There was a time when I wasn’t the fine, upstanding citizen that I am today. I chalk it up to callow youth. Truth be told, there was a period of my life in which I was a trespasser and a rhubarb thief as well. It’s true, and they say confession is good for the soul. That lawless inclination presented itself when I was about 11 years old, as were my cohorts in crime, a group of my best buddies, three girls and two boys, all living in the same block.

No matter the weather, no matter the day of the week, when we had a few minutes of free time, we’d hightail it to a huge field that lay behind our homes. In the summer we’d erect teepees from old bedspreads and other castoffs in the tall grass and weeds, or on sultry afternoons we’d seek the cool of the woods and a stream beyond. In the winter, we’d troop across that field, and make our way up and over the remains of what had once been part of the Grand Trunk Railway to a golf course pond beyond. There, we’d use discarded boards to scrape the snow-covered surface clear for ice skating. It was all quite free and rambunctious.

The only obstacle to our adventures was a series of fences joined across the back of our yards that obstructed our access to the field and the explorations that lay beyond. However, there was one property that had no fence, and provided a clear, grassy path to the field and nearby tantalizing woods beyond. Coincidentally, there also was a thick patch of rhubarb at the edge of that yard, and we’d often grab stalks on our way through. We never lingered or loitered in that yard, just used it as an avenue to our destination.

We rarely, if ever, saw either of the elderly couple who lived in the house. No one ever admonished us for our trespassing, nor our pilfering of rhubarb. But certainly the old couple saw us, and at some point they’d had their fill of our plundering their rhubarb and invading their property. One day as we chattered and laughed and raced through the neighbors' yard to the field we were rudely interrupted by a length of wire that had been stretched taut across the edge of their yard about a foot off the ground.

It truly could be said that we never knew what hit us. But as we raced out to the field, we were suddenly jerked back and went sprawling. We generally got the wind knocked out of us. For a minute or two, we rolled about on the green grass snorting and cackling at the spectacle we must have presented, and eventually picked ourselves up. But the sobering reality of that wire made us realize our crime. The “message” our elderly neighbors sent was received loud and clear. The next day the wire was gone. We continued to use our path to the field, but we never again snatched rhubarb and we passed through quickly and quietly, fully chastised.

Since then I have observed and appreciated a variety of fences, though none that left as indelible an impression as that simple string of wire did. I realize that fences can serve a number of purposes —  practical, ornamental or both.

The concept of a “fence” is an old one that dates to early civilizations, the Greeks having been the first to make use of fences that emerged from notions of agriculture, family and property. The term itself is derived from the 14th century word “fens,” a defense or protection. The dictionary defines a fence as a “structure serving as a barrier, boundary or enclosure, usually made of posts or stakes joined together by boards, wire, or rails. It surrounds, separates, keeps away, it defends.” Yeah, I noted the inclusion of “wire” in that definition.

For better or worse, fences can be credited with the institutionalization, the collective recognition of private property as a visual and open declaration of intention, a commitment to the land, a proprietor’s self-regard and responsibility. Throughout history — including my own — fences have been used to keep people or animals out, or in other instances to keep them in. Fences can also provide protection, separating people or animals from danger. In other cases, fences have been mainly ornamental, and in yet others, fences serve as screens. Fencing can direct movement and enhance the appearance of a space. During World War II, many  of the once-common old, highly-ornamental Victorian-era iron fences were donated for scrap for the war effort, along with pots and pans, bedsprings and other bits and pieces of metal, as the nation pulled together with everyone doing their part. The few that remain are indeed prized.

Over the centuries, fencing materials have evolved from the earliest ones of stones or Anglo-Saxon rough wooden rails formed into a zigzag pattern and called “worm fences.” During the settling of our West, fences became the catalyst for local skirmishes, and fencing elements like barbed wire became incendiary issues that sparked more than one range “war.” Our own electric wire fence does its job quite adequately to keep deer our of the garden, and is comprised of a handful of posts and a couple strings of aluminum wires. Yet another wire fence in my experiences with these effective barriers.

Today fences are often an integral part of our landscapes, constructed of a wide variety of materials and used for a variety of purposes. In fact, their only limit seems to be the imagination. While I may not have appreciated them in my younger years, I do today. And as Robert Frost put it back in the day: “Good fences make good neighbors” Robert Frost, even if the grass always appears to be greener on the other side.