Stone Walls

“Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.”

Excerpt from ‘Mending Wall by Robert Frost’

Every year around this time we move the pigs to a section of stone wall along the property line that we haven’t yet rebuilt and fence them in with two strands of electric. The hogs are grateful to be out of their winter shelter and to have the ground soft enough to root through, satisfying their primal urges. Nothing is as content as a sow with her nose buried in soft, black loam turning up a nugget or two of something delicate to eat. The first year we had pigs we noticed how much damage they could do to a piece of ground if left long enough. It wasn’t until we started breeding our own animals that we discovered how to put their natural inclinations to work for us and set them up for weeks at a time along a stretch of unworked ground to till and clear. We used the old stone walls to hem them in out of convenience, the step in posts and wire ten feet out on the field side and let them get to work. After a day or two they’d root up all the old fieldstones that had toppled off the walls over the years and we’d get in there with them, their snouts pressing against our legs, snuffling for a pat or scratch and restack them as best we could. After a week they’d have cleared their enclosure completely and we’d move the wire to a new section and let them start over. By the end of summer we’d have fat pigs ready for slaughter, a new set of shoats to replace them and a couple hundred feet of stone wall set right and rebuilt against the next fifty years.

The county we live in has the highest number of stone walls per square mile in the entire country. Most of them define property lines, built over the past several centuries by people long gone. The stones range in size from baseballs to automobiles and run in more or less arrow straight lines up and down hills, across flats, up to and along ponds and rivers, roads and logging trails almost always on a north-south, east-west axis. Most of them make up the boundaries of property lines and in our state every title refers to the acreage as “plus or minus” after the total because the rock walls themselves serve as the border and their inexactitude determines the final measure of land. Most people leave them as they are, returning to the soil in tumble-down condition, the massive erratics firmly fixed in location while the smaller ones spill off on either side and then submerge and vanish beneath the annual carpet of leaves and snow. Others dry stack them with care to match the original wall, or hire out the work to pros who put them back together like puzzles at Tiwanaku. It takes time to do a good job, to fit the stones in place so that they don’t rock or shift and the learning curve is longer than you can imagine. I look back on the first walls I rebuilt six years ago with a mix of sadness and humor, at how poorly I understood the premise of what seemed so simple and then with growing admiration as the wall improved a hundred yards further along. Our property is bordered on three sides by these stone walls, well over a mile and a half of granite stacked four foot above the ground and three foot deep and I have only made my way around a tenth of it at best. Sometimes from a distance it looks like the work of a craftsman but upon closer inspection I can see how weak my sauce is and how well built even the collapsed sections in the maple orchard are to this day. Maybe as the years pass the technical skills will improve faster than the muscles will decline and I will do the walls justice and have something to leave behind, but maybe the pigs will outpace me and leave me with little more to show for the effort than a snaggle-toothed barrier hidden in the forest a hundred years from now.

The other day my youngest son and I took a hike up into the far corner of the property, so he could become familiar with what was ours and where it stopped. The border collie and the barn cat went along with us and made a game of walking along the stone walls when we came to them. In some places the grade is so steep it is hard to make your way without holding on to saplings on the way up or down but the walls follow the contours of the land without fail. It’s hard to imagine how people were able to get some of those rocks into place in spots where you can hardly stand but they did and they remain fixed there, rising and falling like a staircase arrow straight along an unseen line. Where ledge is exposed the stone walls are built around it and where trees have grown up at the edges the walls have given out, shrugged this way and that as if they’d been built around the massive trunks of rock maple and red oak. I told my son that the vast majority of stone walls in New England were built by children, a fact I’d stumbled across in a book called Stone By Stone. The men on the farm were far too busy to construct walls — most of them not being built for that purpose at all, but rather as a means of clearing the stones from the fields to plow — so the old men instructed as the young boys piled them onto sledges or carried them by hand to place them, stone by stone, into place. I came across a tintype photograph at the local historic society that shows a crew of boys, the youngest no more than six or seven and the oldest no more than twelve, standing with a team of oxen and a pile of rubble the size of a pickup truck. Adjacent to this crowd of young males was a wall under construction and a huge teepee like structure of hemlock poles with a set of pulleys and ropes attached. The man holding the team by the halter looked to be a hundred if he was a day with a flowing white beard and threadbare coveralls smiling toothless at the camera. There was a single boulder fixed to the ropes by iron pins driven into it and next to this was modern day photograph of that same section of wall, completed now and half sunk back into the grass covered earth. Every person in that photograph had long ago died, but the wall that they put in place was still there, built by children.

People think that New England was always covered in boulders but when the first colonists arrived it was as soft and rolling as the hillsides of Wiltshire. The forests covered the hollows and knobs and these were blanketed in deep, rich soils. It was the clear cutting followed by the severe winters that led to erosion which, in turn uncovered the detritus and till left by the glaciers. Iron plows furthered the soil loss and the heavy demand for wool in the years during the war between the states left the far northeastern portion of the country denuded and rocky due to over gazing of sheep and the stripping of timber to feed the steam driven industries of the time. The expansion of the western territories, deep with rich alluvial soils and flat as an iron to boot, lured away the agrarian pioneers, leaving the rock covered slopes to return to the forests they longed to be once more. The Department of Agriculture and Markets claims that the number of people returning to farming in New Hampshire has skyrocketed in the past several years and with numbers as low as we have had historically, even a few hundred seems like a lot. The soils here are thin, but the climate is perfect for rapid cycling of natural systems and water is plentiful. Cool weather grasses preferred by livestock grow abundantly and the return to permaculture practices so many of the new farmers are using today has rapidly added depth and fertility to land that was once barren but for timber. In the short time we have been at it we have turned almost fifty acres of hardscrabble ledge into productive silvaculture, pasture for rotational grazing and rich deep soils in our gardens, and all of it surrounded by stone walls.

Sometimes I still get caught up in the things that make up the society outside of our community, the petty grievances of a thousand fractious groups endlessly jockeying for advantage at the expense of everyone else. When I leave the farm to do something as simple as to take my children shopping for shoes or to get a haircut I find myself back in the old ruts that have been carved over time, the annoyances, the disconnection, the overwhelming sadness of it all as people scramble to find something of value in world that has lost its compass. Bodies so misshapen from overeating that they need motorized scooters to propel them as they shop for more food, the coarse and vulgar language that comes from every mouth as if it were pleasantries and without notice to those around them. The tattoos of skulls on young skin that seems to me like a desperate cry for an early death and as ubiquitous as the discordant, angry, thumping sounds of electronica coming from every speaker in every store regardless of the demographic inside. It’s hard to know what it all means, to know what we’re supposed to do other than consume the ever cheapening processed goods sold in cavernous warehouses and obey the newly minted diktats of an increasingly hostile and violent government all while trying to avoid giving offense when it is taken by everyone for everything. So I will turn out the hogs this week in the newly cleared edge of property and let them get back to doing what they love and I will follow behind in a week or so with my sons and put the rocks back in place along the wall even if it is only for a hundred years.

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