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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fences

I grew up clambering over barbed wire, buck fences and snow fences as a kid, and in my childhood imagination I played favorites between them. I never liked barbed wire, first because I always ran the danger of a tri-corner rip in my jeans (and therefore my mother's wrath) every time I squeezed through them. It was an aesthetic dislike, too: barbed wire is too impersonal. It's a cheap fence, metal, thrown up and pounded in without the slightest thought other than to carve the wilderness into parcels. A forcible mark of ownership. And, it's hard to climb.
 
Buck fences are more conciliatory, I had always thought. They're made from the wilderness itself, more organic, lying on top of rather than punched within the ground. To me, they suggested a more symbiotic relationship between man and land, a way of showing a stretch of land as  both "home" and "habitat" at the same time.  Snow fences, however, were always my favorite because they don't actually "fence in" anything-- just long, parallel stretches of tall rails that comb the Wyoming wind to steal its snow. You climbed a snow fence just to climb, not to get anywhere.



The fences of my childhood never registered as being something worth any particular comment-- just another part of the landscape-- but living in the South has taught me to look at them differently.  For instance, it had never occurred to me that one's relationship fences might be cultural, that that relationship might need to be taught.  One of my favorite conversations so far at my new college has been trying to explain in detail how a "snow fence" works to a friend of mine from the southwest. I eventually had to resort to pictures. He was enthralled.

Anyhow, I have been thinking about fences recently because of a strange conversation with a friend awhile ago. Every time I go back home, you see, I take a slew of pictures-- usually landscapes-- so I can play them back on my screen saver when I get homesick. I was talking to a minister friend of mine in Starbuck's one afternoon while my screen saver ran on my computer in the background. As we were chatting, he saw a picture pop up on the screen, which you can see below: 


Gorgeous, isn't it?  For me, red hills say "home." This is not Laramie, however: it's actually on the opposite side of the state. My minister friend stared hard at the picture for a moment and asked uneasily, "Hey, that's not where that gay kid was killed, is it?" It took me a moment to figure out that he was referring to the buck fence in the foreground. There are hundreds of miles of buck fence in my state alone, but the only place he could visualize one was the spot were Matt Shepard was murdered.

Since I have such a longstanding interaction with buck fences, I'm simply not used to equating them with an instrument of torture. If anything, I always loved them because they represented a unique interstitial space between the limits of civilization and the wilderness beyond-- a sort of armistice between man and nature. (You often use buck fences in places where you can't put down posts for barbed wire, for instance.)

So, just for fun, I tried an image search just to see what the almighty Google came up with for the term "buck fence" and got 325 hits. The first page was normal, just a lot of dealers peddling fencing supplies, but results were rather interesting starting with the second page.   The bottom three images on this page all refer to Matthew Shepard. Interesting.

If you add the word "Wyoming" to the list, you get 123 hits, and over half of the images returned are related to Matt Shepard. Say what you want to about the relationship between national consciousness and a Google crawler-- it still suggests the degree to which the buck fence has become a symbol for the Shepard tragedy.

So, why such focus on the fence, I wonder? Maybe that's an obvious question, but I'm thinking through it nonetheless.

Right now, I think that it at least has to do with why I loved them as a kid-- their marking of the space between civilization and wilderness. And their Westernness, too: I've seen a lot of spit-rail and zipper fences in Appalachia since I've lived in the South, but never a buck fence. TLP uses the fence as something like this kind of symbol in the text: wildness, isolation.  Western Americana. Not that TT is doing something unique; the newspapers did the exact same thing. It's a larger cultural phenomenon than just Tectonic Theater.
But there are two misconceptions that might give us some things to consider. Most people when they picture the crime scene all get the same image in their head, something much more akin to our idea of a crucifixion-- they imagine Matt tied to the top  hanging down. (That's how all the more grisly protesters depicted him, at least.) If you read Reggie Fluty's description of the crime scene, however, it's pretty clear he was tied to the bottom rail, stretched out on the ground. The cross-beams of the fence become much more of a crucifix in our imagination than the reality suggests.

The other one is the location. If you ask my students where he was found, I’m willing to bet that most of them would put him four, five miles outside of the city limits, and that’s certainly the image that TT has when they describe their encounter with the fence. In reality, it’s much, much closer. As both Beth Loffreda and Amy Tigner have pointed out, it’s basically between two different subdivisions on the eastern edge of town. The fence marked the property line of a house being built at the end of that dirt road.  When I still lived in Laramie, I used to have lunch with a lady from my church at her house, and you could practically see up the slope to the murder location on the other side of Grand.  The parents of my husband's best friend basically live within earshot.  Matt did not die in wilderness-- but that's the scene ingrained in our imaginations.

Take, for instance, Stephen Mead Johnson's description of the fence:
That place has become a pilgrimage site. Clearly that's a very powerful personal experience to go out there. It is so stark and so empty and you can't help but thinking of Matthew out there for eighteen hours in the freezing temperatures, with that view up there isolated, and the "God, my God, why have you forsaken me" comes to mind. (34)
I can no longer read these lines without picturing a line of houses, fenced yards down the slope (and the foundations of that house an arrow's flight away) and the disjunction is striking. Maybe it's because I'm used to large, unused fields between blocks in towns and houses on dirt roads, or maybe because our subdivisions have only recently taken on the "dropped from the sky" appearance more common back east-- but I simply cannot see that area as anything other than domesticated space. That's why the fence was there, for crying out loud.  Yet, for Johnson, it's "so stark and so empty," and "isolated." The members of the TT cast see it that way as well-- Fondakowski talks about Kriefels finding Matt "out there" at the fence (34). And yet, in a sense, it's not "out" anywhere. It's in Laramie-- on the eastern edge, granted, but it's a town space, not a wilderness space. I have to agree with Loffreda: the disturbing thing for me is how Matt was murdered among us, not out of eyesight.

So, what allows that imaginative leap? What transports Shepard outside the realm of civilization into the harsh wilderness, into lawlessness? I have to wonder if it's the fence. For most people, picturing that kind of raw pine structure inside a domesticated space doesn't make a lot of sense.  (It makes perfect sense to me.)  Rather, people imagine it as a threshold that suggests human interaction with, but not necessarily human domination of, the landscape-- the edge of the domesticated. A place where and law and order have influence, perhaps, but not control.

Perhaps fences-- and my question-- are not quite as simple as they first appear.



A note on the images: 
All the pictures in the above article were taken by Jackrabbit, and not a single one of these buck fences are from Laramie.  Instead, they come from central and northern Wyoming.   

The snow fence was taken just outside of Medicine Bow, Wyoming.  
The barbwire fence is from just outside of the Sunshine Reservoir, west of Meeteetsee, WY. 

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