The barbed wire is a great invention. Some say it helped settle the
West. It fences in cattle simply, quickly, cheaply. One could even
say elegantly. It has the purity of a rose stem. It is very versatile.
Like all fences, all inventions, it has at least two sides. It all
depends which side you are on. It certainly could be taken as the
fitting symbol of our unhappy century: Fencing in... or out, the trenches
of World War I, fencing in the enemy aliens of World War II, erecting
near invisible walls of dense presence around stalags and gulags,
separating not just cattle from cattle or man from cattle, but man
from man. Alienating, corrosive, deadly. Yet it's a good invention.
It takes imagination to conceive it. It takes imagination to use it,
to exploit its potential to the full. In a sense, what each makes
of it is his business. To John W. Gate, chairman of the American Steel
and Wire Company of New Jersey, it was a lot of money for his company.
In 1900, he gave this testimony when asked to justify the high price:
"We claim a monopoly under patents of most of the woven wire
fencing... and we get a very much larger profit on that... for the
reason that we own the patents on the machines and patents on the
An image from the exhibition.
So here is a clue. It's a matter of knowing what to fence in
and what to fence out.
Fences delimit the land: they enclose what is claimed.
But there is something, at the core of the soul, that rejects fences,
"that does not love a wall" as Robert Frost said. At least,
a fence lets you see through, it lets in the light, the air and
the birds but stops your body. It says "Thou shalt not pass.
" It says, "if you pass, you trespass." A fence is
a patent on land. Indeed land was once granted in the colonies by
patent. Yet fences and patents are useful; they protect from undesired
and undesirable incursions. They let you enjoy the relative peace
of your property. But here is a good question: "When you fence
this in, what do you fence out?"
Children on the beach building their sand castles
claim: "This, inside, is mine"
(All washed out by the next tide).
The old Isha Upanishad (1500 B.C.) says: "Claim nothing, enjoy,
but do not covet, His wealth."
So, here is another clue.