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.