural beam to support the roof of a cubby, or how it fuelled a cracker night bomb fire. Asked what he thinks of the demise of the wooden backyard fence, in preference for powder-coated metal sheeting, John Pickard once again shows his colours, and they are all shades of green.

‘The old paling fence … was probably made from old growth hardwood, so its demise is probably a good thing. Secondly, some of the newer ones in the past decade or so have been made of copper chrome arsenate [treated] pine. And there’s evidence coming from the US that CCA treated wood actually leads to problems of arsenic in the soil. So shifting to Colorbond does have some environmental advantages. Aesthetically? Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.’

Certainly a Colorbond steel fence is a beautiful thing to Canberra residents Rex and Lola Ensbey, whose home survived the devastating 2003 bushfire. In a testimonial posted in 2003 on the website of Bluescope Steel, which manufactures Colorbond, Lola credited their steel fence with helping save the house and protect the garden: ‘Although the paint is peeling off in a lot of places, the fence itself is intact.’ The wooden post-and-rail fence might be an Australian rural icon, but Colorbond emerges as a national hero in the suburbs.

Fences not only chequerboard our streets, increasingly they enclose them. Not content to corral our homes and gardens, we now partition ourselves along with ‘like-minded’ people in homogenous, walled and gated communities. We attempt to fortify ourselves against crime and minimise the risk of chance encounters with the hoi polloi. In the John Wayne school of urban planning, we circle the wagons at night. How much has changed since 122AD when the Emperor Hadrian built his wall across Britain to separate the Romans from the Barbarians?

Wendy Sarkissian, a Brisbane-based social planner specialising in crime prevention, believes these housing estates create only an illusion of security: ‘Burglars just aren’t that stupid,’ she says. ‘And there’s been anecdotal research from the United States showing that although burglary rates are low in the first couple of years they then rise to the level of the rest of the neighbourhood as the burglars work things out.

‘The other thing is we are all struggling to bring life back to the public realm’, she says. ‘And if you don’t even have a relationship between the dwellings and the street where you can see someone looking out, or somebody pruning their hedge, or talking to their neighbour, after a while the whole of the public realm, the street, just becomes completely empty. And all of the energy is going to making things lovely behind the fences. Nobody is contributing anything back to the street.’

Enclaves or ghettoes, both are likely to be surrounded by fences. The only difference is whether or not we live there by choice. Fences, of course, have two sides. Whether we feel included or excluded, protected or scared, depends on which side you find yourself. Peter Marcuse, who teaches urban planning at Columbia University, reckons walls and fences will always be ‘a second-rate solution to society’s problems’.

Presumably, the better solution has something to do with trust and mutual respect. But until humankind embraces these, fences are here to stay. All we can do is build them wisely, think of how aesthetically and ecologically they impact on the built and natural environment, and ponder the politics that underpin the humblest of fences. And, before we build another one, remember to ask what or who it is we are keeping in, or keeping out. If I had pondered these questions as a seven-year-old I wouldn’t have been as quick to unfold the banana chair between me and the baker’s daughter.  

Mark Wakely is executive producer of ABC Radio National’s ‘Comfort Zone’. He is the author of Dream Home (Allen & Unwin, 2003) which has been shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award for best



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