Don't fence me in


White picket fenceMy immigrant family never slept that first week in our newly-rented Sydney house. Too fearful were we of burglary or attack. There were no bars on the windows, no fence securing our plot. Anyone could breach the flimsy lock that kept us safe from intruders and find a way to shatter our new-found peace.  

But this was precisely the reason we'd moved here: to give our children a more functional, secure upbringing away from our crime-ridden country of birth.

Fear soon dissipated. The lack of fencing between the neighbour's house and ours allowed for ease of movement when we needed to borrow a cup of sugar or drop off the Sunday papers. More than once we woke up to find we'd somehow left the front door wide open before going to sleep the night before. Often I returned home from daytime outings to discover the back door unlocked, the front door ajar.

Nothing was ever stolen. The peace remained intact, shattering instead the certainty expressed by one of the protagonists in Robert Frost's poem Mending Wall that 'good fences make good neighbours'.

As immigrants assimilating into Australia, the lack of fences and other security arrangements reinforced for us the fact that it was a safe and respectful country we'd chosen to move to. It wasn't good fences that made good neighbours, but rather their absence that did so. This erasing of margins implied at once both mutual trust and an innate respect for the invisible boundaries that demarcated people's personal space.

It also suggested that fences weren't necessary to keep out, or to rein in, the dangers, the problems, the issues, the secrets – the 'cows' referred to by the speaker in Frost's poem – roaming both the streets and people's front yards.

I wonder if I could put a notion in his head, the narrator asks. Why do [fences] make good neighbours? Isn't it where there are cows? But here there are no cows.

There are no cows either in this quiet Sydney suburb that we now call home. Yet 13 years after lying there in fright at the lack of fences, at the strong possibility of 'cows' roaming in and out of our space, these delineations have proliferated. Our own house, lined with shrubbery along its frontage and a hole-ridden fence at the back through which we can chat to the neighbour behind us (but through which our dogs can thankfully not escape) is now flanked, increasingly, by fortified residences boasting shiny black fences and firmly shut gates. Sprawling old houses are being replaced by two and three and sometimes four new residences, each one trapped within its own modish enclosure.

Even the sweet white picket fences alarm me, for contained within them is a clear and somewhat disquieting message: my role is to keep you out. It reminds me too much of my own home country, where houses are surrounded by twelve-foot walls and reams of electric fencing and bold signs alerting would-be thieves to the presence of CCTV cameras and private security protection.

This social transformation occurring in Australia does so in the absence of such an onslaught of crime; instead, it signifies a trend, I think, in which people are pandering to their individualistic impulses by declaring their own autonomous kingdoms within the mishmash of an ever-encroaching society.  

I long now for the invisible boundaries that first drew us to this country, for the healthiness of a society that could be read like a medical report card as one moved through it: houses that felt no need to protect themselves from perceived threat or from communal engagement; children spilling from one garden to the next; neighbours interacting freely with one another. I wonder, as did Robert Frost's narrator, what these fence-builders are walling in or walling out, and to whom they would like to give offence.

Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney based freelance journalist and travel writer.

Fence image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: catherine marshall, security, social cohesion, urban planning, cities, community



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Existing comments

That's a wonderful poem by Robert Frost. Fences became necessary for us when our son became obsessed with cricket. His wicketkeeper and fielders grew adept at climbing fences and getting to know our neighbours.
Pam | 27 August 2015

Houses in Canberra are not allowed to have front fences. All except the one in which Tony Abbott does not live.
Frank | 28 August 2015

They are replicating the fences we are building around the country itself: keep out - this is ours and we don't want you, regardless of your need.
ErikH | 28 August 2015

I, too, wish I could leave my door open and have no need to fence our dogs in. Tony Abbott obviously doesn’t want a fence either.
Jane P | 28 August 2015

Fences are no longer something to lean on while exchanging news or gifts between neighbours. They are now representative of the state of mind of those who live within, but have you thought of the symbolism of a related item: our mailboxes? Before email made them less relevant, the basic Australian mailbox was/is a mean little offering, barely large enough to hold even a standard DL envelope. Along with its "no junk mail" label, to me it seems another indication of a desire not to be communicated with. I have high fences because I need to contain hens and goats in my Hobart garden, but I also have built gates in them to welcome and give my neighbours ready access my garden.
Rob Walls | 01 September 2015


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