Sacred Fences

By Arthur von Boennighausen


In 1996 my wife Marty and I bought a 1640 acre property called the Sierra Mojada Ranch and moved to Westcliffe from Boulder, Colorado. As new members of the Westcliffe community we had been making an effort to be sensitive to the existing culture which was based on cattle ranching and it's associated endeavor of growing and harvesting grass hay which is used as food for the cattle.

We had learned about opening and closing gates when entering and leaving a ranch; the legal rights and customs associated with water used for irrigation, how to determine the grazing load for each year based on both mathematical calculation and observation of the land both during and after the grazing season. We also learned about helping our neighbors without being asked for help when it looked like they were struggling to keep up with some project they were working on.

We learned who was responsible for maintaining the fences around our ranch and what to do if a neighbor's cattle got mixed in with ours.

In other words, we thought we were starting to Understand the current culture and were doing a good job of getting along with everyone. Honoring the traditions and customs of an area where we were the newcomers.

So, one day we were working at the ranch and decided that a section of broken down fence was an eyesore. The fence no longer served a useful purpose for my wife Marty and I, and to us the fence detracted from the view of a section of prairie loaded with wildflowers.

The fence was made of rickety posts of scrub Oak trees first harvested and put in the ground around the turn of the century. Many of the posts were laying on the ground, having fallen in the hundred years since they were put up from wind or knocked down by animals moving through the area to graze.

Most of the barbed wire was broken and no longer attached to the posts. Long sections of the wire lazily coiled this way and that like springs from an old bed mattress.

So, we put on some leather work gloves and cut the wire apart, pulled down the posts and loaded the whole mess in our pick-up truck and took it to the local landfill for disposal. We thought we had made the area better.

A couple of days later, one of our new friends named Dr. Wilbur Miller who was a third generation Westcliffe rancher and had been born in a ranch house just a couple of miles from our own property came by. During the course of small talk about the weather and this and that, I started to get the feeling that the conversation had moved into a discussion of things newcomers did that upset the community for a reason.

By becoming very quiet and listening very carefully, I began to realize that in some way taking down that old fence had upset this long time valley rancher. After listening for a little while longer, I suddenly remembered a comment from a woman from months before.

Carol Vimont had talked about how much she had liked an old fence post that stood near her house in Westcliffe. Each morning when Carol left for work she would look at the gnarled old post that had stood in the same spot for a hundred years and enjoy seeing the shapes and patterns that had come to be in this old piece of wood. To her, it was an old friend she had become comfortable with and she even imagined the top of the post kind of looked like a cowboy with a mustache.

The conversation with Wilbur and the story told around the dinner table with Carol came together in a flash of intuitive Understanding.

"Wilbur" I asked. "Are you upset that we tore down that old fence?"

"Well, a little bit." was his reply. "You see, my father and grandfather put up that fence a long time ago. I know how hard it was for them to cut down the Oak trees and make the posts. How hard it was for him to dig the holes for the posts in the stony ground and how hard it was to string the barbed wire during a cold and windy Winter so long ago. I also remember how some of our herd of cattle used to be kept in this area by that fence. Cattle that earned money for the family so that we could eat and afford to go to school."

"When you cut down the fence." Wilbur told us. "You removed a memory of my father and grandfather that I cherished. Each time I drove by that old fence, I would remember my father and grandfather and how much I loved them. That old fence was Sacred to me because of the connection between the fence and the Heart it took from some members of my family now long gone to put that fence up."

So an old barbed wire fence taught us a good lesson. We began to look for "Sacred Fences" in everything we did. How an object from the past could have some attachments that were important to some people.

That afternoon, I walked down the sidewalk on the main street of Westcliffe and saw many possible "Sacred Fences". Old wooden benches that people were sitting on, hand made wooden signs on some of the shops, the door to the Jennings Market, the sidewalk itself, an old pick-up truck that was rusty and broken down beyond belief. Things that meant little or nothing to me, but might be very important to another person.

How can you know if you are looking at a "Sacred Fence"? One way is to try and get to know as many of the people from a community as possible and learn to quiet down and listen to what they are saying. If you listen hard enough and talk to enough people, the community will give you some clues to the things they consider Sacred. And if you care about the community you will try and honor what is Sacred to them.

Communicating.... and Listening.... so important in today's culture.........Thanks for Listening.


Arthur von Boennighausen @ The Sierra Mojada Ranch