Poem in praise of limits

Really, Mr. Robert Frost?

Something there is that loves a wall
That treasures the line twixt in and out
That separates up from down.
Something there is that praises holy gravity
that holds us close to the ground we count on
The Ferris wheel. The roller coaster.
Something there is that loves the thrill of flight
As long as ground again is on the other side of wild.
Something there is that loves walls and dens
Loves roofs above – and nests
To make us safe enough to rest
Think of the homeless, free of
household chores and debt
and yet
Rest terrified on cardboard in doorways
Watched over by their dogs, and mercy,
protecting the bits and scraps called safety.
We are animals after all
We need dens and hollows
Nests and burrows
It is only the human who strives
Who resents walls
Who plots breaking them down
Not caring who is on the other side
And if we build a wall, we sleep alert,
some with a gun beside them.
Something there is that loves walls
that hold us in and others out.
Something there is that doesn’t love the walls that others make
We strain against them while, if we are wise,
Knocking rather than barging in or breaking out.
Something there is, says Robert Frost,
about the frost that heaves stone walls in winter
Strewing boulders,
Bringing together the land owners to
Mend it in the spring.
Do humans put walls where they don’t belong,
parse landscapes to serve their little wills?
Landscapes don’t do well when parsed by humans
The buffalo die
The forests dry when water is channeled for human ends
The prairie grass does not love a wall
The elk do not love roads and malls that keep them from their winter grounds.
And what do walls want, if they could speak?
Walls, if they were free of silence, would say:
Why am I here?
Who do I serve?
Who do I protect?
What do I prevent?
What use am i?
And if the answers don’t satisfy
They ask the frozen winter ground
To free them.
Nature is always chatting over fences
Marrying into other landscapes as grass or flower or
Douglas fir traveling north for cool air and water.
The skin says no to poison and yes to touch
The trees say yes to sun and no to saws
Grass says yes to rain and no to plow, to poison
The boundaries between things …
Are every thing.
They make the world.
And those who love freedom must –
For freedom’s sake –
Extend courtesy to what is,
and belongs,
beyond their grasp.
Inspired by the first line of this Robert Frost poem:

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
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.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’


  1. These two lines of that Robert Frost poem have always struck me:
    Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
    What I was walling in or walling out
    Sorta sums up what I took away from your thoughtful poem.

    Teresa McElhinny

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