Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A fence by any other name...

One thing we do when searching for the news for FenceWeek is weed out all the stories about "fencing" that have nothing to do with the kind you install. There are homonyms, fencing with different meanings, and many stories related to those other meanings. And like you, we sometimes get curious... so we started reading.

The word itself comes from Middle English "fens," short for "defens" which, of course, means defense. "Archaic : a means of protection.” We're not sure why Merriam calls this meaning archaic. The kind of fencing you install has a history, discussed elsewhere, that goes back to the beginnings of mankind, where among other uses, it certainly was for defense. In the beginning, however, it was also an important factor in developing agriculture, and the cultural understanding of private property.

In modern times, your kind of fencing is a security barrier to keep people and animals in or out, a definition of property lines, an augmentation of the appearance of a home or other building, a safety device for children, a shield for privacy, a barrier to noise, and so forth.

But "Fence," or "Fencing," is also the name of a rock band, a middleman in the distribution of stolen goods, a sport of swordsmanship in colleges and the Olympic games, an arguing technique (stop fencing with me,) a breed of lizard, a town in Wisconsin...

...and it is word at the heart of a series of expressions from "not taking sides" to "swinging a baseball bat as hard as you can." And it is a key word in proverbs from sources as diverse as China, France, and England among others.

Each of these meanings have colorful stories... including the kind of fence you install.

We were surprised, for example, to discover that the hidden “fence” protecting the Washington Monument is called a “Ha Ha” fence, installed below ground level so that the view of the lawn is not “spoiled.”

We greatly admired the rules of dueling with sabers, where only hits above the belt are counted. Sabers were originally real weapons of war, but mostly fought on horseback, and it was unchivalrous to hurt the horses! Foil and epee dueling allows larger targets. And in the spirit of equality, we admire the Olympics decision to include a women’s division for fencing. The knights would have loved that.

Among criminal fencing, the big news is the internet where stolen items can be sold (with caution) on eBay. Criminal fencing is now much more organized than it used to be. Fences provide lists of things they want, often tell thieves where to get the items, and of course, set the prices. A good laptop computer would get the thief about $350 a few years ago (and the fence, about $1,000 when shipped to South America.)

And we haven’t even mentioned the kind of fencing that used to put scars on the faces of German aristocrats who wanted to prove their manhood, or the fencing with long “swords” by the Japanese Samurai.

Or the analogies:

Sitting on the fence.
Mending fences with your enemies.
Swinging for the fence.

Or the proverbs:

Everyone pushes a falling fence. (Chinese)Don’t fence me in (Cole Porter)The secret to fencing (with swords) is to give, and not to receive. (Moliere)There is no fence around time that has gone. You have memory. (John Locke)

fence (n.) c.1330, shortening of defens (see defense). Spelling alternated between -c- and -s- in M.E. Sense of "enclosure" is first recorded 1512. Fencible (c.1325) means "capable of making a defense." Sense of "dealer in stolen goods" is thieves' slang, first attested c.1700, from notion of such transactions taking place under defense of secrecy. To be figuratively on the fence "uncommitted" is from 1828, from the notion of spectators at a fight.

fence (v.) "fight with swords," 1598, first recorded in "Merry Wives of Windsor"; from the noun in this sense (1533), see fence (n.). Fencing is from 1581.

fence (v) 1. to sell stolen goods. Note: old organized crime term. See also swank. -n 1. a person who purchases stolen goods. Submitted by Michael David, Los Angeles, CA, USA, 12-14-1996. crime (related to) sell stolen (related to)

Searching for FenceWeek’s news can be fun.

Monday, January 15, 2007

In the beginning - there were no fences

You wouldn’t have thought anyone could really do a "history" of the fence. After all, where does it begin? At the walls of Jericho? With the Chinese wall? From the beginning of man-on-earth?

Well, believe it or not, it’s been studied, and the writings about it that I found most interesting were by Christina Kotchemidova, a professor at New York University, much of whose writings are referenced here.

Dr. Kotchemidova made the point that fences do more than provide a physical function (like keeping someone in or out) - they actually have a cultural function. In fact, she says that the history of civilization is closely tied with the history of the fence. Human civilization is imagined as emerging from agriculture, family and property. And all of these evolved with the serious help of the fence.

And she, and others, identify the fence as a key to understanding of the idea of private property. Fences, she says, define ownership, and societies that did not have individual ownership, such as early European farming, (harvesting, and moving-on societies, and many American native tribes,) did not have fences.

That plant-cut-and-run farming technique, however, was enormously destructive of the land. The coming of the fence marked the transition from a pattern of one-time looting the land to a pattern or taking care of it and farming it for years.

Some American Indian tribes had man-constructed fences, but only for defense... not ownership. As a result, they never encircled the Indian camp, but were on one side of the camp, behind which the warriors could shield themselves.

While noone knows the name of the inventor of this technology, philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who writes about social contracts, wrote: "The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said ‘This is mine,’ and found people naive enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society." The fence helped institutionalize one of the most important elements of the social contract – the collective recognition of private property.

So there. The history of the fence reveals it as the beginning of serious farming, conservation, and the beginning of recognizing private property. How about that.

And more - the thinking about private property. An English observer of farming once said "Give a man the secure possession of a bleak rock and he will turn it into a garden. Give him a nine years' lease of a garden and he will convert it into a desert."

Ownership is different from leasing, and such thinking has, in many ways, defined several societies.

Further, in 7th century England, the King of Wessex added a new function for the fence ... the business of protecting crops from cattle, and the land-owner’s responsibilities. He proclaimed that a homestead must be fenced winter and summer. If it is not fenced and his neighbor's cattle get in through his own gap, he has no right to anything from that cattle; he is to drive it out and suffer the damage.

Now, getting back to America, several interesting historical notes. First, visitors to Jamestown, Virginia in the early 1600s were amazed to see a style fence they had never seen before... a worm fence... logs just laid atop others at an angle eliminating the need for posts of any kind. It was, of course, something to do with the spare logs yielded when clearing the land, but it was unique.

And then, John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, justified his enclosure policy saying: "That which lies common, and hath never beene replenished or subdued, is free to any that possess and improve it."

That idea (though hardly uniquely American) - if it’s unoccupied, it’s free to anyone who will improve it - had enormous implications in the settling of the American west. In the 1880s a war of fences flared as settlers arrived in 11 western states between the 100th meridian and the Rockies, only to find that rangers had fenced off huge pasture terrains. They, the settlers, discovered they could not buy and farm the land, even if it was suitable (water, soil) for farming.

It also affected the migrating Indians who followed the buffalo, the cattle drives of the Texans driving their steers to Kansas markets, sheep vs. cattle people as it influenced water, railroaders whose tracks crossed the cattle ranging, and other settlers in the west. These "range wars," roughly from 1875 to 1895 or so, define the Hollywood genre of "the western."

The conflict between the rangers, the cattle drivers, the farmers and the Indians coincided with the boom of barbed wire, invented in 1873 and thriving as a cheap and efficient tool for enclosure. The range wars were often cited as "fence-cutters war" and it greatly affected the development of those 11 states.

But more about the history of barbed wire another time.

Christina Kochemidova, The Culture of the Fence, Counterblast.org
Jay Monaghan - Range Wars...
Ranching West of the 100th meridian ..., Richard L. Knight et al.
T.R. Fehrenbach, San Antonio TX Express News
Between Fences, Smithsonian Exhibit, California, MO. (Missouri Humanities Council)
Book "Mayflower"