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The Shipwreck Rose: Fences

Wed, 04/28/2021 - 19:14

The only good use for a fence, in my opinion, is for leaning on while watching your kid play team sports in the sunshine in a field behind a school. My daughter, at 13, is of an age when she doesn’t want her parents hanging around, even to witness her moments of glory, but as I keep telling her, watching the game is the parents’ reward. It isn’t about winning the game, losing the game, or tall gold trophies, it’s standing there watching the kids play that is our prize.

My daughter has always appeared to have the makings of a true athlete, and she moved from her old and beloved hippie-dippie academy over to East Hampton Middle School in the fall specifically so that she could get a start in team sports. It hasn’t been a banner year for kids who want to slip on a jersey and hit the turf for the home squad, obviously, but the governor lifted the ban on “high risk sports” back in February and last week was Nettie’s day in the sun: her first-ever soccer season, and in her third-ever-in-her-life soccer game, she scored two goals against Hampton Bays — poor Hampton Bays! — in quick succession. There were high-fives and she was hugged up into the air with bravado by her teammates, who chanted her name like a taunt against the opponents, “Net-tie! Net-tie! Net-tie!”

Draped over the chain-link fence at John Marshall, I discovered soccer-mom-ing as the best half-hour break from another dreary and weary pandemic-era workday, listening to the other madres — all of them Latinas, as is the entire middle-school soccer team, save Nettie — shout encouragement in Spanish: “Corre, corre!”

Other than this use for fences, I’m against them.

It seems to me that the 21st century emblem of America is not the chemically assisted green-grass lawn of the 1950s but the ugly stockade fence.

In America, most homeowners don’t use them to keep creatures in or keep creatures out, but to mark off their territory, to defend their property with a sort of silent suburban belligerence — like the stone curtain wall surrounding the castle keep.

I’m surprised to find myself admitting out loud that any sort of parking-lot innovation is an improvement over a previous parking-lot situation, but when the old chain-link fence was torn down beside the Reutershan Parking Lot a few weeks ago, it made the whole area decidedly less grim. Now we can see the green playing fields in Herrick Park.

Let more fences fall. That is my rallying cry.

Okay, listen, I know that homeowners with green thumbs do actually need and require tall fences to protect their flower beds from the deer, but generally the Long Island household fence does not serve a truly useful purpose. We are not cowpokes. We are not ranchers. The cattle are not going to stray. Fences along the property line are usually a sign of ownership, that’s all.

Nothing wrong with a split-rail fence whose main purpose is to grow roses along, or a picket fence of hip height, the classic sort you see at Home, Sweet Home Museum. A picket fence or split-rail is see-through. They don’t block the view at all; check out what I mean the next time you drive by the South End Burying Ground. It’s not a vista-blocker or neighbor’s face-slapper.

My land-use Dislike List, with stockade at the top, also features “oversize gates at the ends of driveways” and “Belgian paving blocks.” I’m a terrible curmudgeon and my opinions here are stepping over the penalty line of offensive, I know. We don’t have to dive deep into these admittedly rather absurd prejudices, but suffice it to say that I believe a driveway of crushed shells, like they have at Mulford Farm, is nicer; or an unpaved, dirt driveway like you still see on Prince Edward Island, or, if needs must, white pebbles. The now-ubiquitous Belgian block looks like it belongs at a burgermeister’s townhouse in Bruges.

Fences top the Dislike List because they clutter up the vista. Did you know that a century ago you could see the ocean dunes at Egypt Beach from Main Street? Every time a new privacy fence or screen of tall spruce trees goes up, it shortens the public’s common lines of sight.

Personally, I believe humans take deep-rooted, primal pleasure in a long, wide, barrier-free view that rolls out to the horizon because of something innate in our DNA. (See: Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines” and his theories on the urge of early mankind to ramble across open meadows and savannas.)

Rhetorical question: What are the most appealing views in the Village of East Hampton? The ocean beach, of course, where you can look out over the endless horizon and inhale and exhale freely, but also — think about it, it’s a bit funny — the golf course on Dunemere Lane, which has been left in a state of mock-agricultural openness by the good offices of the Maidstone Club. 

The Maidstone Club — an institution that is our most famous local symbol of elitism and exclusion, whether or not that reputation is merited (and don’t send letters to the editor, I’m not saying it is!) — has maintained the last tiny postage-stamp scrap of open vista in the village. Of course, we nonmembers cannot step across those greenways.

The British, on the other hand, have a culturally ingrained belief that private property shouldn’t mean an end to the people’s free transit across the countryside. They have a tradition of preserving the right to open rambling and walking along traditional paths and trails. It has not escaped notice that among those who have done the most to preserve the right to open rambling are the British royal family, owners of vast swaths of land: Charles and his mother actively encourage the common people to walk all over Balmoral and the Duchy of Cornwall.

Maybe when you hold the utmost privilege, own the most impressive sweeps of land, you don’t feel the need to put up a stockade or row of spruces to make sure everyone else knows what’s yours.

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