Jim and John’s wall

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(HOST) Commentator Philip Baruth has been watching his neighbors build a stone wall, and watching them work has made him feel shiftless and lazy. It’s also made him think about Robert Frost and the civil union debate five years ago.

(BARUTH) If you look out my kitchen window, you’re looking directly across the street to my neighbors’ house. I’ll call them
Jim and John. Jim and John’s house is generally in excellent shape, because the guys are relentless about maintenance.
Not a weekend goes by without them fixing shutters, or paint-
ing trim.

This sort of attention to detail is usually a good quality in your neighbors, but Jim and John raise the home-maintenance bar so high that I wind up looking shiftless by comparison. I can live with that, though. And certainly it’s better to be the laziest homeowner on your block than the most meticulous: Jim and John’s picture window looks out at my weeds and cracked driveway, while I see their new paint job and fruit trees and terraced gardens.

Now, early last spring Jim and John decided to build a stone wall out front. You have to understand two things: 1) these guys don’t ever hire work out, and 2) they think big. Big big. For most people, building a wall would mean hiring a contractor. For my neighbors, building a wall means they get out shovels and excavate about
half their front lawn.

The wall itself is an elaborate affair, with two sets of stairs.
It snakes around their driveway from one of their gardens, and
then flares around the rest of the front stoop. Part of it is pure
New England: no mortar, just flat rock sorted and stacked so tightly it’d take a sledge hammer to topple it. Other parts are
made out of round rocks and cement; and, according to Jim, these
take their inspiration from Roman architecture. And at the top of the wall they’ve set little pieces of colored tile in the concrete, so there’s a little bit of Southwest feel there too.

This summer I helped them do some of the tiling. My particular job was to keep Jim from going overboard. “Don’t let me get into that mustard yellow,” he warned me, “because I’m liable to do that, and then this whole thing will wind up looking like a New Jersey motel.” I said I wouldn’t let him get into the yellow; and, when he tried about a half an hour later to get into the yellow anyway, I did my best to stop him. So if you look now on the top of the wall, there’s only a little bit of that mustard yellow, just enough and not too much, and I’m kind of proud of that, myself.

I think about a lot of things when I look out the kitchen window. I think about the civil union debate we all got so worked up about five years ago. Now we can all see exactly what the passage of civil unions managed to destroy: not a thing. Not only has nothing been destroyed, but many things have been quietly built in the last five years, methodically built by couples who’ve pledged them-
selves to one another for life.

Robert Frost loved stone walls, and he loved his neighbor for mending the wall between them come springtime. “I see him there,” Frost wrote, “Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the
top/In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.” I like to
think that Frost would have appreciated having not one but two neighbors carrying rocks to the property line, two men working together against the forces in the world that “don’t love a wall, and want it down.”

Philip Baruth is a novelist living in Burlington. He teaches at the University of Vermont.

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