Since my family has always lived on a significant amount of land (at least by a city person’s standards), there was a lot for me to explore. Unlike other ranchers, who often clear their land of trees for pasture, my family has always left the woods intact. Whether that choice was influenced more by lack of desire or lack of equipment is open to interpretation but, at any rate, I’m deeply grateful for the woods. Open, clear land seemed really boring and unromantic to me; nothing like the woods, which were full of little hidden places that could only be found by the diligent wanderer.
Even at twenty-two and looking ever dapper in rubber boots and gym shorts, I still trudge off into the river bottom from time to time armed only with a walking stick and my dogs to keep me company. When I was younger and the ranch was smaller, I’d be disappointed when I encountered a fence. Fences meant the land beyond was owned by someone else and that I could go no further in that direction, lest I draw the ire of our neighbors—or (no joke) stumble into one of their piano wire booby traps.
During these forays, the notion of a world without fences gradually took on a mythic, romantic persona in my mind. As I walked among towering cottonwoods, climbed slippery creek banks, and moved among tall pines and car-sized boulders on the hills, I’d indulge in a little pretense and imagine I was an explorer on an uncivilized continent seeing places no other human being had. I’d build little campsites and make fire pits thinking I was the apprentice to Lewis and Clark, only I’d set off for home once the sun started to hang low on the horizon. Even now, I haven’t really outgrown my fear of the dark.
Like most childhood fantasies, the fenceless world grew less fun to imagine over time. It had been years since I remembered the fun I used to have with it when I found myself sitting outside one summer evening with the sun going down over my shoulder. Below the hill where we built our house, the herd was grazing peacefully. For the longest time, we’d thought our white cows were racists since they excluded the black and brown ones. At some point though, I guess they became color blind and racial intermingling ensued: I’m happy to report that the herd has been integrated for quite some time.
As the cattle ate, I noticed a doe come bounding up out of the woods and into the field. She was alone and looked a little uneasy out in the open. I watched her dart a few yards at a time across the field and when she reached the fence marking the ranch’s western edge, she leaped over it well clear of the barbed wire.
Upon seeing that, my literary senses began to wax metaphorical. I saw in the deer the type of life glorified by our culture: the lone, free, and fenceless existence. Sure, the deer isn’t without problems. She must outwit or outrun hunters and predators for her entire life. Nevertheless, she exemplifies the free spirit, the transient who owes nothing to no one and is able to go where she chooses, stay as long as she wishes, and leave whenever it suits. Of course, I’m willing to assume that few people see their own lives as matching this picture.
For most of us, my assumption is that we often see our existence as something drearily bovine. Maybe we’re stuck in an office day-in and day-out. Maybe we’re stuck in relationships where mutual infatuation has given way to melancholic routine. The point is that we’re aware of repetition and the maddening way that one day can seem to bleed into another. My guess is that since most moments lack anything to make them distinctive we probably remember very little of our lives. Of course, all this really is just a matter of perspective.
I once heard a well-known Christian pastor relate a story about a man he’d known who’d supposedly missed out on his purpose. It served as an illustration to his sermon, which I’ve since forgotten but was probably equally deficient. This man, a friend of his, was someone on whom he believed God had placed a calling. It was the sort of “calling” that makes Charismatic youth group kids salivate to think about and probably had to do with packing only the necessities and leaving for some far-off and exotic place to do the Lord’s work. But alas, in the pastor’s eyes, this man had failed God and neglected his calling. Why? He’d gotten married, his wife had become pregnant, and they’d started a family together. Instead of “fulfilling his purpose,” the man had settled in to domestic drudgery.
The problem is that this pastor had it all wrong. His friend hadn’t settled for a lesser existence and neglected his calling. He hadn’t given up on finding adventure. Entering into a marriage and starting a family is among the bravest actions a human can take. Giving up personal freedom to shepherd a new generation to adulthood is extremely brave. The opportunities for failure and mistakes are endless and not all of them will be avoided. You see, adventure is all a matter of perspective.
Among the bigger marks of maturity is learning how to see beauty in the mundane, not despite it. And, in all honesty, the idea of a fenceless life is fanciful dreaming. Fences are part and parcel to life, even for the ones who seem to be free of them. So much about our lives are things we didn’t choose and have no ability to control. Our very existence and the circumstances that govern it are the result of decisions made without our consent and which we have little ability to alter. Ultimately, we can’t exert much control over where the fences in life happen to be and there’s no way for any one man to experience all of what it means to be human. What we can do, however, is focus on fully experiencing it within the space we’ve been given.