Most times when I talk to my neighbors there is some kind of physical barrier between us. Usually it’s a creek, barbed wire, a cattle gate or some combination of the three. They are usually working on one side. I am usually walking with my dog on the other. Fencing is a big deal around here, and the famous line from Robert Frost, “Good fences make good neighbors” often echoes in my mind when I am walking their mishmash, yet meticulously kept, fence lines. Recently I went back and read the whole of that poem, “Mending Wall,” and was struck by these words: “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 offence.”
Metaphorical fences have occupied a lot of my inner work this past year. And unlike my neighbors, who have dozens and dozens of four-legged reasons to keep building and maintaining their fences, I have worked hard this year to dismantle some of those boundaries that no longer serve me. I have repeatedly asked myself Frost’s three implicit questions: what was I walling in? what was I walling out? and whom was I offending? The answers to these questions surprised me, as they were the same in practically every situation. Always, always, always, I was walling in myself – well, me and my fear. On the other side was a sense of freedom, usually some sort of creative self-expression. And the kicker – who was I offending? – no one!!! Nobody even knows the stupid fence exists except for me.
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I have a deep respect and an unabashed love for my neighbors, both the people they are and the work that they do. Back in the spring, I spent what I now refer to as “the lovely day” with two of them. They were cutting oats in the field that borders mine. It was one of those days that seems somehow suspended in time – long, languid and sweet. After they put in a hard day’s work – baling some 8,000 pounds of oats – we spent about an hour or so talking. That day was a touchstone for me – the balance of intense physical labor with easy conversation. The lesson that there is time for what is necessary.
So many times I wanted to capture that day on film – well, on my iPhone. But I was too embarrassed and afraid of what they would think. I surreptitiously took the shot above, but I was standing rather far away. It is one of the few photos I have ever edited for this blog. After that day, I decided I was going to muster my courage and take some proper pictures. I told myself they probably weren’t going to think anything – or anything worse than what they already think! The first time I asked my neighbor to take his picture, my hands were shaking so badly, the shot came out blurry. The second time, I simply said, “Don’t move,” and snapped the shot.
Fast forward a couple of months. I spent a Saturday evening in late summer with these same two neighbors. We were way back in the cow pasture, and I took 70 photographs. Most were of Holstein steers, but many of my neighbors too. That evening led to this post that I absolutely love. I love chronicling this part of my everyday life. My neighbors are an intimate part of this landscape that is so dear to my heart. So I will continue taking pictures of them on their side of the fence – mending barbed wire bare-handed, baling hay, working the land – while I enjoy the freedom I have found on the other side.