Friday, March 25, 2011

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

In the last couple of weeks there have been several posts on the neighborhood chat that have really made me think about what makes a “good” neighbor.  First, we got into a flame war about a gang of teenagers roaming the neighborhood playing an air gun rifle equivalent of paint ball.  Although the discussion quickly devolved into a debate about whether air rifles where legal or not (there being way too many lawyers involved in any debate in DC), the central question was really something different:  how do neighbors resolve their differences? Do you pick up the phone and call the police, or do you step outside and talk to the teenagers, reach out the parents and attempt to resolve the dispute in the neighborhood?   Surprisingly, this was not an easy question for the neighborhood to answer.

Just when that debate had cooled off, another one flamed up.  Turns out someone in the ‘hood called the Montgomery County Environmental Division to complain about a neighbor’s landscape contractor dumping their yard garbage (limbs, woodchips, etc) on their lawn.   Supposedly, the complainant never talked to their neighbor, otherwise they would have learned that this had been a hard year, in which one member of the family had been hit by a serious illness and they were struggling to keep their heads above water.  A visit from the County’s environmental division was probably the last thing they needed.

                I am sure most of us were forced to analyze Robert Frost’s “mending walls” poem in high school, and we remember the line “good fences make good neighbors.”  Tortured English paper essays aside, it is too easy to forget that this poem is not about erecting barriers between each other.  Rather, the neighbors work together to build the stone wall, talking to each other and working together to find mutually-respectable boundaries.   Sounds like maybe we all need to read this poem again.  It is too easy, in this day and age, to sit behind our computers and hide behind our cell phones and avoid the difficult conversations, not going outside to mend the walls together.

 Just a year after we moved into the house, we got fed up with weeding the natural “grove” in the front of our yard, and asked our landscaper to put some wood chips down.  The next day, I awoke to orange day-glo cheap chips scattered around the front yard, crossing over into my neighbor’s au natural section of the yard.   Our neighbor could have been furious; instead, he knocked on my door and explained to me that he and his wife had gotten married in the grove, showing me the very spot where they got married and pointing to where the deer liked to congregate.   Since then, we have worked together to plan out the grove, discussing the removal of dead trees and coming up with a plan to replace them with new trees.   Each spring, we got outside to mend the “stone wall” together.

So, next time you are tempted to take the easy, anonymous way out and call the “authorities,” rather than having that difficult conversation with a neighbor, ask yourself, what would a good neighbor do? I think the answer is self-evident.

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