If you look at a map of southern Oklahoma and north Texas, you will see the Red River winding like a ribbon from the Panhandle of Texas towards Louisiana. And almost in the middle of the bottom of Oklahoma you will see a little tit of land, a pure peninsula, that is the southernmost part of Love county. That is where I was raised and there are parts of that country that I know as well as the room I am now sitting in.
My earliest introduction to that country was as a small boy in the presence of my grandfather, daddy, and uncles. But, by the time I was ten or eleven, I was exploring it on my own, glad of my freedom and solitude. When I was still eleven, I was permitted to carry my great-grand-daddy's shotgun on these lonely tramps. It was an interesting gun: a twelve gauge double-barrel with hammers, one of which was gone forever. It kicked like a mule and would have taken off most of my head if mishandled. The point was that, unlike a .22, it had a limited range and was therefore less likely to injure unsuspecting neighbors or stock. I had been instructed in a stern school concerning gun safety: where and where not to point it, how to treat it as always loaded, and how to safely cross fences with it.
Fences were a ubiquitous, omnipresent reality in that country. Most of the farms and ranches were only a few hundred acres in size, so fence lines had to be coped with by any budding frontiersman. They were all "bob warr" and they were to be treated with respect.
The country itself was a mixture of cultivated land and woody hills. The cultivated land was often scarred by deep gullies, "canyons" we called them, where mismanagement of the red, sandy soil had caused serious erosion and loss of arable land. Some of these were forty feet deep. The wooded hills were often rough country, and in certain locales outbreaks of limestone made them rougher. There were creeks, spring-fed branches, and, in every direction except north, "the River." These natural boundaries and obstacles were simply "there," and if you had good sense you treated them with a respect that was several notches higher than that shown to fences. There were some things that you just didn't mess with.
There weren't many "posted" places in the area and you were generally welcome to cross fences and go about your business as long as you behaved on the property in a neighborly way. There were a few grumpy old men here and there, and some were purported to warn off unwanted visitors with a shotgun blast to the sky. But, most of us never saw a fence we wouldn't cross if a hound went that way or if it would cut a half a mile off a tired trudge home.
The natural fences of river, canyon, thicket, etc. were a different thing altogether. The thing was what it was and you respected it or prepared to suffer the consequences. In this sense, the natural obstacles were "feared" in that they were deeply respected. This fear was taught from childhood and when childish rashness tempted you to test the boundaries, you came away from the experience with a deepened sense of respect- if you survived. Some didn't, but this only deepened that sense of reverence when a spot was marked by a tragedy, as in "that's where that Foster boy drowned," or "that's where old man Sims broke his back."
I have been thinking lately about the differences between man-made fences and creation boundaries, and I have concluded that much of the the way I think and behave ethically and theologically has to do with my early training in Love County with its fences and natural obstacles.
In my view, there are Divine boundaries that are to be feared and respected. They are there, always there. People who mess with them, no matter how many near misses they are accounted, finally get messed with or messed up. This is at the core of the Ten Commandments: they are there to protect sacred realities, whether in regard to our relationship with God and His world, or in regard to my neighbor in this world. They are immutable and inexorable. When respected they keep us from folly.
When violated, they expose us to endless misery.