Speak Your Piece: Locked Out

Fences, they say, make good neighbors. But locked gates just mean you're looking for a privacy you will probably not find. Author Mark Jamison suggests sharing the land, and the road, in the mountains of North Carolina.

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I was settling down for my Sunday afternoon nap when someone started pounding on my front door. It was not a friendly knock, and the face at the door, a big rough looking fellow, didn’t seem primed for pleasantries.

“Are you the Jamison feller owns land on Pressley Creek?”

“Yes,” I said. I live down in Webster now, but I still have the house and farm ON A MOUNTAINSIDE??? in Speedwell. I’ve been trying to sell it for several years.

“Well, why’d you lock the damn gate?”

Now here I was a bit confused. There is a gate to the gravel road that goes up to my place, but it has never been closed let alone locked. The gate is there primarily at the behest of my insurance agent, who thinks my practice of letting people wander across my land to the adjoining Forest Service land leaves me open to litigation. The gate is my concession to a litigious society and is supposed to let people know they are wandering onto private property.

I have a thing about fences and locked gates. My grandfather may have put it best when he said that a gate and a fence were for keeping animals in or out, and anything else was either pride or foolishness. Here in the mountains, we tend to laugh at the folks who move in and immediately put up a gate to their road. Don’t they understand that a locked gate only raises folks’ curiosity – what has he got up there that’s so special?

After a few minutes of back and forth, it turned out that Andy, the fellow at the door, had bought a small parcel that adjoins my land and is accessed from my road. He encountered the locked gate and just assumed I did it. I assured him that wasn’t the case and that I would find out what was going on from my real estate agent. We parted on a friendly note after a conversation that included our common interest in logging; he’s in the business, and I grew up with loggers and have done a bit myself on the mountain.

A call to my real estate agent the next day cleared things up. Apparently another property, 12 acres with a house, that uses my road had sold. The new owner had decided to close and lock the gate without talking to any of his neighbors. Despite the fact that he doesn’t own the road; that three other people use the road to get to their land; that a neighbor uses the road to get to his upper pasture; and that several folks have permission to use the road to reach adjoining state game lands, the new fellow had decided it was OK to lock the gate. Of course, he didn’t bother to find any of that out.

Later that day I got a call from the new fellow after my real estate agent had tracked him down. The fellow had traveled back to Pennsylvania to move some of his stuff leaving his wife behind in their new place. He decided to lock the gate after he saw a “shady looking fellow in overalls” wandering about; unfortunately he had never seen my preferred mode of dress.

We had a friendly but what seemed to me a wary conversation about the road and the properties that surround his. I let him know the gate was to remain open, that it always had and as long as I owned the road it always would. His conversation led me to think he held a rather dim view of mankind. He said he had worked around prisoners and he knew how people could be. It sounded like he’d bought this beautiful place in the woods with the expectation of a sort of total privacy that I’m afraid he won’t find. First, he seems to confuse isolation with privacy. Second, 12 acres in the middle of a mountain cove really isn’t all that isolated.

During the real estate boom, the mountains became a special target of those rich in paper stock market wealth. The good life some of these folks aspired to meant a getaway, a place close to the land with views and privacy. They came in droves and built on land that most folks here wouldn’t pasture a billy goat on. The real estate industry cashed in on the boom by building gated developments – I refuse to call them communities – but there were also a lot of individual places that were sold. Some of these new residents wanted to be part of the long-established cove communities. Unfortunately, others, too many, came craving seclusion and isolation, looking for a rural experience without the attachment to community that is an essential part of the rural experience.

I wonder about folks like the new fellow on the mountain. What went through his mind to make him want to lock that gate? I’m told that even after meeting and talking with a couple of the neighbors that he still insists on questioning everyone who comes up the road like some sort of Barney Fife. I hope he realizes that whatever he’s afraid of starts with him.

Gates and fences don’t provide anything but a false sense of security. A man who feels safer by the presence of a gate is a man whose heart is full of fear. I don’t want to be protected from my neighbors. I don’t want to create a separation that says some are my neighbors and some aren’t. I believe in belonging and attachment, to place, to land, to people. The connections we allow to flourish feed us and magnify our spirit; separations only diminish.

I wrote the preceding paragraph for my local newspaper more than seven years ago. Time and experience tell me they are still true.

Mark Jamison is a retired U.S. postmaster who lives in western North Carolina.

 

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