(HOST) This morning, writer, storyteller and commentator Willem Lange has a few thoughts about walls.
(LANGE) "Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down," writes Robert Frost in "Mending Wall," one of his greatest poems. He recited it everytime I heard him speak. But because we all tend to find what we seek in what we read or hear, it’s also one of his most misunderstood poems.
How often has some letter-to-the-editor writer tried to justify political isolation, missile defense systems, or social exclusion by ascribing to the poet the aphorism, "Good fences make good neighbors." But Frost didn’t invent it. What his poem says is that those who say it are expressing principles from the Stone Age.
The Great Wall of China, the most famous, was built to exclude the nomadic people of the north, in what’s now Southern Mongolia. In the end it failed from within, when a general in charge of its defense opened the gates to the Manchus, who defeated the existing Shun dynasty, instituted their own, and started building yet another wall, in the south this time, to protect against immigration from southeast Asia.
The Romans built walls on almost every frontier of the Empire. The best-known is Hadrian’s Wall, begun in 122 AD. The empire had long passed its zenith, and was being pressed on all sides, from Egypt to Libya to Germania. Its reaction could have been inclusive, but its instinct was to wall out what we’d call undocumented aliens and keep them out with a military presence along its borders. When during the winter months around 400 AD the rivers north of Rome froze over, there was no one left at home to defend it against the hungry, aggressive Germanic tribes who crossed on the ice and sacked the Eternal City.
There are massive walls in the Andes, fitted together with incredible precision. Their purpose, again, was defensive; they probably were built during the early days of the Spanish Conquest. They were ineffective. The Inca Empire is no more.
Consider all the defunct walled cities – Babylon, Nineveh, Carcassonne. You’d think that over the centuries we would have realized that, in the end, walls don’t work; that, actually, they seem to attract unwelcome attention. Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness was fought over so many times that its last occupiers agreed one day in 1692 that defending it was a never-ending drag. So they blew its defenses to bits and marched away.
We’re still building walls today, in defiance of millennia of history. What do we make of the newest ones, between Israel and Palestine and the United States and Mexico? After all the attempts we’ve made to wall out our problems, and considering the results, mightn’t we try something different? As Frost writes, "I see him there bringing a stone grasped firmly… in each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. He moves in darkness as it seems to me…. He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."
This is Willem Lange in East Montpelier, and I gotta get back to work.