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Seeking Higher Ground: Mending fences versus building walls

Locations: Columns Published

By Nicolette Toussaint 

Last week, lured by abnormally-early spring weather, I started repairing the stone walls that enclose my raised garden beds. This spring task was memorialized by Robert Frost in “Mending Wall,” a poem that talks about two neighbors rebuilding the wall between their farms. Their task, Frost mused, must have been be “a kind of outdoor game” because the wall was unneeded:

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My apple trees will never get across

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And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.

He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.

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Do they?

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My passport bears stamps from 38 countries. I have paced the medieval walls of Conway in Wales, built by Britain’s invading King Edward to cow the Welsh. I have walked along Hadrian’s Wall — what’s left of it — built by Romans to keep the Scots at bay.

I haven’t seen the Great Wall of China, erected to protect the Chinese Empire from invading northern tribes. Nor have I seen the Walls of Troy. Those beautiful blue-tiled walls, depicting dragons and aurochs, were restored (none too accurately) by Saddam Hussein. I missed both of those walls because they were located in places that didn’t feel safe or friendly when I wanted to go.

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Historically, great walls have seen mixed success. A wall has kept North and South Korea separated for 60 years. But the Maginot Line didn’t work. And while the Great Wall of China has stood for 2,300 years, it didn’t keep the Manchu invaders out.

Most famous walls were contentious constructions, built to keep someone out.

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The Berlin Wall, by contrast, was built to keep someone in. During its 28 year span, about 5,000 East Germans tried to escape over, under and around it. One man careened a sports car through even before the Berlin Wall was finished. Refugees got under the wall by tunneling or by slithering through a pre-existing sewer system. They escaped by diverting trains and stealing tanks. Thomas Krüger purloined a light plane from an East German youth military training organization and flew it to a British Royal Air Force base. The RAF later trucked the disassembled plane back, emblazoned with humorous slogans like “Wish you were here” and “Come back soon!”

The last person killed trying to cross the Berlin Wall was Winfried Freudenberg, whose homemade natural gas balloon crashed in March 1989. If only he had waited! East Berlin opened the border eight months later, and the wall’s official demolition began the next summer.

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All tolled, the solid Berlin Wall claimed 136 lives — only .01 percent of the nearly 11,000 who have died crossing this country’s porous boundary with Mexico.

The 1,989-mile US-Mexico border is defined by a series of short walls that lie within a “virtual fence” scanned by sensors and cameras. In January, our President called for hiring 5,000 more officers to beef up the force that monitors the current wall. None of those new hires are on the job yet, but last week, John Kelly, Secretary of Homeland Security, announced a 40-percent drop in illegal border crossings. That drop occurred during January, a month when crossings usually increase. (Winter is the safest time to cross the scorching and slaughterous Sonoran desert.)

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I think people are avoiding our border for the same reasons I stayed away from Saddam Hussein’s wall: Fear. Reproof. Maybe that’s why legal visitors are staying away. The Global Business Travel Association has estimated that since the election, the US travel industry has lost $185 million due to a “Trump slump”.

If the new wall’s job is to bar “illegals”, it won’t work any better than the Berlin Wall worked with Thomas Krüger. That’s because around 40 percent of illegal visitors simply fly in and overstay their visas.

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While the president’s talk is cheap, his wall isn’t. An internal Department of Homeland Security report estimates its cost as high as $21.6 billion.

As Robert Frost wrote, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”

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I’m hoping that the “something” isn’t just me, or the endangered Mexico gray wolf, or the last jaguar, or the 111 other species compromised by the wall. Or the Tohono O’odham, Native Americans who refuse to have 75 miles of wall cutting through their families and sacred sites. Or the Texas landowners who are furious about being cut off from their own farm and ranchland.

I’m hoping that the “something” is also the GOP, which just might hate billion-dollar bloated budgets even more than foreigners?

I’m hoping. Because the way I see it, we humans have usually been safer mending fences than building them.

Published in The Sopris Sun on March 16, 2017.