Thursday, May 25, 2023

Mending Wall Revisited

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,

And spills the upper boulders in the sun;

And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.

Robert Frost begins his poem Mending Wall with those words. I think about this poem every spring when I repair the wall that borders our property. In my case it is not “frozen-ground-swell” that is the culprit. Neither is the problem “elves,” as Frost suggests later in the poem. For me it is the snow plow.

This particular wall borders our driveway and drops off into our neighbor’s property. Although the wall is about four feet high on our neighbor’s side, it is only a few inches above the ground on our side. The location of the wall means that when the plow pushes the snow from our driveway, it inadvertently topples the top layer of rocks off the wall and over the embankment. (The photo accompanying this post shows our house and the wall over a hundred years ago.)

So each spring I hop over the wall and mend the wall. Actually these days I don’t do much hopping anymore. Instead I take the long way around the wall and trespass on our neighbor’s property. Then I hoist the boulders back into place. The heaviest ones I leave for my sons to help me lift. As I look down to the base of the wall, I see that in previous years I never got around to some of the heaviest stones. They are slowly sinking into the detritus in the yard below.

The wall is a metaphor. Frost undoubtedly had profound things in mind concerning the walls that separate people and peoples. That aspect is easy enough to apply to the walls – both physical and otherwise - between nations, races, ethnic groups, religions, and political parties today. Yet such lofty thoughts are not where my mind goes during this wall-mending season.

I am thinking more personally about change. Everything changes. Time pulls down all the stone walls I see along the country roads where I live. I take a hike in the woods, and I see the remnants of stone walls that used to separate properties many years ago. I sometimes spot stone cellar holes where houses like mine once stood. Houses fall like walls.

Things change. Everything falls apart. Entropy reigns in the natural world. For that reason I guess I should not be surprised that the American experiment seems to be falling apart. Our society is tearing at the seams like an old shirt. If I was a better student of history I would have expected this.

Our bodies fall apart as we age. We lug them to physicians to patch them, but then another part fails. Conversations with friends turn into “organ recitals.” We list the bodily organs that are failing at the moment. We complain about the quality of our joints. And I am not referring to the cannabis variety that New Hampshire is considering legalizing! At a certain age ailments are seldom fixed permanently. They are just added to the list of physical nuisances we learn to live with.

Something there is that doesn’t love order. It tends to disorder. That is the way of this material world. That is the way of our lives. The good news is that contemplating change leads us to ponder the Changeless. Although time passes, we still feel like the same person we were as children, teens or young adults. Sure, we recognize changes to our minds as well as our bodies, but we intuitively sense that our essence is changeless. I am reminded of that whenever I see an old friend. I view them as young people in disguise.

The 19th century hymn “Abide with Me” is a meditation on such change. The second stanza ends:

Change and decay in all around I see

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

These days I focus on that which changes not. It puts the landscape of life in perspective.


Jennifer Samuel said...

Thank you Marshall. Back in the 70s you were the first "preacher" who sounded intelligent, and who really made sense.

martin said...

Spring is the time of rebirth and renewal. You are renewing the stone wall. You are renewing the work with your son continuing the tradition. "Train up the child in the way he should go .."
The stone walls in forests and celler holes are signes of renewal and rebirth. Those farmers left the the thin played out rocky soils of the hills of New Hampshire and left to begin again and go to Ohio where the soils were deep and without stones. Where there was easy transportation by river and rail. The land left behind renewed itsself with forests which supports all kinds of wildlife. The changes are renewal and rebirth, not decay.
Martin Lipman