Living in New England, I’ve become accustomed to the sight of old stone walls. It’s rare to walk through wooded areas and open meadows and not come across these formations. They are so much a part of the New England landscape, that they’re frequently overlooked and unnoticed. But more recently, I’ve been taking note of stone walls on my walks, seeing the formations that they make, where some walls meet at an angle, where some walls form the edges of a path. I cannot help but wonder how and when these walls were created. I know that most were used to mark the edge of farmland or property, but I wish I could see what the area used to look like, when the forests I walk through were farmland. And how were these areas taken over by forests again? I decided this past weekend to find some answers to my questions.
My search lead me to my library, which has become a recent place of rediscovery. With cutting back on spending (goodbye Netflix, goodbye Barnes & Nobles) I’ve been taking advantage of the free benefits of libraries a lot more often. I rounded up a plethora of books and skimmed through many of them. I learned about the different cycles of New England’s farming history, where in the mid 1700’s much of New England’s forests were cleared for farming, but just about a hundred years later many farms were abandoned when a mass migration occurred to venture west to the Ohio River Valley. This is when the forests began taking back the land (going through different periods of forest growth – first White Pines, then Hardwoods). I read about different types of stone walls: dumped/tossed, disposal, lace, bedrock, retaining… the list goes on and on.
Many walls were built for fencing in farm animals, while others acted as property line markers for early surveyors. I read about a wall acting as a walking path when the dirt road alongside was frequently washed out and was too muddy to cross (this wall was a hard cap wall, which apparently is hard to come across). I even read about a “pound” which was a sort of stone walled animal jail, a place to hold livestock that escaped their pasture until the owner “bailed” them out. Many stone walls were built with features such as cattle ways (two paralleled stone walls built to lead cows to pasture), cow slips (a narrow slit in a wall allowing people to pass through but not a cow), and step stiles (sort of a stone staircase, allowing for climbing over walls). What was interesting to me was to learn how well many of these walls were built, and how long they have lasted, throughout time and through much change in the landscape. I’m still reading through much of the material and have only read a basic overview, but it feels satisfying to know next time I’m out walking through a forest path and come across an old stone wall, I’ll have more of an understanding and appreciation for why they exist.
(The books I am currently reading are Good Fences by William Hubbell, Stone by Stone by Robert M. Thorson, New England Forests Through Time by David R. Foster & John F. O’Keefe, Reading the Forested Landscape by Tom Wessels, Exploring Stone Walls, by Robert M. Thorson, Changes in the Land by William Cronon, and Sermons in Stone by Susan Allport.)