My normal morning dog-walking route takes me up to a lovely green expanse of land on the edge of the South Downs National Park (http://www.southdowns.gov.uk/). This lovely little green space is right on top of the hills with a wonderful view of the rolling South Downs beyond. I’ve always loved the way it acts as a sort of crossing point between the suburbs of the city and the countryside beyond. Part of its beauty was that it was open on one side straight onto the tiny little road (via a little hillock to prevent any stray cars or caravans taking up residence) and through to the housing estates beyond. It is here that I found the joy of watching the sheep in the early morning light during last year.
This lovely little space was under threat for a while so it was wonderful to learn that it had finally been included within the boundaries of the National Park and would now be under their protection. Now I, perhaps naively, thought that they would just take care of the land a bit more and keep the dew pond from fading away to nothing. Sadly that hasn’t been all they have been up to. Over the last few weeks great, chunky wooden fences and gates have appeared all around the edges of this once open space. The fencing is quite nice I suppose if you are into that sort of thing. It was tastefully made from wood and looks quite rustic with bits of bark still attached and a rough and ready look about it. For some reason though this wasn’t enough and they felt it necessary to fill the gaps with silver chicken wire and created a rather ugly mix between classic and modern fencing. I suspect this might be to serve my beloved sheep although as they never fenced off one end it will only work for part of the space.
No-one appeared to think ahead when installing the fence. If you force everyone to enter the land at the same points through the same small gates it will result in a significant increase in “foot traffic” in those places. And so it has. We have just had a lot of snow which has now melted away. Guess what melted snow and lots of footsteps does to soft earth? Yes, it forms mud. Lots of mud. So now we have to slip and slide our way through mud patches which have done nothing for the poor elderly dog-walkers (and there are several about our parts: elderly walkers and elderly dogs) or for those without Wellington boots. In the summer when this bakes down hard it is going to look terrible. Of course there is nothing we can do now other than climb over the fences which I doubt would go down well.
My biggest issue, apart from how much the fence and installation cost, is where I once felt only openness and freedom, I now feel restricted and hemmed in. I can look the other way but that side has always been covered by separate fencing and bushes that keep it slightly restricted (although lovely when the Blackberries come out to play). Oddly it is the side out towards the housing that I have noticed the most. Maybe the fence is just too large but I feel a bit like I am being forced into following the herd. I’ve lost the freedom to walk onto the land wherever I choose. I have to be very careful about how I kick or throw the ball in case it ends up just on the wrong side of the boundary. Maybe in the long-term this is the right thing for the land (I’m sure some environmentalists could tell me why this is an extremely cunning plan) but individually it feels like something has been taken away from me.
It got me thinking that lack of freedom is a horrible thing. I suppose that is why society consistently locks criminals up in prisons – restricting their freedom (it is a completely different matter whether this actually achieves anything other than immediate protection of the public but that can be saved for another time). Imagine never being able to choose how you spend your time, not being able to choose what job you do or what you wear in the morning, not being free to be yourself or, even worse, not being able to choose at all because mentally or physically you have no choices. Freedom is one of those things we don’t often even notice or think about until it is gone. Think about all the things you have had the freedom to do since you woke up this morning? Amazing, isn’t it?
Yet freedom in everything can be dangerous. You wouldn’t give a 2-year-old freedom to wander off down the street on their own in case they run out in front of a car. Thankfully, we are not free to harm someone else just because we feel like it. There are boundaries and rules to help protect us from all sorts of things that could affect us or those around us. So many freedoms can be challenged or affected by the culture in which we live but we are always free in our hearts to choose who we want to be. To choose how we want to live our lives – in the grip of negative thoughts or in the power of positive ones. To choose whether to heed and follow God’s call on our lives or to turn away from that little still, small voice that might be calling out to us to change or to do something we fear.
Think of all the freedoms you have experienced today and be thankful in your heart for each and every one. Choose how you want to live your life today. Heed the protective boundaries but don’t allow yourself to be fenced in!