Phil Gulley on Neighbors and Fences

In the country, we’re a little more casual about property limits. But I draw the line when it comes to fences and walls.
My wife and I were married for 14 years before we owned our first home and the land it sat upon. Years earlier, when the house had been built, a surveyor had cut a small divot in the curb, marking the boundary with our neighbor to the west. I didn’t discover it until the tenth year in our home, so I mowed well into our neighbor’s property all that time, believing it was ours. Then a new neighbor moved in, a man more exacting than his predecessor, and pointed out my error. It’s not a pleasant feeling to have land taken from you, even when it was never yours to begin with. My sons had an especially difficult time adjusting, since the false boundary comprised one of their sidelines in football. They had been out of bounds for 10 years without realizing it.

We own a home in town and a place in the country, and the biggest difference between the two is the precision by which they are measured. Our house in town is exactly 2,416 square feet and sits on .75 acres, which is carefully noted on the legal description at the courthouse. It has four bedrooms and 3.5 bathrooms, even though two of the bedrooms are offices—one for me and one for my wife. There’s a full bathroom downstairs we’ve thought of converting to a pantry, which we need far more than a third bathroom.

Our country home is simply listed as a 1913 farmhouse. The dimensions aren’t given on the legal description. It feels like half the size of our house in town, around 1,200 square feet, but that’s only a guess, and I could be wrong. You’d never know it from the tax records, but it has three bedrooms and one bathroom, plus a shower I rigged up in the cellar that I use when I’m really dirty and my wife doesn’t want me tracking in mud. There are eight outbuildings on the property, the dimensions of which aren’t known, having not been measured since their construction, and perhaps not even then.

The entire kingdom rests on “plus or minus 80 acres,” according to the deed. The country’s plus or minus could easily equal several lots in town. That kind of imprecision would never fly in the city, but boundaries in the country have an elastic quality to them. For example, three of our country acres technically belonged to the federal government, though my wife’s family thought it belonged to them so they bush-hogged it every summer. The error was discovered when the land was transferred from my mother-in-law to my wife and me, at which time we asked the government to cede it over, and having no use for it, they did. The three acres are invaluable to us. A creek cuts through the center of that land and moss-covered boulders the size of cars crowd its edges. It’s my favorite place to sit and think. Criticizing the government is a popular pastime these days, but I have nothing but good to say about Uncle Sam.

When the property passed to us, we had it surveyed, no small undertaking because of the ravines, steep hillsides, and woods. It had been measured last in 1889, when the surveyor used long chains and marked the corners with field stones etched with an X. Our surveyor used lasers, satellites, and GPS, and was amazed to find the boundaries set 122 years before were accurate within four inches. It is the only bit of accuracy for miles around.

This past spring, before the woods became full of ticks and mosquitoes, my wife and I set out to find the southern boundary of our property, up on a hillside behind our house and across the creek. The creek was high from the heavy rains, so we drove four miles around to come at our boundary from the backside, parking our car in David Riley’s field and hiking a mile through the woods. The woods are part of the Hoosier National Forest, but since there’s no way to enter them except through private land, they remain largely inaccessible. We saw no evidence of humans—no soda cans, no beer bottles, no old tires, none of the usual detritus that marks our coming and going these days. I leaned against a hickory tree and thought to myself, I’m undoubtedly the only person to have ever touched this tree, and maybe the only person to have ever seen it. These woods are so remote not even the emerald ash borer has discovered them. They equal anything we’ve seen at Turkey Run or McCormick’s Creek. If the forest were in town, the land would be set aside for a park and cared for by a volunteer organization of retired people. But since no one goes there except for my wife and me, it sits undisturbed, its anonymity its chief protection.

But just as soon as a man builds a barrier, the impulse to defend it soon follows, and before long neighbors become enemies.

It took nearly an hour of looking around to find our boundary marker, an inch-long tattered piece of orange ribbon the surveyor had nailed to a tree. He had also driven an iron stake in the ground, which we couldn’t see, but are taking on faith. There was a piece of barbed wire fence the tree had grown around from when my father-in-law, who liked strong borders, fenced in the farm in the 1940s. The posts have since rotted, the barbed wire rusted away except for the occasional strand sprouting from the middle of a tree trunk, a tarnished witness to years past.

I spent a good portion of my childhood in other people’s woods, squeezing through and over wire fences, so I’m glad our barbed sentinels are gone. I won’t be putting up more, nor do I intend to post No Trespassing signs, since I would be delighted to see children trespassing in our woods, as opposed to playing video games or watching TV. It saddens me that my wife and I are the only ones enjoying our forest, given my belief in the restorative power of nature. A person who has spent a restful day in the woods isn’t likely to do something foolish like rob a bank, hit his wife, or vote for Donald Trump.

Ever since we found our southern border, though, I have imagined what might happen if the boundary tree blew down or the scrap of orange ribbon fell off. So this fall, after the first frost has killed the ticks, I’ll go back and stack stones at the corner. These woods are littered with piles of stones, where old farms stood before the government arrived, buying land. The impulse to mark our territory is an ancient one, which might explain the broad appeal of a wall on our nation’s southern border. While I’m not opposed to corner stones or divots in the curb, I do not care for walls or fences. If my neighbor mows a bit of my yard and I a bit of his, who is hurt by that? But just as soon as a man builds a barrier, the impulse to defend it soon follows, and before long neighbors become enemies. I agree with the poet Robert Frost, who wanted to know, before he built a wall, what he was walling in and walling out.