Thoughts from the heartlands (on fences)

Sunset over a fence during Hurricane Katrina

An Aboriginal elder and his grandson meander through the maze of picket-fenced gardens in a comfortable suburb of Perth…

Grandfather, why do the white folk build fences and walls everywhere?

Grandson, this is a very important question and there are answers on many levels.

On the surface, the answer is simple: they are setting out their territory and defining the limits of their area of control. If you could look down from above you would see that the network of fences, walls and borders they have produced, enclosing areas within areas, territories within territories, typifies the landscape of the ‘civilized’ world.

At the same time it projects a 2D representation of that society’s nested patterns of social power onto the natural landscape. These fractal patchworks remind us how important control is to that society – complex layers of control that tell its people how to navigate through their lives, where they can and cannot go, what they can and cannot do, who they are, how they fit. This mode of thinking also surfaces in their definitions of success, courage and innovation; think of the phrases ‘pushing the boundaries’, ‘final frontier’, ‘stretching the envelope,’ ‘line in the sand’, ‘outside the box’.

Going deeper, fences serve to reinforce white people’s sense of their disconnection from and superiority to nature. From the beginning of agriculture thousands of years ago, fences were built to separate the tame from the wild, the domesticated from the savage, the familiar from the intruder. These people need to know they are in their own, managed zone to feel comfortable, for they are no longer comfortable admitting that they are part of the wild planet, part of nature. Civilization has been built by means of an elaborate process of domestication. The fence reminds the ‘civilized’ ones which side they think they are on. See how convenient they found it to put us lot behind fences, and the Native Americans in reservations. They still try to do this to people who don’t qualify as civilized.

Our mob didn’t create barriers; we have no need for a dingo fence or a rabbit fence. What would animals make of the idea that they must respect state boundaries? Do the rabbits in Palestine know that they are Palestinian rabbits and therefore unwelcome in Israel? Do the jaguars in Mexico and the southern states of the USA understand why they can no longer maintain a healthy gene pool as a result of the US-Mexico border wall?

Native Americans were baffled when the English started putting fences round their homesteads. The southern Indians, say anthropologists, thought the colonists childish for confining their improvements, “as if the crop would eat itself”.

We can dig deeper still. Civilized people are characterized by a certain mentality: that of dualism, of separation; a sense that they are discrete individuals operating independently from everything around them. This goes hand in hand with the belief that they can be objective, that what they do to their surroundings and others has no effect on them, that there is an ‘us’ and ‘them’; that there is a ‘self’ and ‘other’. These are fallacies, arising from a fault-line within the psyche of the civilized mind. Without this it would be impossible for civilized peoples to destroy the network of life on which we all depend and call it progress.

The fence is an outward projection of that inner fault-line.

This fictional account was written thanks to the inspiration of James Axtell, Chellis Glendinning and John Zerzan, all excerpted in Against Civilization‘, edited by John Zerzan.

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