I always admired the poetry of Robert Frost, but sometimes he was just plain wrong. He said that “good fences make good neighbors,” but he lived in New England, and not Arenzville. I think our town has one fence and it’s needed to keep a herd of Angus heifers from roaming over the town. Like residents of many small towns, we’re not even sure where the borders of our property are. When we mow our yards, we simply keep going until we hit something. Pictures of the town a hundred years ago show streets lined with both wooden and metal fences, but a careful reading of the ancient town ordinances banning pigs and sheep from the town park give a hint as to why these borders might have been necessary. I’ve heard tales of when the Morgan County courthouse was located in the Jacksonville Square, visiting lawyers would often complain about the racket made by the swine living under the courtroom. Taylorville boasts a statue of Abraham Lincoln with a pig, commemorating the tale of when the young lawyer was trying a case in that city and the pigs under the courthouse were raising such a racket that the future President asked the judge for a “writ of quietus.” No one can actually prove that this happened, but the local records show that in March of 1850, the local sheriff was ordered to erect a fence around the courthouse grounds so the animals couldn’t get under the building.
When I bought my house there was a border of sorts in front of the house. Actually, it was a hedge that Jonathan Baldwin Turner would have called “pig tight and bull strong,” and it grew so tall that it obscured my view of lovely downtown Arenzville. Seeking and taking advice from the local hedge experts on how and when to trim it, I took out my shears one fall morning and began clipping. The hedge died that winter.
And so the boundaries in our little village lost yet another obstacle to free passage from one yard to another . . . which brings me to the subject of tomatoes. Can there be any joy equal to the taste of the first beefsteak tomato of the season? Is there a feeling that equals the ecstasy of tomato juice running down the sides of your mouth as you take that first bite? I’ve tried for years to master the art of tomato growing and have had the same luck as I did with hedge cutting. My jobs often require me to be gone for days at a time, and absence has not made the heart of my tomatoes grow fonder. Since I live on a well-traveled road, I secured the plants behind my house, and because I seldom look at my back yard, the poor things died of benign neglect. I was a tomato killer, simple as that.
So when my neighbor down the street told me he had tomatoes planted all over town, including a garden spot directly across from my house, and then added to my joy to by telling me I could pick all I wanted . . . well, I was never taken to Disneyland as a child, but if Dad had offered it would surely have felt something like this. My neighbor not only has a green thumb, but seemingly an entire body inhabited by the secrets of how to make things grow. Word has it that he borrows the refuse left behind by the meat packing plant in Beardstown and spreads the stuff liberally over this tomato plants. The results are . . . well . . . glorious. His plants are veritable tomato factories, pumping out more juicy fruits than he and I together can consume. I find myself declining dinner invitations, knowing that I have a row of luscious tomatoes at home on my windowsill. My favorite concoction consists of tomato wedges surrounded by slightly frozen peas, topped with a bit of sea salt and olive oil. If I had any idea how to can a tomato I’d give it a try, but I keep thinking about my dead hedge and stuff that idea.
The thing is, if my neighbor had erected a fence . . . that is, a fence that I’d be required to climb with a tomato in each hand, well . . . I’d probably be eating my tomatoes in a soup prepared by the Passavant Hospital kitchen. It’s the lack of fences that not only make us good neighbors but also keeps me alive and walking.
Benjamin Franklin said, “Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” What did he know? One of the tales told regularly by visitors to Philadelphia is that Franklin’s favorite flavor of ice cream was tomato. With his propensity for gout, he’d have never been able to climb the fence.