Old Stone Walls

I’ve lived in New England for approaching 14 years now. I have the sneaking suspicion that as the years pile on, I’ll never really be OF New England, although I may end up parenting native New Englanders. It’s funny how that works. Anyway, there are some parts of New England I’ve adopted. I’ve come to expect the displays of kosher food that appear in grocery stores this time of year (hint: they do not appear in grocery stores on the dry side of Washington State). I’ve fallen hard for the Red Sox, just like everyone else. I sometimes use the word “wicked” in the place of “very”, although rarely unironically.

But the charms of New England still seem novel to me. The common phenomenon of the little town center, with all the tall white buildings gathered around a common with the war monuments. The paths that run across it, where paths have run for hundreds of years since first the docile cows appeared where once the old forests stood. The neighborhoods of regular old houses, all of which are over a hundred years old. The bells that sound out over the town, the plaques in front of houses, the brick mills lining the rivers, the old burying-grounds with the skeleton-heads emblazoned upon them — all these charming things that come together to be New England.

One uniquely New England phenomenon I’ve been noticing lately are the old stone walls. My commute changed, along with my job. Now at my exit, in those wasted triangles of land between off-ramp and freeway, there is a criss-crossing tangle of old stone walls winding their way between the middle-aged trees. These walls are a wonder to me. They are so intentional, so old, so archaic. They remain almost universally only in wooded areas. You find yourself wondering how they managed to build such a straight line between so many trees before recalling that the wall came first, the trees later. They often seem a little pointless, no more than knee high. What inspired the hours of back-breaking labor that went into their crafting? A sentiment of “This is mine and that is yours?” The neat ordering or society? Or: I”, a poor immigrant whose family through the reaches of history has never even owned the dirt floor upon which we slept — I own this land and it is mine and no others!” Or is it more simply a “now that I’ve plowed this rocky soil what do I do with the big stones I turned up?”

And they are so old. In the West, if we had even one of these stone walls it would be carefully maintained, with a historical marker. People would come look, and it would be mentioned in the books. There would be fieldtrips from 6th graders. It would carry a name. Surely we should treat these walls with greater reverence and protection than their current falling-down existence in the few unused margins of our land? But no. There are so many. My rather densely populated suburban commute has example after example, and they stretch out that way across all of New England. They are old, but not rare.

So I watch them and I wonder. How long until they become rare? How ancient is that example I see? A hundred years old? Three hundred? Whose hand set those stones, one on the other. What did he think as he did so? What animals or fields were so guarded? How did New England look then — a land of far-reaching fields, where now it is scrub forests hiding housing developments? What would he, anonymous crafter, have thought of the high-tech job I scurry to as I gaze upon his labors? Would it be so alien as to be beyond his imagining? And this asymmetrical, glass-walled, cube-filled, climate-controlled building I currently occupy… what farm or field or house, hundreds of years old, did it displace?

Wherever humans have stood, for as long as they have stood there, there is history. The question is whether we know it and can see it. There were people who roamed the mountains of my youth. I once found a hand tool carved by them. But they were few and transient where I lived, and they did not build edifices that have lasted through time. There is history in those hills, but I cannot reach it. Here, I gaze left as I wait at the light, and I am brought into connection with it. I wonder what it would be like to live in a place even thickly settled with layers of history, reaching back as far as mankind set one stone upon another – a Rome or Jerusalem or Cairo. Do you grow inured? Do you gain perspective on how fleeting you are? Do you think about the feet that have trod the same stones you now traverse? Or do you only think of your destination: that place to which you are going?

I do not know. I suspect I will never become entirely used to it.

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7 thoughts on “Old Stone Walls

  1. The reason for the walls is a lot less romantic, and you were right about the “now what” guess. 🙂 New England fields contained (still contain!) what is technically measured as a metric fuckton of rocks. Clearing out the fields every year was in fact backbreaking labor, and it usually did have to be done *every* year, because winter freezes etc. would push up yet more friggin’ rocks. It was easier, and more decorative, to pile them into pretty walls rather than haul them all away to who knew where, especially since one’s neighbors would have the same afflictions. Sort of like shoveling snow into the nearest possible snowbank area, but more permanent. They rarely demarcated anything more dramatic than the outlines of the field being cleared, although I’m sure at least *sometimes* livestock was contained that way.

    The high point of stone wall building was late 18th-early 19th century, so that’s probably a good guess for the majority of what you see.

    On the “romantic” front, however, it might interest you to know that those rocks were often leftovers of the last Ice Age, dumped there by glaciers and eventually revealed millennia later by their distant cousin the New England winter.

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  2. Great entry Brenda!

    I shall side with the romantics. I know the building purpose was practical, but they still hold some whiff of a mysterious past for me. I grew up surrounded by these walls, and years later I still notice them in the woods as I drive along (especially in the winter). As a kid my imagination was fired up by them and I can’t imagine an October walk through the woods without stepping over old stone walls.

    I am sure it depends on an individual’s personality, but some people never become totally inured to the history of their birthplace.

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  3. it’s mostly “now that I’ve plowed this rocky soil what do I do with the big stones I turned up?” cf. Sermons in Stone by Allport [http://www.amazon.com/Sermons-Stone-Walls-England-York/dp/039331202X]. my parents are from the midwest and my mom tells tales of edging a garden with rocks only to have to do it again the next year because all the rocks had sunk into the topsoil. in the early part of their 20 some odd year sojourn in new england, they developed a theory: the stones that sink into the ground in the midwest migrate underground and pop up in new england. every twenty years or so people load them on trucks and take them back to the midwest so they can start all over again. :-p

    btw, i’ll be in your neck of the woods late next month. maybe we can get together?

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  4. near our old palce in lowell there were stone walls everywhere. I often pondered similar questions, especially about wanting to know who built them and what their lives were like. I heard that now, in the 21st century, New England has more trees than any period of time since the first settlers came…the forests are actually growing back, reclaiming the land since people don’t eke out their existence any longer by farming. hard to believe, isn’t it?

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