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Of Fences and Change

Bill Meredith

My wife and I lived in faculty housing on the campus of Mount St. Mary’s College for the first 10 years of our life in Maryland. By 1968, our family needed more space, so we moved into an old house at the west end of Emmitsburg. At that time there were no new houses on that end of the town; the area would have been instantly recognizable by someone who hadn’t seen it for 50 years. On the "avenue" (actually an alley) behind the house was a large barn that was still in use to house pigs and cattle, and an array of fields in use as pasture, hayfields, and for raising corn or wheat.

As a field biologist in new surroundings, I felt obligated to explore the area as soon as possible, so every free hour was spent walking about the area between our house and Toms Creek, about a mile to the southwest. On my first walk I found what looked like a road leading down through the fields. Like the unpaved roads around my boyhood home in West Virginia, it was elevated somewhat above the level of the adjacent fields because rocks from the fields had been piled into it. It had two somewhat rutted wheel tracks, but was wide enough for two vehicles to squeeze past each other if they both got one wheel off the berm and went carefully. It was separated from the fields on both sides by drainage ditches and barbed-wire fences. But the most peculiar thing about it was that it didn’t go anywhere; it stopped, dead-end, when it got to the last field before the creek.

I was puzzled by it; I remember coming home, getting out a U. S. Geological Survey quad map and looking for a road in that location, and finding none. I also recall a sense of embarrassment some time later when it dawned on me that what I had thought was a road was really a country lane. I should have recognized it; such lanes were essential features of farms that dated back before the Second World War.

My grandfather’s farm consisted of only 12 acres, but it was organized to support a family, and lanes were the basis of the organizational pattern. At opposite ends of the farm were a woodlot and an open pasture field; the cows were rotated from one of these to the other every few weeks to avoid overgrazing. There was a hayfield and an orchard, which provided additional grazing areas in the winter. Smaller areas included a cornfield, a raspberry patch, the family garden, and a chicken lot. Each of these was enclosed in its own fence, and they were all connected by a series of lanes, 15 or 20 feet wide, which functioned as roadways. Farm equipment or livestock could be moved through the lanes from one field to another without damaging crops. The lanes were special places; they often were lined with trees, which provided shade for the cows as they wandered in from the fields at milking time. The "shady lanes" typical of that era became part of our folk culture. And they provided one of my first lessons in ecology; I noticed that the weeds that grew in the lanes, where the soil was compacted, were different from those that grew in the gardens and fields.

Some of my earliest memories, from the time I was no more than 3, are of going down the lane with my father to bring the cows in for milking. Wherever the lanes branched, there were barriers consisting of "bars," long poles that could be inserted into specially designed posts to close off one branch and divert the cows into the other, like switches on a railroad. It was a major event in my life when I finally got big enough to open the bars by myself. A few years later, I learned to use a scythe by "mowing" the weeds in the lane.

The fences and lanes of a farm comprised an infrastructure that allowed things to function efficiently, and like any other infrastructure, they required constant maintenance.

My father probably never heard of Robert Frost, but if he had, "Mending Wall" would have been his favorite poem. "Good fences make good neighbors" was his credo; it was a matter of pride to him that his livestock did not escape to wander in the roads or get into our neighbors’ crops. So the "line fences" that marked our property boundaries were checked regularly, especially after storms, to make sure they had not been damaged by falling trees or branches. Throughout the year, any open time between planting and harvesting activities was devoted to building and repairing fences.

Fence-building was probably the hardest physical work we did on the farm in those days. It was all hand labor, little changed since my great grandfather’s time. It began with cutting fence posts. Many of the fence posts that existed when I was young were from chestnut trees; their wood was so rot-resistant that a chestnut post might last 50 years or more. However, that species was killed off by the Chestnut Blight a few years before I was born, so we had to use Black Locust. Big locust trees were felled with a two-man saw, and cut into post-length logs; these were split by maul-driven wedges. Posts made from the heartwood of an old locust tree would last as long as 30 years.

Post holes were dug with a shovel and a "post digger," a heavy steel bar with a digging blade on one end and a tamping flange on the other. It was essential that the posts be set in a perfectly straight line; if they were not, the tension of the fence wire would make them tilt, the wire would loosen, and enterprising animals could then get through. We used barbed wire most of the time; it was difficult and somewhat dangerous to work with, but less expensive than woven wire. Posts at the corners of fields had to be braced in both directions, and those near ditches or other low places had to be anchored with large rocks to keep them from being pulled out of the ground.

After a fence was completed, an area of a few feet on each side of it was kept mowed with a scythe to prevent trees and briars from growing into it and damaging the wires. This gave the network of fences and lanes around a farm a tidy, orderly look. I suppose this had a psychological effect on me as a child; I thought the whole world could be tidy and well-ordered if people would just take pride in maintaining it.

Things change. Everyone knows this; but few know that a pattern is involved. Change rarely, if ever, occurs suddenly; usually it proceeds at what scientists call an exponential rate. It begins slowly, and nobody notices; and it picks up speed so gradually that by the time we realize anything is different, it is going like the proverbial snowball.

After the war in the 1940s, old locust trees were becoming rare and permanent, long-lasting fences became more expensive to build and maintain. Farmers began to turn to electric fences, which needed only one wire and fewer posts, and which could be set up quickly or moved as needed. The conservation movement was encouraging farmers to use hedgerows instead of fences (one disastrous result of this was the introduction of Multiflora Rose, which was brought into the country for use as a "living fence," but refused to stay in the hedgerows and now is a noxious pest in fields everywhere). Gradually, the orderly pattern of a self-sufficient family farm permanently divided into fields for specific uses by neatly maintained fences and country lanes was lost. And as the post-war baby boom developed, people increasingly traded the culture based on a family farm for a suburban lifestyle.

There was a brief period when this change was ecologically beneficial. In the 1960s and 70s, farms that were no longer in use began to grow back into forests. Wildlife populations, especially deer, began to grow at the exponential rate mentioned above, and many endangered species were afforded a reprieve on their march toward extinction. But the juggernaut of exponential growth applied also to the human population and the suburbs where they chose to live. Here and there a new house appeared in what had once been a hayfield; we scarcely noticed. Then suddenly it appeared that they were everywhere, as former farmland was subdivided into building lots. If an example of exponential growth is needed, count the number of new houses built within five miles of the center of any small town in Frederick County in the last 15 years and compare it to the number built in the previous century.

As some former farmland is converted to housing developments, the remainder is being converted to a different kind of farming (also at an exponential rate). Increasingly, cattle are kept in feedlots instead of grazing in pastures. Small fields, once worked by hand or by horse-drawn machines, are being merged together for large-scale single-crop agriculture. The fences and lanes that once controlled the ebb and flow of country life are now a hindrance to "progress;" those that have not fallen into decay are being ripped up, and with them go the hedgerows that have provided shelter for wildlife.

In and of themselves, perhaps fences and country lanes are no longer important; perhaps they are just a nostalgic reminder of an overly romanticized past. Perhaps. But it also may be that their passing is a warning of the exponential rate at which the environment is being degraded. If this is so, we will ignore it at our peril.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith