Fences Down, Possibilities Up

IT all began with a message on my answering machine.

A contractor would be coming to repair their storm-damaged fence, the voice from next door announced. As I listened, Robert Frost's words "good fences make good neighbors" sat on my tongue, begging to be recited. They'd be starting on Monday, the voice went on, and they hoped it wouldn't be any bother to us. I laughed as I said the insistent line aloud and wondered, along with the poet, what it is that doesn't love a wall.

We don't have wide, rolling lawns or stone property markers here in Cambridge, Mass., just little plots barely bigger than the footprints of our houses. A maze of chain-link and plywood seams our backyards together, defining a crooked part down the middle of the block.

Meanwhile, out front, pickets and slats unevenly line our street sides, dividing vest-pocket front yards from bumpy brick sidewalks beyond.

Even before my neighbor's message, I had often gazed out on the zigzag of walls, front and back, and wondered at the possibilities. What could we make of our backyard boulevard if the fences were gone? What might burst forth if all the barriers between the dwellers and the passersby came tumbling down?

I had some first-hand knowledge of the good that might come of felling a wall or two. A few summers back, my husband and I had decided to splurge on a beautiful Japanese maple as an anniversary gift to each other. We figured it would breathe some life into our forlorn front yard - a sad plot that was greatly in need of improvement, since the only attention we ever gave it was an annual buzz with our trusty weed whacker. A beautiful tree would be just the thing.

A tree, we soon discovered, was only the beginning. How could we simply part the weeds and plant our maple? How could we not mulch and fertilize and prune and propagate? And, question of questions, how could we keep this new-found beauty hidden behind the most decrepit fence in all of Cambridge? The answers were obvious. More work would have to be done, and the "wall" would have to go.

So down came the fence, picket by picket, and up in its place went a tidy row of yews.

"Don't worry, they'll fill in and grow up," the landscaper told me. "Like a wall," I mused, knowing already that I liked the new view, and realizing even then that I couldn't let the bushes grow taller than the two vertical feet they claimed that day.

As I stood out front and watered our new tree and shrubs those early weeks, I found myself smiling back at pedestrians who ambled by, acknowledging the approval I read in their faces.

Later, when my yardwork turned to herb-garden expansions and iris divisions, smiles gave way to running commentary. "Love your bushes!" a lone jogger shot out between breaths when my mountain laurel was abloom.

Commentary eventually begot conversations. Was I having any luck with my tarragon? Did I know anything about pruning rhododendrons or resuscitating tired tulips? Would that rosemary come back in the spring? And what happened to the heather from the year before?

It didn't take long to realize that leveling that fence and puttering about in the garden was the most civic-minded thing I'd ever done. No charity or volunteer work had given me the satisfaction of replacing a blight with a little bit of joy for all who passed by. And after years of only the most perfunctory exchanges with what neighbors I did know, nothing developed so easily, or became so commonplace, as those front-yard encounters - me on my knees, trowel in hand; my garden admirers leaning over the low yews for conversation and closer inspection.

As I watched from my study window and saw my neighbor's fences come down, I knew there would be no time to indoctrinate him in the wonders of open space. A backyard is a different thing, I realized. Back here, one row of yews wouldn't change much.

Where most of the fences abutted other fences - like the double doors between adjoining hotel rooms - it would take consent on both sides to get past the walling in and walling out.

And yet, and yet.... Friday the neighbor's fences came down, and Saturday morning I was greeted with another message on my machine. First came an apology for the gaping hole - the contractor was supposed to wait until Monday, the familiar voice lamented, but the word hadn't gotten through. Don't worry, though, I was told, the new fence would be entirely erected by Monday afternoon, and the errant passageway from the parking lot on my side to the aged arbor beyond would be gone.

I hardly minded. A weekend of expanded horizons, if it was all I could have, was what I would take. Both days I found excuses to use the temporary shortcut past my neighbor's back door, and beyond to the side street - to a place that had never seemed quite so connected to my life as it did just then.

And even when I wasn't taking advantage myself, I watched from my study as the kids who lived behind the arbor ventured into the unknown.

Their backyard, their turf, was suddenly as big as all outdoors. At first they tiptoed around the little vineyard - a remnant from the days when barriers between lots were not so unyielding - then they ran and cartwheeled, helter-skelter, over the line and beyond, claiming the stolen territory as their own.

The last message came on Monday night. The painters were coming tomorrow. Did I want my side of the fence stained? Though etiquette dictated that I show enthusiasm at least equal to my neighbor's, I decided to be brave. "No," I answered back to my neighbor's machine, "leave it plain."

Let it weather, give it a chance to fade away and fall down, I thought to myself. And meanwhile, I'll hope for something to help it along, something that might clear a public boulevard down my block. Something that, like me and Robert Frost and the kids behind the [Barbor, doesn't love a wall and lives for the wonderment of room to stretch.

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