Thoughts about “famine walls” and dog fences.

They’re called “famine walls.” They’re found in Ireland and they’re made of stone and start in the midst of nothing and go nowhere.

There are multitudes of them. Random walls across open lands, built in various lengths and widths and heights. They were created during the great potato famine in Ireland in the mid-1800s as a sort of work-for-food project, and had the slight benefit of at least clearing the lands around them of large stones – preparing the way for future farming or other use of the countryside.

I am quite intrigued with these hauntingly named structures that still mark their place in time. I can barely imagine the mindset of the individuals who built them – so desperate for food for themselves and their families that they willingly struggled to overcome physical depletion to gather large stones from empty fields and build walls that began suddenly and stopped just as abruptly and served no function and were without design. Famine exchanged for futility.

I found myself remembering these walls recently – or, more accurately, contemplating fences in general. I live near a part of Aiken that treasures its architecturally elegant “Old Aiken” brick walls that surround estates of incredible beauty and heritage. I walk past lush paddocks edged by the grace of traditional horse fence and history. And, just down the street, on the corner of my block, there is a large landscaped and wire-fenced yard surrounding a well-loved family home; a family that includes several beautiful rescue dogs of various shapes and sizes and personalities. Their leader is Tucker. And Tucker claims righteous ownership of this corner loudly and insistently whenever anyone walks past – especially if the passersby include another dog. Tucker is especially vocal with my dog, Quincy. The others join in with enthusiasm.

All of these creatures are lovely pets and extremely well trained. But Quincy seems to ignite an explosion of group “trash talk” through their protective chain-link fence. Quincy eagerly returns insult for insult, but then veers away when he feels he has made his point, leaving Tucker to kick up dust in frustration, trying desperately to get in the last word.

This needless confrontational expression had gone on for over a year. Until earlier this week, when Tucker’s human suggested we let them all mingle together inside the fence.

Immediately, attitudes were dropped and friendships formed. Without this fence between them, they blended into each other’s spaces beautifully, peacefully, joyfully. When there was nothing allowed to separate them – when they could search each other’s intentions, experience each other’s silent languages; when they could engage each other in reality, and in energy, they formed immediate bonds of understanding and respect. They recognized their shared interests and similarities. They forgot their fears and fearsomeness.

I suspect this situation is all too often a reality for humans, too. Perhaps it isn’t our differences that create conflict and fear; perhaps it’s the emotional and imagined fences we put up between us that separate our souls and our ability to come together in human bonds of sympathy and understanding. And I suspect it takes a great deal of struggle to build our fences and divisions – in the midst of nothing, that go nowhere, that break our backs as well as our hearts. I suspect we work terribly hard to put these barriers in place. And, in the end, I suspect we find we’ve created nothing more than our own hunger for empathy and inclusion. We’ve likely just created our own “famine walls” – without direction or design, without beginning or end.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll learn from the Tuckers and Quincys and other wise creatures around us; and we’ll open our own gates to our hearts, and we’ll gather together, and we’ll learn to trust and take care of each other and live in grace and peace.

I know that fences and walls have their purposes and places and history and beauty in the world. But I suspect not the silent, stagnant versions between us. Because with those kinds of fences, as Carl Sandburg wrote: “passing through the bars and over the steal points will go nothing except Death and Rain and Tomorrow.”


© Marti Healy