Freedom and the Wall: I’ve Heard it Both Ways


if pigs could fly
Ad astra per alas porci (to the stars on the wings of a pig) –John Steinbeck

Our adventure began with an innocent plan — to right a sagging fence post. Halfway through the disastrous first attempt (and knowing that disaster means bad star) my husband wondered aloud, “Why are we doing this?”

He could be Robert Frost, I thought. Something here does not love a wall — or at least the effort required to keep it standing. I mumbled something about making things right. And immediately reflected on my inner compass’ weird compulsion to always aim for utopia. Is this the inner hell where all lapsed Catholics end up — to endlessly carry an impossible, sometimes pointless, boulder of hope?

Trigger Warning. We had no idea what we were doing and if that kind of thing offends you then read no further.

The stakes holding the rope which pulled the post kept pulling out of the ground. I displayed my nearly complete lack of what was once called a ‘hard science’ education by recognizing that the wheel used to ease the load was a pulley but I had no idea how to actually calculate where it ought to go to fix that problem. The road not taken. Luckily, my husband studied physics. He patiently explained what we needed to do. However, when he tied the rope to a tree to support all that weight I held my breath and repressed a horrified editorial about how that rope was a noose strangling an innocent bystander. Because I had taken the path of ‘soft science’ — biology instead of physics — I knew a thing or two about vascular cambium.

After the cement was poured we brought out the level. Yeah, I know. And later in the evening when we checked the internet for more information my husband enthused over something called a post sleeve.

That’s how we solve problems over here. Inefficiently but with a little laughter, a couple of shoulder shrugs and some private cringing after the fact: bricolage gone wrong. But let’s hit the pause button as the hapless heroes work out Plan B to visit a completely different kind of wall.

Wall of Welcome

firefly mural

This weekend, we also visited Austin’s WoW: the Wall of Welcome in the Brentwood-Crestview neighbourhood. The Wall of Welcome is a mosaic, 120 feet long, that took about five years to complete. The artist Jean Graham organized the project. The mosaic not only depicts the neighbourhood’s history but was constructed by its residents. One look and I decided this is what a mending wall might look like.

welcome to the neighborhoodOh, Domino

One of the key elements in the design is Domino the pig, the image shown at the beginning of this post.

Domino came to the neighbourhood as a member of a petting zoo but the universe opened a door and he broke on through to the other side finding a refuge in Hancock Creek. For several months the baby pig was just like the ghost of Elvis — and by that I mean he was spotted in surprising places rather than as someone known for wearing glittery pant-suits or for eating fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. Somehow Domino eluded all attempts at physical or photographic capture. Instead of keeping it real he slowly gathered a protective mythic aura.

I think Domino eventually found life on the run to be lonely and scary. Pigs are social creatures and a baby pig needs some loving care. Happily, one day he ran right into a woman named Paulette and the world turned yellow and blue with little pink hearts. Paulette already had a sunflower garden and a friendly blue jay but there was room enough in her heart to add an orphaned piglet on the lam. Paulette became Domino’s North Star. The sound track? Don’t Fence Me In.

Escaped Animals and Boundaries

As melodramatic as the story of a baby trying to make a home alone in a city might be, I can’t imagine the horror of life on a factory farm. I have an inkling but some boundary of sanity stops me from going to that place in my imagination. On those very rare occasions when I read of some animal that has escaped — a cow or pig or even a duck — I cheer them on and my heart swells lifting up that stupid boulder of hope lodged in my heart. The impulse for freedom — especially freedom from pain and horror must be commended. At the same time I hate to hear these stories because even though I never studied physics or calculus I think I can calculate the odds. The animal will probably end up in a terrifying chase scene ending in being shot to death. Worst case scenario: to be captured and returned to its world of pain and torture. And I? I will once again re-learn the lesson of just how little tolerance this world has for the wild.

I wish I had the power to tear down those damned walls. No feeling creature should ever have to endure that kind of suffering. But I am not sure how to break down other people’s walls. Dissolving the walls I have allowed to accrete in my personal life is hard enough.

Not All Walls/The Final Frontier

So walls are bad? Not so fast … everything always has to get complicated doesn’t it? I could simply hate walls and end it there but then someone like the Wall of Welcome appears, walks on over and asks if I have time for a conversation. All walls are not alike, it says. Maybe there is a place for boundaries that protect and nurture. Perhaps now more than ever good fences really could make good neighbours.

Robert Frost's wall. Photo by Craig Michaud
Robert Frost’s rock wall. Photo by Craig Michaud

What does a good fence look like? A good fence begins with imagining ourselves as capable of containing and limiting greed and ignorance. Though powered by something as ineffable as imagination, such a fence would need to be firmly rooted by place if we want it to last. Key tools: carrying capacity and common good.

This idea that boundaries are important and that people need grounding reminds me of the poet Gary Snyder and some of his musings about place and the word frontier.

Snyder noted that if you ask people in North America where they are from many will be unable to find an answer. Is it where they were born? Where they live now? Where they work? Where their ancestors came from? He said,

My larger scale answer is, “My place on earth is where I know most of the birds and the trees and where I know what the climate will be right now, roughly, what should be going on there on that spot on earth right now, and where I have spent enough time to know it intimately and personally.” The Paris Review

Too many of us in North America are without roots. We don’t know where to locate our centre or how far we can go before we have reached the edge or limit.

From the beginning, Americans turned the word frontier inside out to mean ‘a place to push past’ instead of ‘out of bounds.’  And that paradigm shift made all the difference to our environment. It created a monster. First with ships transplanting tropical people into cold and mean places to grow addictive drugs. Later the push came in the shape of ploughs shredding the fabric of ancient roots meant to hold the world together. Now corporations and financial institutions push through the planet believing they are more important than people and even life itself. Consumerism versus The Planet. The ultimate zero sum game.

I think I saw a hint of how such a mess gets started in our efforts to fix the fence. Desire and ignorance love to work hand in hand. We didn’t know enough to do the job correctly but in our enthusiastic/arrogant/impulsive way (go ahead and pick an adjective or two — feel free to turn them into a bouquet) we just pushed ahead anyway. I hope we can yet be redeemed. At least we know we’ve made a mess of it. And there I go pushing that boulder of hope up that hill again …


More on the story of Domino and Paulette can be found here

More about the Wall of Welcome and the community that built it at this blog: Voices of the Violet Crown Neighbors Creating Community in Central Austin


Below are a couple examples of what you can see on the wall:

from The Wall of Welcome Austin, TX
Detail from The Wall of Welcome Austin, TX
From teh Wall of Welcome Austin, TX
Detail from the Wall of Welcome Austin, TX

6 thoughts on “Freedom and the Wall: I’ve Heard it Both Ways

  1. I love your post about a post. Working in the garden with a scientist is chastening. You are the one who knows all about plants, you’ ve got the Latin. It’ s your domain. But he’ s the one who knows how pulleys work . In my case it was moving a large stone. How come I’ ve reached my great age and remained in total ignorance about something called a fulcrum?
    I love your walls and your story about Domino. It reminded me of the story of the Tamworth Two. They were brother and sister piggies, 5 months old and they escaped from a lorry on the way to the abattoir. The whole nation became concerned about their welfare as they were on the run for a week. Eventually they were caught and bought by a national newspaper and went to live at a rare breeds centre. They were named Butch and Sundance. Ah, a happy ending.


    1. Oh my gosh. Thanks, Chloris. I love the story of Butch and Sundance! I don’t worry too much about not knowing everything. hahaha Ok … I do feel a little guilty .. but not THAT guilty.


  2. Wonderful lives right here. So much to consider – smiles and wincing combined. Learning about “you guys” while seeing the mirror behind the words.

    This brought something I learned studying System Theory bubbling back to the surface: Any weakness can become a strength and every strength can become a weakness. Walls work the same way, don’t they….


    1. I just love the story of Domino. It really ought to be turned into a children’s book if it hasn’t already. =)
      And systems theory. Yeah. That is a powerful way to describe the world.


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