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Irony: ‘Good Fences Make Good Neighbors’

In “Everything All At Once” Bill Nye uses the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” to bring out his point that sometimes people need privacy. He isn’t advocating for a wall. A “voluntary boundary” built to keep to oneself is different than a boundary built to keep others out. People need both to have a fence and have people in their lives. It’s one of the diametrically opposed character traits that all creatives have, according to Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi: they need to be alone and they need to be with people.

However, the specific wording in this proverb comes from Robert Frost’s 1914 poem “Mending Wall” (see below). Two men walk along a rock wall putting the rocks back from where they have fallen. The narrator says, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” As he continues along the wall with his neighbor, he thinks about the fence they are mending.

What point is there in this wall? It separates apples from pines as if they would eat the fruit of the other tree. “Good fences make good neighbors,” replies the neighbor using his father’s sentiments.

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know\What I was walling in or walling out,\And to whom I was like to give offense.\Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,\That wants it down,” continues the narrator. The neighbor appears as an old-stone savage in the dark and can think of no more reply than the one he gave before. “Good fences make good neighbors.”

While the character who says the proverb believes it, even if he doesn’t think about it or maybe because he specifically doesn’t think about it, it’s clear that the narrator doesn’t believe the same. The point is that good fences DON’T make good neighbors. It’s ironic.

Nye’s reference to this proverb doesn’t harness the irony inherent in it. Considering his entire book centers on people thinking about and challenge currently held beliefs while using the scientific method to come up with better ways to do better in the world. This seems like a missed opportunity. (Unless he addresses the issue again in the last 30 pages of “Everything All At Once.”)

“Mending Wall” is in the public domain.

Mending Wall by Robert Frost

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.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors”.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
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