When I first came to live in Maine many years ago, one of the first things I noticed was the absence of fences. Even in the towns, the front yards seemed to fuse with one another, constituting a continuous strip of green from house to house, like a commons.
My previous state of residence had been New Jersey, where it's a different story altogether. In a place one-quarter the size of Maine – but with seven times the population – land was a much scarcer commodity. Houses were separated by only a few feet of space, and lest there be any question about where one property ended and the next began, a great array of fences made an unmistakable statement about boundaries.
I grew up in Jersey City, in a quiet but kid-filled neighborhood nestled between New York Bay and the Hackensack River. All – and I mean all – of the lots were separated by fences: chain link, picket, wrought iron, cedar post, plank. You name it, we had it. Some were tall, some short. Some in poor repair, others maintained like the Masada against the infiltrations of neighborhood mischiefmakers (like me).
The ironic thing about fences is that, to a kid, they don't represent a limit so much as a challenge. For example, the DeMarcos lived across the street from us and their backyard was enclosed by a chain-link fence. The problem with chain link is that it tantalizes a boy by providing a barrier that also shows him what's on the other side, as if it's saying, "Don't come onto our property, because, as you can plainly see, we have a peach tree perfect for climbing."
I climbed that peach tree one day during the summer of my 12th year. I had to. It was tempting me. I crawled out on a stout limb and reached for the largest, plumpest peach I could find. Squatting on that limb, I bit into it and the juice exploded and ran down my chin and the front of my T-shirt. That's when Mrs. DeMarco came out, wielding a broom and yelling to beat the band. She got close enough to swat me on the seat of my pants, and I barely got back over the fence before she made contact again.
The thing was, once I was clear of her property she calmed down, thinking perhaps that the one good swat she had landed was a fair trade for the peach I had eaten.
I hopped every fence in my neighborhood. Sometimes it was just to see what was on the other side. At other times it was to escape a bully, take a shortcut, or, most often, just for the fun of it. I remember one occasion when I hopped the tall green picket fence that separated my house from the Strengerses' next door. It was the most gratuitous fence jumping I'd ever done, because all I wanted was to climb up onto the Strengerses' garage roof so I could hop from their garage onto ours. It was silly, but I couldn't help it because it was a fence.
Here in Maine, my neighborhood is bereft of fences. I acknowledge the democracy of the situation, the implication that fenceless lots point up a degree of community and trust. I watch as my 10-year-old son rides his bike down the street and occasionally detours into a neighbor's yard, and then continues on into a second and then a third yard before returning to our property. A fenceless place means there's nothing to stop a boy from following his will.
There is beauty in this, just as there is beauty in the challenges posed by fences, but it has led me to ask myself a question: What would my son do with a fence if he met one?
The scientist in me couldn't ignore this thought. And so, just the other day, I took off with Anton and a soccer ball in search of a fence. We found a dandy one: a tall chain-link deal, at his elementary school. I didn't tell him what I was up to, but wasted no time in kicking the ball over the fence. Now he had two choices: go around the thing or up and over. What would he do?
I all but choked up when he clambered over, as if born to it. I would like to be able to say that I followed my son over the fence. But I didn't. I have had my fence-climbing days, and I am satisfied with the memories. And now my son has had a taste. But with the dearth of fences in Maine, there's little prospect that he will develop the habit of hopping them.