Don’t Fence Me In: Musings on Space in the Golden State & Elsewhere

Photo by Calvin Ma

Californians tend to be spatially impaired. Indeed, we are deficient when it comes to assessing the physical spaces around us. We get in the way of others and don’t get out of the way in hallways, doorways and other tight spaces where we seem to forget we share common territory and ought to respect boundaries. Perhaps this is because California is a vast territory where cities and towns sprawl and where people don’t want to be crammed together. We forget we’re often in thickly populated areas. Notoriously, we run from “civilization” and head for the hills, or for suburbia which provides an illusion of freedom and individuality.

The desire to be free and untrammelled is expressed in the popular song, “Don’t Fence Me In.” The words were originally written by Robert Fletcher, who worked for the Department of Highways in Montana, and who responded to a request for a cowboy song for a Twentieth Century Fox musical, Adios Argentina (1934), Cole Porter tinkered with Fletcher’s lyrics, sang them and made them famous.

Clearly, the song struck a nerve and a chord. Dozens of other singers have performed “Don’t Fence Me In,” including Roy Rogers, Kate Smith, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Hoyt Axton, Willie Nelson, Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood and James Brown, “the Godfather of Soul.” No song is more patriotic. Singing it has been a way of showing one’s love for America, “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Those words are at the heart of the national anthem.

Other states in the US, besides California, embrace the “don’t-fence-me-in” sentiment, but it is in California where it has reached a pinnacle. Like Californians, Texans don’t want to be fenced in. They erect barbed wire fences to keep cattle from straying, and they build walls to keep some people out of the Lone Star state. I once traveled for hundreds of miles by car from Austin to Big Bend National Park where the parking lot was filled with RVs, the inhabitants all inside watching programs on their own individual TVs. That’s a metaphor not only just for Texas but for the US.

The Golden State, where citizens don’t want to be fenced in, also incarcerates more people than any other state in the USA. Prisoners aren’t just fenced in; they’re also walled in and locked up, often in solitary confinement. By their very nature, prisons have always had walls and “deadlines.” To try to go beyond them has meant to become a moving target. Nathaniel Hawthorne noted in The Scarlet Letter, his novel of Puritan New England, that prisons were the first structures to be built in a land supposedly free from English tyranny. Break laws and customs in America and you are fenced in whether you like it or not.

It occurs to me that we have always been a nation of fence-builders and wall-builders, from New England to the Pacific NorthWest and the Deep South. In colonial days, fences and walls were erected to keep Indians out of towns, deter dissident settlers from escaping into the wilderness and also to mark the boundaries of private property. As far as I know, Indians didn’t build fences, though they had a keen awareness of territories and boundaries, often determined by the contours of rivers, lakes, hills and mountains.

New Yorkers tend to be spatially savvy. They know how to cram into elevators, subways, and buses gracefully, avoid encroaching on the space of others and holding one’s own in a crowd. During rush hours, New York commuters pack into subways like the proverbial sardines in a can. They ride together on elevators and don’t feel antsy. Yes, the pandemic altered those habits. One was supposed to keep six-feet apart from the nearest person.

I lived in New York for seven years and learned to be spatially wise. I also lived in England and saw the remains of Roman walls, which marked the edge of the Roman Empire. Probably, all empires erect walls to exclude so-called “barbarians” and “savages.” They also provide a sense of identity.

I was once a tourist in Hanoi and also in Bangkok where my sense of spatial space was sorely tested. Never before or since have I been so surrounded by throngs of people. The traffic in Hanoi struck me as “organized chaos.” I felt lost much of the time, but the Vietnamese knew exactly where they were going and how to navigate the chaos. At 7 a.m. every morning, loudspeakers blasted the “International” to wake sleepers and remind them to open shops and go to work. In Vietnam, I came to appreciate the wide open spaces of the American West and the lyrics to the song “Don’t Fence Me In.”

In San Francisco, where I live now, the beach at Ocean Beach, along the Pacific is rarely crowded except on sunny days, which are as rare as the crowds. Golden Gate Park, the largest public park in the city, is also rarely crowded, except when outdoor music festivals take place and people know they’ll have to be part of a close knit community. To share in the benefits of society, which now apparently includes rock concerts, one has to give up a certain amount of freedom, including the freedom to sprawl, and to occupy more space than one actually needs.

In Ireland, one summer I walked with my friend, Stacey, across farmers’ fields which were often enclosed by stone walls and iron fences and with gates to enter and leave. There were no signs that read “no trespassing” and “keep out.” The rule, I was told by a sheep herder, was “If you open the gate, make sure you close the gate.” That’s a rule I lived with and accepted. Now, I don’t want to be fenced in, but I don’t want to be fenced out, either. I want to wander unfettered and at the same time not encroach on someone else’s space. It’s a balance that’s often challenging to meet.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.