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Posted Signs

12/14/01 12:00AM By Willem Lange

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.

Robert Frost was probably the keenest observer ever of northern New England scenery and vernacular. From the illusory warmth of the April sun, to the conversation between Mary and Warren in "Death of the Hired Man," to the tacit tolerance of the man who burned his house to buy a telescope, Frost had his finger on the pulse of this rugged and understated -- but delicately balanced -- society.

Early settlement here represented the triumph of hope over good judgment. When, after generations of hauling and stacking boulders, New England farmers heard rumors of topsoil six feet deep in the Midwest, they departed in droves, seeking the fulfillment of their dreams in the setting sun.

The ones who stayed seem to have felt that, if fulfillment was possible, it'd be found right here. The posture they developed, from decades of picking rocks, splitting wood, and bending over washtubs and stoves, made it look as though they expected to find it in the ground right in front of them. The hard life bred taciturn people given to irony and stoicism. Their language was rich in irony and implication. Far more is intended in Yankee speech than is expressed.

My neighbors and I don't exchange a thousand words a year. It's not that we're not friendly. We exist side by side in polite, amicable silence. If we have spare zucchinis, we leave them on the porch, so as to avoid embarrassing expressions of gratitude. There are no walls or fences between us, only invisible force fields of propriety: light as curtains of air, but perfectly understood and observed. Been this way for generations. The Golden Rule in action.

But there's a fly in the ointment. Because of the beauty of our woods, they've become popular with "people from away." They come for the natural ambiance, not realizing there are also matters of language and society to be reckoned with. They bring attitudes, behaviors, and fears learned elsewhere, and inimical to the sensibilities of locals who don't need written rules to know how to behave.

I stepped out of the Etna post office the other day as a Saab pulled in. The driver got out. Her car beeped behind her as she locked it. I don't think she had any idea how that little act affected the tacit relationship between us. In the Coop parking lot downtown, there's so much beeping going on, you'd think it was people greeting each other, instead of the opposite.

But the greatest affront are the posted signs. There are more every year. I can't discern any reasonable motive for informing your neighbors they will be prosecuted for daring to walk on your land. I can understand signs that say, "No Hunting" or "Safety Zone." And I can appreciate that some people consider the illusion of security more important than their relations with their neighbors. But all the signs do is keep out honest people and hurt their feelings, while ensuring that anyone who does trespass is angry and ill-disposed toward his host.

Signs declaring, "This is mine! Keep out!" sully the natural beauty of the woods. Million-dollar homes surrounded by palisades of yellow posters remind me of a cuckoo's nest, which the bird soils with its own droppings. Most important, the signs and the attitudes they represent corrode the subtle balance between neighbors which is so important to our life here on the edge of the woods. Robert Frost had it right: something there is that doesn't love a wall, and good fences do not make good neighbors. I can't imagine coveting what my neighbors have; life's too short for that. What I desire is the quiet, undeclared trust that makes it possible for us to share freely this beautiful place.

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I gotta get back to work.

--Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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