On Mar 26, 2015, at 7:30 AM
Last night, half of me slept in Tennessee and the other half snoozed in North Carolina. A silver marker, delineating the state line, protruded from the ground at the head of my tent. The border ran down the middle of my body, and I think I can say that I definitely slept better on my North Carolina side than on my Tennessee side.
The marker is part of a ridge top boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina that I have followed for over thirty miles during the past three days. Winding along the ridges, to the left or the right of the leafy dirt trails, the vestige of an old barbed wire fence is the constant companion to the Appalachian Trail. Meandering up and down hills, darting left then right, rusted strands of barbed wire lay in the forest floor, rusting away slowly as years of hikers pass by. I wonder how rusty those barbs were when my family trekked through here 40 years ago along this same border?
In many sections of the trail, there are still remainders of the old fence posts, gnarled and grey, standing askew where they once held strands of wire. For most of those 30+ miles, the wire is visible where it lays in the leaves, but the old posts have lost their grip. Their partner, the wire, is no longer committed to its task of making sure that someone does not mistake which state he is standing in.
It’s an anachronism: a thing belonging or appropriate to a period other than that in which it exists, especially a thing that is conspicuously old-fashioned. Why on earth do we need a fence to mark off the boundary between North Carolina and Tennessee? That question really bothered me yesterday when I found one lucky old post that still had all five strands of wire intact. The lowest strand was only six inches off the ground, and the highest strand was far above my waist. What did the builders care about so much that they went to the trouble to stoop over for more than 30 miles of fence-building to drive in staples for a barbed wire strand only six inches above the ground?
I have built miles of barbed wire fence, around pastures and through dense woods, across marshes and up steep rocky hills. I pity the poor souls who built these fences. It’s not just rocky in these hills. These hills are solid rock. I am amazed that anyone could dig a hole in this ground more than a few inches deep. And that makes this fence all the more amazing. Remarkably hard to dig, with probably a hundred or more posts per mile, and five hard-to-string wires coursing along for tens of thousands of feet. Someone really wanted to create a boundary. And look at it now. It’s all gone.
Fences are amazing creations, almost always falling apart and rarely enduring. We build them to separate us, to hem someone or something in, or to intimidate. And more often than not, those boundaries are gone within years of our hard labor to build them. We try so hard to put up boundaries between us and others, and those efforts are soon worn down by time. Rust and rot corrupt our hard work, and it all falls apart.
I have stood on some famous fences. I’ve walked on Hadrian’s Wall, dividing the marauding “barbarians” of Scotland (my ancestors) from the Romans in Britannia. Built in 122 AD, this 120-mile wall is a testament to great construction, but not to permanent political division. Scotland is part of the UK today, and Hadrian’s Wall is just a tourist destination. Some of my friends have visited the Great Wall of China. It’s an amazing historic site, but its purpose is long past, now host to walking tourists and not for defending any Chinese kingdoms. All of the fences that my dad and I built on our first farm are gone, whittled into sawdust by the ants and beetles that ate away the green pine posts that we so painfully dug into hard West Virginia earth—before we discovered the magic endurance of treated pine. My fences, Hadrian’s Wall, the Chinese fortifications—and these barbed wires—are all testaments to a past that is far gone and often forgotten.
We work so hard to build fences, yet our labor is so often in vain.
Not so with bridges. Bridges ford rivers and gullies and canyons, and it’s very rare that someone says “we don’t need that bridge anymore.” A new bridge might replace the old one, but rarely does someone say “I am happy to stay on this side of that divide forever.” I have crawled on centuries-old bridges, whether on the waterworks crossing Pont du Gard in France, or on the steep bridge of Ronda, Spain. Bridges are testaments to bringing two sides together, and they endure. Built on solid foundations, some last thousands of years and are still in use. Yet thousand-year-old fences are museum relics. Anachronisms.
The old fence dividing North Carolina and Tennessee is rotting and rusting away into the hillside. Perhaps 40 years from now my grandchildren who hike the Appalachian Trail will not even notice the old posts and ochre barbed wire coursing through miles of forest. Whatever there was of a physical division between the states will be gone. I wonder what fences I have built in my own life, separating me from others, that will be rotting and rusting within years, or even within days? When I think of how hard those poor men worked to erect this fence, and where it’s ended up, I am certain that I don’t want to waste that kind of energy and time to erect a barrier that won’t stand the test of time.
Build bridges, not fences. Bring people together and experience the joy of a work that lasts for generations.
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