Michael Pollan is quite wrong about Americans and walls

But the American prejudice against fences predates the suburban development. Fences have always seem to us somehow un-American. Europeans built walled gardens; Americans from the start distrusted hortus conclusus. If the space within the wall was a garden, then what was outside the wall? To the Puritans the whole American landscape was a promised land, a sacred space, and to draw lines around sections of it was to throw this paramount idea into question. When Anne Bradstreet, the Massachusetts colony’s first poet, set about writing a traditional English garden ode, she tore down the conventional garden wall – or (it comes to the same thing) made it capacious enough to take in the whole of America. The Puritans had not crossed the Atlantic to redeem some small, walled plot of land; that they could have done in England. They, or rather God acting through them, had plans for all of it.

The transcendentalists, too, considered the American landscape “God’s second book” and they taught us to read it for moral instruction. Residues of this idea persist, of course; we still regard and write about nature with high moral purpose (and, almost as often as it did in the nineteenth century, the approach produces a great deal of pious prose).

Michael Pollen: Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education

Michael Pollan inexplicably believes that Americans have a centuries-old predisposition to hate walls and fences around private property. He devotes much of his book Second Nature to discussing this imaginary trait.

To suggest that Americans have – since their earliest settlements – despised physical borders, and that this has somehow become the inherited aesthetic in the United States as far as landscaping is concerned, is flatly untrue.

Both private and public property in the New World were routinely secured with walls and fences. If you visit the earliest established cities in North America, you find many, many garden walls and city walls. The remnants of palisades can be found from the Adirondacks to Mississippi. The earliest colonial cities were literally forts.

Settlements in Colonial America – including the settlement Anne Bradsteet, whom he offers as an authority on walls, lived in – were almost universally protected by palisades to keep out potentially (and factually) hostile Native Americans and wild animals. If you tour these settlements, you can see the archaeological evidence of the existence of these palisades. Puritans did not have idyllic ideas about nature. They weren’t living in some hippie fairy tale like Pollan. A wolf was a very real creature that could carry your very real child away to eat them alive.

Before “Wall Street” was associated with bankers and hedge fund managers, it referred to the physical wall the Dutch built around New Amsterdam (now New York City). You can see the remains of the city walls of most colonial-era cities. The coquina city wall in St Augustine, Florida, has remained intact since it was constructed in the 16th century. The historic homes within St Augustine are surrounded by… wait for it… garden walls.

Some older cities are famous for their walled gardens, which continue to exist as they did much earlier. Private gardens are particularly a source of pride in places like Charleston and Savannah.

I am almost 40 years old and I have lived for long stretches in five different states, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This is the first house I have ever lived in – either among the houses my parents had or that my husband and I bought – that did not have a fence or wall. (Though we live in a gated community, so it technically does have a wall, even though it is not around our own yard.) As we are dog lovers, we likely will not repeat this mistake. Aesthetics aside, there is nothing worse than bringing a new puppy home to a house that does not have a fenced-in property. I am sure I am far from the only American with this bias.

When Americans talk about the “American Dream,” usually they associate it with the triumph of laying claim to a piece of land. This place belongs to me, and I have the legal ability to give it to my kids so they will have their own place too. The same psychology that built palisades created homeowner’s associations with the right to put a lien on a property if you don’t pay the fine for an unapproved flower pot. There’s a reason Obama is trying to explain to his own party that the open borders crowd is unelectable. Americans really, really love the symbolism of property.

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