Considering all that’s been said and written about walls recently, I’m reluctant to add to the verbiage. But I couldn’t help but notice that supporters of Mr. Trump’s wall — the one he calls that “physical, tall, powerful, beautiful wall” — have not enlisted Robert Frost as an ally.
The line from Frost’s iconic poem, Mending Wall (1914), “good fences make good neighbors,” comes to mind. It’s difficult to believe that someone who supports the proposed 1,900-mile wall hasn’t made it a proof point in the rancorous debate. Of course, it’s just as well. Frost and his poem are not strongly in favor of walls.
(Parenthetically, it’s interesting that Mr. Trump’s description of the wall mirrors his descriptions of himself uttered during and since the campaign. Could it be that the wall is Trump and Trump is the wall — a projection of his ego? But I’m hesitant to make such a suggestion since it’s way above my pay grade.)
The poem begins: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” That “something” Frost says: “sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, and spills the upper boulders in the sun.” The narrator in Mending Wall and his neighbor meet once a year to walk their mutual wall to rebuild portions tumbled by this malignant force. Frost clearly has doubts about the annual endeavor:
“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?”
Here Frost does concede there are uses for walls. But Mr. Trump’s wall is not designed to keep cows out of our apples. It would keep Mexicans out of our orchards, vegetable fields, restaurants, motels and hotels, stables, nurseries and gardens where they gladly do the onerous, physically demanding and mind-numbing work we won’t.
Moving from the poetic to the pragmatic, one could ask whether Mr. Trump, our businessman-in-chief, has run a cost-benefit analysis on the wall. Would the estimated $20-$30 billion to build it generate benefits at least as great as or greater than the cost? Trump? Analysis? Probably not. It was, after all, a campaign promise designed to motivate his base.
Or, for a historical perspective, one could ask how well some other famous walls delivered on their promises.
The Great Wall of China is perhaps the most famous wall of all. This gargantuan structure was built over many centuries to protect China from its marauding Mongolian neighbors. Despite the wall’s 13,171 mile length, it was routinely breached, most famously by the Manchus in 1644, who sacked Beijing and established the Qing dynasty. How did the Manchus overcome this massive obstacle? A turncoat general simply opened a major gate, allowing the invaders to stream through.
Almost as famous was the Berlin Wall that, for nearly 30 years, cut West Berlin off from Soviet-controlled East Berlin. Unlike its Chinese counterpart, this wall was meant to keep people in, not out. And it was rather successful, although some 5,000 did escape by climbing or tunneling. Others were smuggled out in vehicles or made it through checkpoints with false papers. The last escapee, in 1989, actually flew over the wall in a balloon.
So, perhaps the “something” that doesn’t like walls is the people they are meant to keep out or keep in. Frost heaves — ironic considering the name of the poem’s author — obviously would not tumble Mr. Trump’s wall. The most likely force would be human ingenuity, for walls are routinely gone around, under, through or over.
If the wall is built, I will be watching with anticipation for that first balloon crossing.
Lorin Robinson is freelance writer, novelist and former chair of the Journalism Department at UW-River Falls.
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